28 January 2008

Prof. Ollivier Dyens about the “inhuman” revolution

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La condition inhumaine
With the publication of the book “La condition inhumaine: essai sur l’effroi technologique” [The inhuman condition: essay on the fear of technology] by Ollivier Dyens, the French newspaper Le Monde published an interview with the author.

Here is a quick translation:

To adapt ourselves to the power of digital technologies, we will have to profoundly change the vision that we have of ourselves, says Ollivier Dyens, professor at Montreal.

As a professor of French Studies at the Concordia University in Montreal, you have been studying the impact of new technologies on society for the last fifteen years. Will the striking growth in power of the digital domain be able to transform us in depth?

A few years back, I thought that technology would indeed change the human being. Now I think that technology will change the perception we have of the human being. I believe less and less in the myth of the cyborg, the man-machine. But the vision we have of ourselves will have to change to adapt itself to the technological reality of tomorrow.

Your latest book is entitled “The Inhuman Condition”. Why this title?

The term “inhuman” is not referring to cruelty, but to what lies beyond the human. The answers provided by science and technology to the essential questions that man has been asking since the dawn of time – Who am I? Where do we come from? – are more and more in conflict with what our senses and our mind tell us. So there is a growing tension between our biological reality and our technological one, and this leads to what I call the “inhuman condition”. We have always considered tools and languages as structures that existed to respond to our needs. It is vital to rethink this relationship.

Why is the growing overlap between biological and technological realities troubling us so much?

A Japanese robot specialist once drew a mental picture to be able to explain our concern. He called it the “Uncanny Valley”. As long as robots are quite different from us, they do not disturb us. But when they become too close, we fall in the Uncanny Valley. The artificial hand becomes disconcerting the day it looks too much like a real hand – a hand that you can touch and shake just like a natural one. That’s where we are now with the digital, which is becoming increasingly “intelligent”, increasingly “alive”…. That’s what worries us, because it looks too much like us.

You say that machines took charge of civilisation at the start of the new millennium.

Do you remember we had on 31 December 1999 for the Millennium Bug? The fear was real and existed within the biggest IT companies. On that day all of mankind held its breath, waiting for the verdict of the machines on whether they would or not be able to “understand” the three zeros of the new date. And what happened? The computers, all over the world, were able to adapt. No catastrophe happened — not in the countries where little was done in preparation, not in the countries where much was done.

What I am saying is that digital systems have become too intertwined, too powerful for us to be able to determine what makes them efficient or inefficient. They have become a little bit like the weather conditions, which we know are too complex in order for us to extend our forecast beyond just a few days.

It’s quite distressing to be bypassed by the autonomy of the machines we ourselves created.

Yes for some, it is. But others consider it a normal evolutionary process. Important are the dynamics of life, whether that is in the DNA or in the silicon. Whatever the conclusion, technology is now forcing us to redefine our place in the planetary hierarchy. We can no longer put ourselves at the top of the pyramid, but have to see ourselves in a dynamic position that takes the machines into account as an integrating part of the human species.

And if we don’t succeed in doing that?

Then we risk ending up in the near future in a world which is polarised, Manichean and violent, where the larger part of humanity is completely cut off from the world of representations, ideas, theories and culture. A world of frustration and despair borne out of a new alienation: the knowledge alienation.

This risk is already present: we find it increasingly difficult to distinguish between information and its synthesis – in other words, knowledge. Why? Because the machine generated culture is bypassing us. To use a maritime metaphor: the quantity of information on the web is an ocean, but we don’t know the art of navigating it. In order to survive, we are increasingly left with no other choice but to stay on the surface of the ocean, “surfing” the web. But we humans still navigate the old way, and link knowledge with the idea of deepening our insight. Surface and depth: we will need to reconcile these two notions again.

Will the “inhuman condition” have positive consequences?

Less war, perhaps. The more that countries are economically and culturally intertwined, the less reason there is to see the other as a stranger, that has to be fought. Digital technologies and the internet stimulate this connection between human beings. Email, chat, blogs recall what connects us, beyond geography, our body or our skin colour. Never before have we spent so much time at communicating, enriching ourselves and debating issues through our networks.

Will the internet create new forms of collective intelligence?

Yes, I am convinced of that. The communication means offered to us by these instantaneous digital networks seem to share one main objective: to nourish or create global coherence. A blog acquires its legitimacy if it is linked to from other blogs, and the first site to appear in Google results is the one that is “hyperlinked” by the largest number of sites… This legitimacy coming from the collectivity carries some danger: it defends itself against the individual and doesn’t care much about things that are outside of the norm and marginal. But it also carries great potential, able to profoundly change our relationship with the world. The human aspect of the inhuman condition is after all much closer to us than the ant — which lives, exists and comprehends its world through the collective – and therefore is no autonomous, conscious and unique individual.

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