Europe Daily Bulletin No. 13082

13 December 2022
Contents Publication in full By article 38 / 38
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No. 073

Homo numericus

The French economist Daniel Cohen sets to work in this book with brio, humour and intensity in equal measure to understand the effects of the digital revolution on our societies, providing a sketch of what civilisation could look like in the age of homo numericus.

In many cases, recruitment for a job or a university is now done online, with AI (artificial intelligence: Ed) preselecting the few candidates to be given the opportunity to meet a human in the flesh towards the end of the process, from a list of candidates that may run into tens of thousands. Even love does not escape the ordeal. As the sociologist Eva Illouz demonstrated so effectively, software such as Tinder leads to the industrialisation of romantic relationships by cutting out the courtship period, limiting love to ‘just fuck’! Emotions, desires and fears also come under the control of new algorithms that have turned interpersonal relationships on their heads. A new economy, new sensitivity, new ideologies: mirroring the great transformation brought about by the Industrial Revolution, the digital revolution is radically overhauling society and its manifestations”, the author writes by way of introduction (our translation throughout).

Search engines steer Internet users to dating sites or discussion forums that will supposedly meet their needs, while in practice trapping them in new digital ghettos”, Cohen argues, adding: “far from creating a new agora, a place for discussions in which ideas circulate and are exchanged, social networks have led to a completely unforeseen radicalisation of the public debate. Hate speech against adversaries has become the norm in these new ‘conversations’. People do not look for information on the net, but for beliefs that are consumed like any other good, with everyone finding his or her own truth in the digital department store, like something out of a Pirandello play”.

There is another factor that has contributed to the degradation of the public debate: the reduced number of journalists. In the United States, this number has halved since the 1980s. This result in a considerable drop in the quality of the information provided”, the author quite rightly points out. He goes on to explain that “with permanent competition from the social networks, the profession has gradually evolved. In the new digital world, ‘news’ quickly becomes obsolete, dislodged by something that looks more promising. This built-in obsolescence is radically changing the way journalists go about their trade. Looking for ‘scoops’ to attract attention and create downstream cascades of information in their favour looks far more interesting than expensive research into information that might end up getting lost in the tidal wave of current events’; very often, I would add, because this information is too detailed and not sensational enough, while in reality, many so-called ‘scoops’ are just second-hand information recycled as sensationally as possible.

The current transformation will give birth to individuals characterised by credulity and a lack of critical thinking. We expected Gutenberg, but what we are getting is television 2.0”, Cohen argues, quoting some worrying data: “at the age of two, children are spending nearly 3 hours a day in front of their screens. Between the ages of 8 and 12, time spent in front of tablets and laptops rises to 4 hours and 45 minutes a day on average. Between 13 and 18, they spend 6 hours and 45 minutes a day on this. This adds up to a figure showing that teenagers are spending 40% of their waking lives in front of screens! The psychological and emotional lives of these young people is punctuated by waves of sluggishness and euphoria, modelled by addictive practices such as online sexuality, translating into effects that are extremely harmful to their diet and bringing great risks of obesity”. The author goes on to state that “according to the psychoanalyst Serge Tisseron, ‘overexposed intimacy threatens the construction of self’ through the permanent desire to show oneself to best advantage among relentless competition with others fed by a pathological quest for recognition. The impulse that prompts people to display their personal lives leads to a profoundly deformed self-image. In young children, overexposure to screens disrupt their ability to enter into relationships with others. Virtual reality takes them away from a sensitive perception of the physical world and the social environment: reality becomes dull”.

The digital revolution is driving the disintegration of institutions that used to structure our industrial society, such as businesses themselves, unions, political parties and the media”, Cohen observes, stressing that “this process is itself the direct product of the liberal explosion of the 1980s, which sought to extend the marketplace and competition to all possible areas, without mediation or intermediary bodies”. Pointing out that “the digital society itself also feeds subliminally on the counter-culture of the 1960s and its criticism of the verticality of power and the institutions”, he notes that “digital man who inherits from this strange affiliation is both isolated and nostalgic, liberal and against the system”. He adds that this man is “trapped in a society that has been boiled down to an aggregation of individuals trying to escape from their isolation by building false communities”.

This necessarily brings to mind George Orwell’s famous novel 1984. In the book, society is under surveillance to avoid any form of dissidence (…). We are living out Orwell’s prophecy in a totally unexpected way. It is private consortiums that are monitoring individuals. It is an unbelievable overturning of the idea that the State was the ultimate threat. In the GAFA version of Big Brother, however, the aim is not to silence people, but to prompt them to reveal their desires, their needs, their propensity to consume. It is all recorded: the attention they pay to a television programme, the way they drive a car. In life according to the GAFA, the ‘intimate self’ is lost as the connected home opens the door of family life to masses of potential suppliers”, Cohen observes.

The good news is that we are not living in a science-fiction series. Technologies have not taken control of our lives. They extend and amplify societal tendencies, exaggerating our latent impulses, but they do not invent them”, Cohen goes on to state, adding that “in its own perverse way, the digital revolution is also sketching out an exhilarating path: one that leads to a world in which every word deserves to be heard, without excessive transcendent truth. It is exploring a new way of life that is unprecedented in the history of civilisations, that of a society that is both horizontal and secular: without the verticality that continued to prevail in our industrial society, without the religiousness of agrarian societies, possibly closer to that of the hunter-gatherers, but without their superstitions, if possible”. As regards these superstitions, they have largely proven their resilience. We should not be too quick to pronounce them dead. But in the midst of our ocean of propaganda, fake news and an array of conspiracy theories, we must without question learn to master our emotions, return to a spirit of critical thinking, safeguard our freedoms, preserve or rebuild social connections and retain the hope of a better world. (Olivier Jehin)

Daniel Cohen. Homo numericus – La « civilisation » qui vient (available in French only). Albin Michel. ISBN: 978-2-2264-7639-5. 240 pages. €20,90

Smart at any cost?

