“Rather than being a cause of the late twentieth-century crisis, the Internet appears to have been a consequence of the breakdown of hierarchical power.” – Niall Ferguson, The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook, 2019.
“There will nevertheless be a fairly long interim during which the main intellectual advances will be made by men and computers working together in intimate association.” – Joseph Licklider,
Man Computer Symbiosis, 1960.
New backbone of human activities, the Internet is also and above all the cornerstone of computerization, a notion that is too often overused, though it has the merit of focusing attention on the third industrial revolution that began half a century ago. Its origin was the rise in the 1970s of a new technical system based on the combination of microelectronics, ubiquitous networking and software engineering. This system, which largely saw the light of day in a period of relative withdrawal from state centralization in the United States against a background of East-West tension, transformed and “computerized” the two previous socio-technical architectures. In the last quarter of the 18th century, the first industrial revolution revolved around mechanics and chemistry. A century later, the second revolution incorporated energy (electricity and oil) and brought about the emergence of the big business, the foundations of contemporary capitalism, while establishing European precedence over the world.
This cyber-industrial transition, which Eryk Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee recall in Race Against the Machine (2011) is only at the dawn of its potential for evolution, is not just a list of disruptive innovations as the spirit of the age very often likes to qualify it. Above all, it is a disturbing force that lifts entire societies and changes the nature with which human intentions and actions are confronted. As a result, like previous industrial cycles, computerization first poses a huge challenge to conceptual and perceptual frameworks. What meaning should be given to it and what strategic scope should be attributed to it? How to discern its functioning and characterize it in alignment with the cultural and philosophical foundations of each society? How to integrate its new economic models and regulate them?
Hence the multifaceted crises and gender confusion, a translation of which can be found in the innovation cycles identified by Nikolaï Kondratiev, which appear almost everywhere in the economic and institutional spheres and the organized civil society: epistemological blinkers and obsolescence of interpretation guides; serial failures in information systems of production processes; weak international consensus beyond basic technical standards1; institutions reacting against the grain; encroachment of information technologies on the public sphere and underestimation by the State of the risks and potential; and an economic wild west leaving the field open to feudal or predatory logic.
Hobbesian state—if any—, this cacophony is all the more pronounced as the Internet was born in a period when State control2 was questioned, being carried by a libertarian dynamism that projected it as it were by “force entry” into the transnational space. The universal data network grows under the effect of decentralized aggregation, not by hierarchical planning. At first a symbol of peaceful globalism, the young world wide web was caught up by the market, later moving into the conflict dynamics of the 1990s. The United States and Japan waged the first cyberwarfare on the front of the microprocessor, mainframe and currency industry. In France, the General Delegation for Computer Science tried to imitate the American approach by launching the Cyclades project in 1972, which however failed to extricate itself from internal contradictions. In general, the bustle around the modernization of the French industrial apparatus and an overly wait-and-see position vis-à-vis technological disruptions prevented from looking ahead to the challenges of the information world. This inertia is now reflected in a disengagement of the French elites vis-à-vis issues of power and information (the situation can be transposed to other countries).
The new material and immaterial interdependencies associated with electronic resources have almost simultaneously placed computerization and economics in the orbit of nation-state-driven modes of power growth. At the end of 1990, the United States displayed its ambition for information dominance by claiming its place as the world leader in private information. This global projection opened the way for the monopolies of the Big Tech—followed later by the BATX counter-monopoly at the Chinese level—and more broadly the investment in data storage (cloud) and the promotion of a knowledge economy. The dominant position of the United States in cyberspace was openly criticized in the early 2000s, but competition from Asia had already pushed Americans to shift from a policy of technology mastery to a search for control and global supremacy in information technologies (through the control of the Internet and space, major information systems, rules and standards, as well as in the production of patents).
Over the past decade, defensive attitudes toward this supremacy amid the transition to a multipolar order have begun to draw cultural and strategic boundaries within the cyberspace, particularly by the Russian and Chinese powers, and more marginally by Europe and other countries. Despite the announcements of reform sparked by the Snowden affair in 2013, the United States has maintained the status quo in global Internet control and widespread surveillance. In the same year 2013, the Belt and Road Initiative was launched by China, a project including an information response and superbly coinciding with the route of the rimland of encirclement that the American Nicholas Spykman had formulated in 1942 to establish the post-war pax americana. This bipolar rivalry has been reinforced to this day through episodes of economic warfare over 5G technology, the Huawei company and the semiconductor industries.
