Yesterday 6/8/2020, Bernard Stiegler, one of the most influential philosophers of the early 21st century, died, aged 68.
A French author, philosopher, researcher was trying to educate our society on what life in the 21th century is like and what it is about. Probably in vain.
Initially he was running a Jazz café, and was a gangster, a serial bank robber. After his fourth hold up, he was eventually arrested and in 1978 he was sent to prison for 5 years. Or rather for only 5 years: he bragged about having an excellent lawyer. While in prison he studied philosophy extensively: he embarked on a remote course at Toulouse university, and attracted attention of his professors. Respectful of the tradition and history of his field, his own ideas started to take form. He defended his PhD, and later wrote several books. Many years later you meet him as a guru of modern technology, from medicine to blockchain, and director of a research institute based in Pomidou Centre building in Paris.
He wrote about technology, medicine and miracles, disruption and how capitalism has changed, and how democracy is eroded in our times. In 2010 he wrote a book about What Makes Life Worth Living, and his answer is simple: what makes life worth living is the fight against stupidity. Yes we have the right to fight stupidity and we will be eternally grateful to Bernard for establishing and defending this right.
One precise point is that he did not subscribe to the stupidity of old intellectual elites who frequently claimed that technology is neutral or who consider that we decide what we make with technology. We don’t. In the same way we have been brainwashed to think that money and banking is neutral in the economy. He postulated that technology and technological innovation is co-originary with Homo Sapiens. The development of new technology and socio-economical change related to technology, are the main thing, the driving force in our civilization.
Stiegler is very helpful in order to revisit Marx, and provides a new way to read or re-invent the old fashioned term of “proletariat”. Many thinkers, especially economists, however much Marx was a great economist of his time, have argued that this term is totally obsolete today, and the working class dear to Marx has somewhat disappeared totally. Stiegler gives “proletariat” a brand new life. He says that we live a new era of unprecedented threat to the human mind and identity. He claimed that the stakes today are actually higher than they were for Marx in is 1840s, when this term was coined. Proletarianization is no longer a threat posed by capturing human bodies and coercing them or tricking them into physical labour. Today’s proletariat is about enslaving the human spirit and human mind. It can of course no longer be defined by those who are factory workers, and neither as those who have a job with a salary. Both forms of life heavily eroded and bound to disappear. Instead we are enslaved by the Press, then Television, then Football, and now Facebook. We are also enslaved by political parties BTW. All these are sponsored activities aimed at capturing human attention, and are permanently in deep pockets of powerful sponsors, some of which come from Russia. We are also enslaved by banks and computer systems. Facebook is evil, when they want to influence a result of an election, and also most of the time. The plain everyday commercial activity is largely toxic. Facebook created an ecosystem which is aimed to be harmful, and aimed against the very people or users, who naively have once trusted or used these media. It aims at people being miserable and being enslaved by big business. There is a heavy asymmetry of power information and asymmetry of course in who really reaps the benefits. The problem is that the media and platforms such as Facebook are not neutral, there are rather at the center of everything and work for the powerful against the weak. 150 years ago rich factory owners infiltrated and corrupted the state to benefit the rich, and the police had an ambiguous role: to respect the rule of law (at least for the rich) or to police the discontent (maybe exclusively against the poor). The new regime does not even need to corrupt the state, the state is eroded and Facebook is here to tame the poor, and canalize their discontent. Another ambiguity is if computer platforms are here to order to organize everything, would it be for the benefit of the very few, or maybe actually to enslave the human kind at large. A world which is perfectly organized expect that it clearly benefits somebody else, leads to loss of autonomy and alienation, with poor ability of people to make a difference outside of the powerful established circuits, to which they many people not want to submit to. Eventually leading to some degree of collective loss of hope.