This ‘policy paper’ published by the Fondation Jean Monnet examines the consequences to society of the digital revolution, with particular focus on the concept of the ‘smart city’ as the site for the deployment of society 4.0. In the process, it brings together contributions from a number of academic experts.

Ola Söderström (University of Neuchâtel) starts the ball rolling by pointing out that “the term ‘smart city’ itself is a form of lexical glue. It portrays a concept, or a convenient label to stick on, but it has no concrete meaning behind it. Because there is no precise definition, the term has been used in many different ways and has led to rankings of the smartest cities (perhaps the most well-known is the ‘Smart City Index’) based on very disparate sets of criteria. She adds that “if we wanted to establish a clear definition of ‘smart city’, we could say it is one with a governance system that makes extensive use of data and technology”. The author points out that the ‘smart city’ presents possibilities for a totalitarian society, for instance from the point of view of surveillance, as shown by the Chinese social credit system. In India, her research work brought to light the fact that the “government, citing public health reasons (related to Covid-19: Ed), was able to start flying surveillance drones over cities in the space of just a few months, with very little protest” and that the pandemic has been used strategically for the deployment of this technology. Söderström also stresses that the collection of data, once controlled by the States, is now carried out by private businesses that are “very opaque on how the data are handled. Exactly what data are collected? For what purposes? Where are they stored?” “Determining who can access citizens’ data and how policymakers can strike the right balance between governments and platform businesses are two of the crucial issues today in the implementation of smart cities”, the author notes, adding that “the project Decode, funded by the European Union, is one of few concrete steps currently being taken in this direction”.

In view of the major challenges to achieving sustainability, innovation is currently considered a driver of societal change that transcends the competitiveness of individual countries. This qualitative and inclusive approach to innovation is apparent in the terms ‘social innovation’ and ‘responsible innovation’ set out in the European Union’s 2020 strategy to support the development of innovative initiatives and solutions both by and for society”, writes Hugues Jeannerat (University of Neuchâtel) in an article on territorial policies. These are now “struggling to bridge the gap between the following two approaches to innovation: the historical approach, based on a clear objective of achieving quantitative and competitive growth, and the broader contemporary approach, based on the drive towards more inclusive and sustainable development”.

It seems unreasonable to believe the premise that a new, urban technological arsenal, no matter how smart, will overcome the immense challenges of the transition”, write Johann Recordon, Augustin Fragnière and Nelly Niwa (University of Lausanne). They add that the “‘smart city’ concept itself is based on an ideal of streamlining and efficiency that draws on the possibilities that artificial intelligence brings. Yet it could also spawn a hands-off attitude whereby users delegate to technology the task of making our lifestyles sustainable without themselves seeking to change the practices, standards and values that lie at the root of the environmental crisis. If we focus excessively on the technology itself rather than on redefining our collective objectives, there is a real risk that the future trajectory of our societies will be guided more by a concern for further developing existing technologies than by an accepted approach determined through considered debate”.

Discussing the challenges of power related to ‘smart technologies’, Francisco Klauser (University of Neuchâtel) argues that it is “crucial to understand that even if the algorithms are used to automate the management of day-to-day practices and processes, they are no more objective than if the task had been given to a human located on site”. “The truth is that one of the main impacts of the introduction of algorithms has been to shift decision-making authority in both time and space. Decisions are now taken earlier on and by a coder, rather than on the spot and in real-time by a regulatory agent (such as a police officer). The underlying risk of this shift is that the decisions involved in managing our daily lives are taken outside our collective control and are not subject to individual analysis”, the author explains, stressing that “you can try explaining things to a law enforcement agent, but you would not dream of pleading your case to an algorithm”. Klauser also points out the continuing fragility of ‘smart technologies’: “they can crash, be hacked and contain coding errors”. He also stresses the potential dependence caused by their introduction: “a situation of dependence is created when a solution is purchased from a company. It is the company, not the government, that is most familiar with and knowledgeable about the technology. Nowadays, this indispensable technical expertise is held by economic agents, through private companies”.

In an article on work, Jean-Philippe Dunand and Pascal Mahon (University of Neuchâtel) argue that remote working, which grew sharply in the context of the pandemic, has led to a situation in which “there are fewer boundaries (both physical and symbolic) between the home and the workplace”, creating a form of isolation that is harming workers. “It is worth considering whether these changes in working conditions are reversing the divisions created in the first Industrial Revolution: the separation between the home and the workplace, and the separation between working hours and leisure time. Cracks are appearing in the widely accepted walls that labour law had established between these different aspects of life”, they write. Finally, the authors point out that “according to a study commissioned by the World Economic Forum, the fourth Industrial Revolution could lead to the loss of nearly 5 million jobs in industrialised nations, two thirds of which would be in white-collar office and administrative roles ”. (OJ)

Eva Paul and Pablo Demierre. Smart at any cost? – The challenges of digitalisation in the time of Covid-19. Fondation Jean Monnet. The Debates and Documents Collection, edition 26, September 2022. 45 pages. This policy paper is available in English and French and can be downloaded free of charge from the website of the Foundation: https://aeur.eu/f/4ly


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