Along the way, the last three decades have marked a strategic change of course. Westernism, as the horizon of a happy globalization, is relatively ebbing. Other worldviews have taken shape, each in their geopolitical area, with consumerist societies with divergent societal goals in them. The international chessboard is now split into two worlds, material and immaterial. Computerization has provided a foundation for this evolution, in combination with a set of geopolitical factors. The search for dependencies in the technological field3 and the production of knowledge have become a central lever of power, even more within a global conflictuality which inhibits military clashes and multiplies “unrestricted” confrontations to refer to an eponymous work in China4. Geoeconomic and information rivalries have intensified, forming a system with the legal, normative and military fields. Antonio Gramsci would undoubtedly have seen in this a fantastic extension of what he stated a century earlier around the notion of cultural hegemony.
The interpretation and conquest of this new immaterial world has only just begun. Note that it took several centuries, from Nicolas Machiavelli and other predecessors, to discern the laws governing the balance of power in the material sphere. New modes of domination are being put to the test. Far from achieving supremacy by means of the sole cumulative weight of technologies, the autonomous information interactions and spaces offer a very dynamic environment where the weak have unprecedented leeway to confront or even defeat the strong. This grammar has been consubstantial with the leading role of new actors since the 1990s, in particular protest movements as well as civil and private entities, which have often been able to adapt very well to this environment.
Ground swells of comparable magnitude have occurred in the economic field. Behind the “digital”, which we should remember is only a mode of data coding which since 2010 has become the term to define the current stage of computerization5, the synergy between the human spirit and the ubiquitous programmable logic controller has generated a differentiated automation of repetitive tasks, productivity gains, as well as a set of reconfigurations in the production of goods and services. Information systems have become the keystone of the networking of goods and services, with jobs moving to the tertiary sector and the design phase. The computerized economy expands collaborative network arrangements (by segmenting production in order to distribute risks and the burden of complexity), increases skills (human labor moving into logical and intellectual spaces) and promotes quality (the diversification of a good or a service broadens their quality for each customer segment) and innovation. The wealth of a company in the computer economy thus comes from the competence of its designers, the quality of its organization and its networks, the patents, plans and computer programs it has accumulated.
At the same time, this economy has also acquired a profile that is at once ultra-capitalist, monopolistic, competitive and predatory, not only because the “Rockefellers” of modern times are of course in ambush, but above all because its intertwining with the mechanized economy under the current regulatory conditions favors the maximum risk logic (the bulk of financial investment is concentrated upstream of the productive and commercial phase), monopolistic competition (a pivotal actor temporarily wins the stake and surrounds himself at his frontiers of competitors diversifying supply and encouraging innovation) and increasing returns to scale (the average cost of a unit produced decreases when production increases). In other words, the economy as it computerizes creates a surge in predation. The Internet economy is becoming violent and patrimonial; the breaches opened in this unprotected asset entice to seize it. The surge of the neoliberal doxa in the 1970s, which some economists like Michel Volle correlate with the rise of computerization, has reinforced these behaviors. Finally, if the digital is now at the forefront of growth and financial investments, its carbon footprint by 2025 draws up a balance, if not alarming at least relatively significant6, which will not fail to bring back to the fore the energy viability of the immaterial economy.
Various observers, from John Perry Barlow7 to Jean-Louis Gergorin8 or Soshana Zuboff9, have frequently pointed out: rapacity is endogenous in this new economy. From tax evasion and surveillance, through deindustrialisation (the dates of which coincide in France with the start of computerization), the precariousness of the workforce, the laundering of illicit profits, financial delinquency and discretionary capture of value, all of these and other practices have in common that they exacerbate existing divides and challenge the rule of law. The triumphalist rise of digital monopolies on the podium of global wealth cannot be separated from this predation and from a cognitive formatting by the proponents of “techno-globalism” which made it possible to confine the perceptions of information technologies around a reductive approach. After the Microsoft affair in 1998, the American regulator’s lawsuit at the end of 2020 against Facebook and Google shows how Western companies are once again questioning the disproportion of these private empires.
In this regard, it should be pointed out that cognitive biases are a major obstacle to understanding computerization. Thought has trouble with emerging realities. Many civil society actors put a great effort into conceiving the digital from the angle of defense against an all-out predation by the new lords of immaterial capitalism. Here and there we lock ourselves in disciplinary chapels and sententious intellectualism. Businesses and institutions are called into question. Orwellian scenarios and confusion are rife, especially in connection with artificial intelligence and transition scenarios (such as the one put forward by Jeremy Rifkin on energy, the Democrats’ Green New Deal in the United States or on degrowth, to name just these three). In these scenarios, we generally refuse to consider a role other than a technical one for computerization while it has become an engine of industrialization and is potentially one of the keys to the low carbon economy, a society of utility and quality. For those who seek to discern this landscape in a realistic way, the innumerable negative behaviors resulting from predation are clearly an obvious feature. Ambient defeatism is another, too often masking a disarray of thought to address the organizational and conceptual fabric raised by computerization. Reasoning in this new context requires adopting an open and pragmatic rationality, in touch with the experimental, and less a conceptual and causal rationality inherited from the mechanized technical system.