He reflected on how risk-taking ethos of modern capitalism leads to nihilistic attitudes: doing harm every day, against the law and morality. He wrote about automation, chaos order and entropy, loss of control and also used the word apocalypse, He called our political and tech elites the (new) barbarians. Maybe because they use technology and collect a lot of data against the people every day. For Stiegler, Facebook and Google are in the “madness” because they feel all powerful, they think they always win. Here he was a bit naïve… and is not helping us a lot, to stop these huge abusive tech conglomerates from breaking the law and engaging in largely unethical activity, meant to dominate our lives and our economy. Our philosopher just died, and less people are likely to call this madness tomorrow. Therefore, as of today Google and Facebook win. Domination of the world by big tech just got a lot worse in 2020, where so called tech firms account now for more than 25% of all stock market capitalization.
He also said that most thinkers who actually understand technology are not based in France or Europe, but are based at the very places where the whole technological “disruption” comes from, say California. A bit like the cancer and the remedy, or at least some understanding about the illness, originate from the same territory, and this territory is sadly not in Europe.
Philosophy at Work or Illusions at Work?
Here we come to a serious problem where Bernard the Philosopher, has not escaped being largely very naïve. In the recent years, Stiegler participated in a large collaborative alter-economy project in Seine-Saint-Denis department, aimed at creation of so called “intermittent jobs”. We have another philosopher in action, a bit like George Soros, except, that this is just another spectacularly naïve attempt to train young people to work differently, inside the so called new economy. The problem is that all this is not that great in my opinion. Do not get me wrong, it is glorious to create any jobs on a territory where many young people are unemployed, such as Seine-Saint-Denis. Even if only intermittent jobs, and it is great when people come together and do things. Most people don’t do any of these, and Bertrand was doing his job of superman here, saving the world, the best he could.
However we expect smart people to better than this! We have here another super naïve attempt, to just adapt to the loss of permanent well-paid and highly skilled jobs in our economy, and it is not great. It is just again likely benefiting the same empires or centers of power, again say Facebook Google and Microsoft. This is because they are the best and uniquely placed to capture and canalize all this energy, able to give this activity some meaning and publicity, and some social and economical utility. In fact apart from some local impact, maybe Facebook and Google are the only people able to profit from this, well officially. The new “proletariat” here, from an area of France which have high unemployment, and exuberant young people, are not a great beneficiary here. This is somewhat because we operate below recovering the costs. This is for example, when we consider the large subsidies and public education, and say public infrastructure such as trains, which go into these territories, and they do it quite well in France. To say bluntly, the impact is probably not great. Too many so called good intentioned and “good thinking” people (this is from French, ‘bien-pensant’), our intellectual elite at large, are making things worse, with good conscience and good energy, but poor outcomes. All this is actually reminiscent of the French colonial past. It is the same patronizing approach to development, which emanates from Paris. The French have a unique tradition in public education, extremely well funded and developed. France has more professors of philosophy than any other country . Not unrelated there are fewer great professors at business schools and we frequently hear that business and capitalism are dirty foreign ideas and things. It is great that Bernard has just made yet another free online course on philosophy done according to his taste and ideas. In general however we indulge in highly centralized patronizing ways to educate and influence young people from poorer areas of France.
Both Sillicon Valley or software and platforms, and public education in France, operate through centralized technology push. They are efficient and well organised, but are they doing a good job? Are the outcomes socially beneficial? When Sillicon Valley pushes new technology onto us, they win because they do it scale and even if we don’t like it, we eventually are forced to use it. When the French state somewhat squanders some serious money on a lot of education at scale we must consider that if this education costs a certain (large) amount of money. These costs will only be recovered IF France dares to tax the very tech companies who are the main beneficiary, which they do. We all know which places are such that all profits and activity tend to concentrate there. However in both cases this is just technology push. Education and and philosophy are also just technology: a box with tools which can serve a number or purposes. In all cases we push things down to the larger population, and there isn’t enough “pull” or “demand” or “autonomy”. All this is just two colonial models; old French colonialism with some good intentions, and new American colonialism, certainly more perverse, but they are just doing their job.
The true problem in my opinion is that taxation is permissive. It does NOT solve the problem that some businesses and some business models are harmful and they should be more regulated. This is the French paradox: the state is strong in the “naïve” roles which simply subsidize (mostly foreign) business, but is weak, permissive and submissive, when confronting major international corporations such as Microsoft. This is of course related to the fact that France is one of the world largest recipients of direct foreign investment.
