PERILOUS TECHNOLATRY

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« It seems highly probable that, when the technicist civilization will have still increased its hold, when the techniques of the new environment will have acted on some generations, the manners of thinking, of reasoning even, certain traditional frameworks of the logic will be, them also, reached by the pressure of the new modes of living and reacting ». 

Georges Friedmann(1)

That individuals are losing their bearings in a disoriented world is both a cliché and an observation that is certainly globally accurate. But there is an old landmark of modernity that has resisted against all odds and will perhaps constitute the ultimate of them: the enthusiasm, the faith, even the veneration for technical evolution, which today takes the form of digital technologies. Propagated by politicians, economists and the media, this technological optimism (or technoptimism) blinds us and prevents us from taking the measure of the human and ecological consequences of the digital and robotic wave that has gripped humanity for the last twenty years. According to Bertrand Méheust, we are facing a « new age of the mind » that nothing will be able to stop on its way… except a collapse of the megamachine (which will happen soon). Knowing that it will all end one day does not protect us hic et nunc against the dangerous anthropological mutation that this implies, even if one is part — which is my case — of the last smartphone refractors, condemned to live with bitterness the forced fading of a world that was until recently familiar to us(2). The digital economy represents a major breakthrough, and it would be futile to try to compare ourselves to previous eras. Nothing cyclical here, under the sun of innovation, nothing but new, as the comrades of Parts and Labour have seen well(3). Between fantasy and reality, transhumanism, extropianism and technological singularity represent the happiness and achievements that techno-prophets promise us in this century. For this, they can count on the support of the « progressives » of the left and the right, who see in any extension of individual rights benefits that only reactionaries could criticize, even if these rights are increasingly passed through the intermediary of techno-science, such as, for example, the new techniques of procreation. What to do? A moratorium on uncontrolled innovation, followed by a technical de-escalation, is a necessary condition for rebuilding social cohesion in a society that would like to be democratic, ecological and decent. Book news comes to the rescue(4).

In Alone together. More and more technology, less and less human relations (ed. L’Échappée, 2015), MIT psychologist and anthropologist Sherry Turkle (b. 1948) has studied the impact of new artificial intelligence technologies on « how we think about ourselves, our relationships with others, and our sense of humanity » (p. 20). To do this, she relied on two hundred and fifty clinical observations, mainly of children, adolescents and the elderly. The first part deals with their (our) relationship with robots — with the sweet names of Tamagochis, Furby, AIBO, My Real Baby, Kismet, Cog, Paro — to note the ease with which we project on them our feelings and have excessive expectations on what they could bring us in terms of help, but also of comfort, friendship and even sexuality (!) On the one hand, the notion ofauthenticity loses its substance to a new definition of life « halfway between the inanimate program and the living creature » (p. 61). On the other hand, human beings are challenged in their ability to take care of each other. Robots, « we are today ready, emotionally and I would even say philosophically, to welcome them » (p. 31). These robotic « creatures » are treated as equals and no longer as machines, they are placed on the field of meaning, « while they exude none. » They are increasingly present in retirement homes where they replace missing or failing staff. The majority of the residents become attached to them and become intimate with them. To the argument that machines cannot feel emotions, roboticists reply without laughing that they will one day produce them synthetically. « It is so easy to become obsessed with technology and to stop trying to develop our understanding of life, » the author concludes (p. 170). 

The second part concerns the Internet with its social networks, its online games, its Second Life and its confessional sites. The effects of their omnipresence in our daily lives are far from negligible. First of all, that of a permanent fragmented attention leading to multitasking in young people, this faculty which impresses so much the elders, whereas the studies in psychology show that when we do several things at the same time, we split our attention and we do them all less well. Secondly, a blurring of the boundary between work and private life, when the smartphone remains on day and night. Even on vacation, the American executive receives about five hundred e‑mails, several hundred text messages and forty calls a day! The result: because of a lack of time, all our interlocutors are reified, we treat them like objects. Turkle has also studied the case of digitalnatives), the generations born after 1990 for whom the web represents an unquestioned amniotic fluid. « I am connected, therefore I am! So what? » the technoptimists will reply. Well, « it is not because a behavior becomes normal that it loses the problematic dimension which had previously made it considered pathological », specifies the author (p. 283). Online games and Second Life take us into a virtual world made of simulacra, which we end up preferring to our real lives, with the most addicted spending half their waking hours there! 

We ask less of human beings and more of technology, to which we apply a magical thinking: as long as I am connected, I am safe, and the people I love will not disappear. Facebook is an insatiable beast that needs to be constantly fed with « positive » news in the form of texts, photos, videos, which invade our private life, in a simplification and impoverishment of our relationships. By the end of the book, we learn that more and more young Americans today are nostalgic for the world before widespread connection, when parents were attentive, invested, and engaged with their children. A beginning of hope of revolt? This copious 523-page essay takes stock of a phenomenon that is still underestimated in its societal impact. And again, Turkle does not address here the (anti-)ecological aspect of these technologies(5). What would be left to defend them? Dear readers of France, this is an excellent subject for the baccalaureate! 

Bernard Legros

Notes et références
  1. Georges Friedmann, Sept études sur l’homme et la technique, éd. Gonthier, 1966, p. 64.
  2. Intuition que l’on trouve chez Sartre, Orwell et Pasolini.
  3. Pièces et main‑d’œuvre, Sous le soleil de l’innovation, rien que du nouveau !, suivi de Innovation scientifreak : la biologie de synthèse, éd. L’Échappée, 2013.
  4. Faute de place, je ne peux traiter ici du nouvel essai, recommandable, de Geneviève Azam, Osons rester humains. Les impasses de la toute-puissance, éd. L.L.L., 2015.
  5. Cf. Fabrice Flipo, Michelle Dobré, Marion Michot, La face cachée du numérique. L’impact environnemental des nouvelles technologies, éd. L’Échappée, 2013.
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