In the 1950s, pioneers such as John von Neumann and Joseph Licklider laid the scientific foundations for computerization with a view to exploring its anthropological significance. In the following decades, with the expansion of uses, the spirit of the age fell back on particular dimensions, some authors focusing on the scientific and technical dimension and others on that of uses. Apart from certain high-quality thematic reports, no multilateral or academic entity–such as an IPCC10 for computerization and cyberspace like the IPCC on climate change—is currently preparing a complete panorama of its evolution. With some exceptions, especially in the strategic American, English and Russian cultures where the information front is closely linked to other dimensions, the silo approach is dominant, including university research. The regulators’ radar is set on the day-to-day management in reaction to each new problem or scandal, far behind the speeding train of innovation and hoarding. Movements such as the slow web, low techs or techno-discernment seek precisely to slow down the technological surge in order to bring it back into the field of social control. In the light of previous industrial cycles, however, it is clear that defensive or short-term stands are insufficient and that it is essential to look at the orientation of the new technical system and its conditions for effectiveness.
In similar circumstances where an unexplored world was coming out, Adam Smith, Léon Walras, Henri de Saint-Simon, John Hicks, Frederick Taylor or even Alexis de Tocqueville provided at the time decisive keys to decipher parts of the reality that arose before their eyes. After five decades of computerization, the same demands for orientation, intellectual identification and pedagogy are in force. This need is particularly true for Europe, dependent and in decline in the face of emerging countries, in which the legacy of the past has largely paralyzed the interpretations. In France, the immaterial sphere is still a vague concept, without prompting in-depth analysis of the power issues. The State apparatus, employers’ structures and most companies compartmentalize industrialization and the economy, management IT and process and data IT, without grasping that the production of goods and services now cannot exist without computer processing.
As for the creative arrangements, for example those in the same vein as commoning, which reconstruct horizontal solidarities and reformulate the distribution of value beyond market patterns, they flourish in the information sphere: cooperative management of IT resources (community networks, routing, servers, hardware, etc.); co-development of operating system, free software and online knowledge; socio-professional collectives valuing the data generated in their activity (data collective); creation of autonomous information structures to support initiatives in many areas (local currencies and credit; mobility and citizen security; design, art and education; media, etc.). As Yochai Benkler11 explained in Wealth of Networks, these arrangements are promising in that they bring to the surface an economy of diversity and social wealth enabled by a wide range of thought, sociality and exchange activities. They provide leeway to territories resisting predation. However, can they be the backbone of productive systems and the model of the new economy of exchange supported by networks? Nothing is less certain as computerization is embodied in the first place in the very processes of classical entrepreneurship—in the Schumpeterian sense of innovation and risk-taking—and it is a close part of the power relations that remain relatively eclipsed in the sphere of the commons.
This outlook has been drawn up in a deliberately broad manner in order to set it in a background movement that only appears too sparingly in interpretation guides. For Dunia/Traversées, this vision is in itself a learning process of several years, built in a round trip between direct action and intercultural exploration. It is inseparable from a critical mind and true speaking, both necessary to move the perceptual barriers. The following perspectives attempt to sketch answers based on our experience, but without limiting them to the inherent limits of our capacity for action.
Four major strategic lines are put forward: 1. Promote new interpretation guides. 2. Formalize and model the computer economy. 3. Develop an intelligence of information confrontations. 4. Support approaches to information sovereignty and autonomy.
- See the 2021 Report on the digital economy of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development
- As pointed out by historian Niall Ferguson in The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook.
- This is also the case for wind, energy and photovoltaic transition technologies or construction timber in France, which are reactivating commercial dependence.
- Unrestricted Warfare, Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui.
- We can distinguish the following major stages: mainframes and first applications (1960s); information systems and terminal clusters (1970s); office automation and microcomputers (1980s); remote office automation, messaging and computerization of processes (1990s); electronic commerce, web maturing and the smartphone (2000s); the digital, cloud, big data, artificial intelligence and blockchain (2010); 6G, Internet of things, quantum computing (2020s).
- The Shift Project refers to a carbon footprint equivalent for the web to those of the global vehicle fleet by 2025, but this figure is strongly criticized, in particular because it ignores the gains in dematerialization.
- Author of the Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, written at the 1996 Davos Forum.
- Rapacités, 2007 and Cyber. La guerre permanente, 2018.
- The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. 2019.
- Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
- The Wealth of Networks : How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom, Yochai Benkler, 2006.