Democracy in Digital

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In recent years, digital criticism has emerged as a major issue of popular concern. The planetary domination of GAFAM, the increasingly disturbing transhumanist delusions, the appearance of figures as divisive as Elon Musk and the widely shared feeling of the ravages of screen addiction, all contribute to this awareness. However, in the face of this damning observation, the responses are often disorganized, sectoral and partial. Teachers are fighting digital schooling, farmers are fighting connected agriculture, logistics employees are fighting voice-activated systems, and alternativeists are fighting the hegemony of Silicon Valley giants.

However, in the same way that the temporality of the « law-making » does not even allow for a regulation by the Law of the worst digital abuses, the indignation is also lagging behind the extent of the disaster. Whether it is a matter of chosen screen time (leisure uses) or forced screen time (at work or in relations with the authorities), the extent of the damage is always underestimated. New uses appear at an insane rate, and although I am somewhat « specialized » on this subject and daily rubbing shoulders with young students competing in intensity of alienation, I often feel left behind. It is simply unmanageable, the assaults of digital technology are too numerous and all-encompassing, its promoters infinitely richer and more powerful than us. It is therefore absolutely necessary, vital, to preserve ourselves from it, to protect also the youngest. But the surge is such that our struggles are reduced to being only defensive, and we lose them all.

Faced with this, the temptation is great to adopt the tactic of the little hummingbird. Disconnecting oneself, dealing individually with technology. Decide to adopt some, refuse others, and then lecture around you, I don’t need a cell phone, so anyone can do the same … That was my case for a long time, until I had to look for a job. Refusing GPS regularly puts me in the ridiculous situation of asking a passerby for directions, who immediately consults his smartphone to point me in the right direction. Refusing Whatsapp-type messaging widens the gap with many of my friends. Each individual refusal places us a little more on the fringe of society and the question quickly becomes « How marginal am I willing to be? » Now, I want to live in society, and am therefore condemned to adopt technologies 10 years late, but to end up adopting them anyway, once their status as radical monopoly.

The other option would be to advocate for free alternatives. Replace Windows by Linux, Whatsapp by Signal, Twitter by Mastodon, use a fair trade smartphone with a bamboo shell from a sustainably managed forest… But would it fundamentally change anything? Would replacing Google Maps or Waze as a GPS service, with an open source alternative, based on OpenStreetMap collaborative maps, limit the alienation of my sense of direction to the machine? Would this emancipate me from the network of satellites and the space industry, which are essential for locating me? Wouldn’t using an open source software like Moodle for online courses, which is even better than its paid competitors, and developing the missing modules myself and offering them to the « community », be tantamount to encouraging the deployment of « distance learning »? And would it make any difference to my students who are dropouts, depressed, worn out and de-socialized by going it alone? No, the alternative to Zoom is not its freely licensed clone, it’s a classroom! The alternative to Youtube parties is not the Peertube parties, but the parties at your friends’ place!

Then we challenge more globally. Each in his own sector, one opposes, one brakes, one sabotages. At school, we are trying to counter the attempts to impose tablets, digital boards, and computer-based courses. We are faced with a dogmatic power, convinced of the validity of tools that meet needs that have never been expressed. It’s grotesque, every major school computerization plan ends in a resounding failure, and only the obsessive determination of its promoters maintains the myth that the next plan will be the right one. But then what happens in high school, in vocational education or in university? When teachers prepare for a job that will necessarily have a digital component? When it comes to training citizens capable of interacting with administrations whose counters are already dematerialized? Could the teacher, in good conscience, condemn his students to unemployment, to marginality? Could the school remain an impregnable citadel, protected from the digital world, in the middle of an ocean of computers, smartphones and tablets?

Of course, my purpose is not to call for a halt to the struggles against the imposition of digital technologies in schools, in leisure, in agriculture or elsewhere. On the contrary! These sectoral battles, although insufficient, are absolutely essential.

So, the convergence of struggles? A big demonstration gathering all the opponents to the digitalization of their sector? Or attack the networks that technically allow all these gadgets to work?

Rather, change the perspective, stop representing technological evolution as a succession of ruptures, and place it in its continuity, from mechanization to automation. To expose its major trends: the replacement of human labor, cost reduction, control logics, standardization, quantification, calculability… To identify the locks that prevent us from doing without it: generalized economic competition that condemns any attempt to do otherwise, either to failure or to the « Indian reserve ». And in the best of cases, forces it to fiddle in its niche market for eco-responsible consumers: education, food or leisure.

To put technological evolution in its continuity is to see that the digitization of the world has been at work for over 50 years. It is to draw the conclusion that the damage is already enormous, that if the time spent in front of the screens has clearly increased, the situation before the arrival of the Internet was already disastrous. We have to face the facts, digital technology is so deeply rooted, so omnipresent in our societies, that we can no longer do without it, within the current framework, with its « rules of the game » and with constant human and financial means.

To reverse the flood of screens, we must dare to think of a society in digital decline. It is not even a question of imagining life before the industrial revolution or in the time of the hunter-gatherers, but already to ask « how did we do 10 years ago? » and « how did we get here? To leave above all the false problems which impose the computer as the only solution and leave as a parody of choice, to be alienated to a free or proprietary software; to dare to look at the organization of the society, upstream of the screens. Understand that databases are only the result of bureaucratic processes where the mass of information is such that only a machine can digest it.

Don’t trust the experts, however well-intentioned, free, ethical and open they may be. Put back the human element, the nuance, the sensitivity, wherever algorithms reign. Reflect, discuss, debate, deliberate. Invent new forms of organization where the machine will have no place. Confront technocracy with the only weapon that works: more democracy.

Nicolas Alep

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