Actually many things major corporations do in France, every day and 10,000 a day, are bluntly totally illegal, and normally the CEO should be in prison, for example for making your electronics self-destroy, to make you buy new gadgets, which is also very harmful for the environment. Instead of regulating business, we have another push: education and philosophy which goes everywhere, including prisons. Good education is a great but remains a weak way and subservient way to influence the world. When people study social science topics, see how capitalism changes, they will rather secretly join it, to survive, or rebel in rather ineffective utopian ways. When clever intellectuals confront the real life we frequently get some very wrong conclusions, where the intellectuals claim that they have figured it out and they dominate this game. They don’t. They are lying to us and lying to themselves. For example in countries with a certain strong intellectual tradition we are brainwashed every day with the idea that the anglo-saxon capitalism and what they call liberalism is bad, and we need to build some sort of collective and alternative economy. In reality it is just a way to alleviate the pain of being marginalized. I think that the collective part is great, this is the French genius, but the alter-capitalism at large, is in my opinion perverse and essentially fraudulent. It is about creating illusions and alleviating the pain. It is cheating the public about what we do.
In fact humans do no longer run economy, not even when they are capitalists and a lot of money is at stake, or not even when they are philosophers and they cultivate a posture where they are pretending that they know the answers, and they want to be recognized as leaders of social change and social mobility. In reality humans have poor control of the economy, it is more algorithmic and lives an independent live, and powerful unstoppable forces such as technological disruption are at work. The huge risk is when politicians and philosophers alike claim that they are going to help us is the risk of living our lives with eyes closed: in ignorance about technology and how our economy works and how it changes. Claiming that capitalism is an ugly monster makes people reluctant to understand the world in which we live and therefore essentially transforms us into slaves working for people who have figured everything out, albeit at our expense: ill-intentioned politicians, Facebook and also to philosophers who got it wrong.
We need to open our eyes and here philosophy helps. Then, forget philosophy, fight to regain our place in the mainstream economy. We need to regulate big business, and re-establish public authority over the tech sector. The French method here exists. Just look like the France has tamed the Church and have expelled it from the center of public life it used to occupy. The state and laws should be placed, once again above, what Facebook decided the French people should think and do. This is missing, instead, we build alternative economical circuits which are a distraction and are a dangerous illusion. We are training people to accept to be just slaves in the new economy, where the only real beneficiaries are say Facebook, at least if you look at the stock market, to the point that real business is abused and marginalized and has relatively small market caps, at the same stock markets. It takes a lot of stupidity and it is suicidal to later claim, that the stock market valuation of Facebook should not matter to people in France. It does because it is proportional to how many innocent lives worldwide Facebook, has been able to enroll inside their ecosystem, to work for them, and to make huge profits for them.
In Europe so many smart scientists educators and yes computer programmers worked for free (e.g. in Linux) or for a tiny salary. Many were funded sponsored by the (super naive) taxpayer, or some bloated R&D budgets. In contrast, in other countries these same sorts of people, geeks, hackers and Computer Scientists, have created empires and become super rich. Even though officially in France it is not legal to work for free, free software and free medias and platforms flourish. These are the worst things capitalism have ever produced: we build empires but the contributors are not paid. Yet these activities like Linux, are publicly promoted Yes free labor has many defenders and promoters. Servitude Volontaire is the French word for it and it has a long tradition. When well educated quite capable young people work for free, the ultimate beneficiaries of a society reshaped by code, data and computers are large tech corporations. It is no longer the state or the society, and not even the capitalists as owners of some larger tools useful in the process of production. Production is obsolete, distribution also, and even advertising is obsolete. In 2020 even the powers of bankers and stock markets are also eroded. Stock markets are tiny companies which Facebook can buy tomorrow and people at Google surely think they could be on the top of this game too. It is now a bigger game, of controlling everything, through computer platforms. The Macron tax on big tech is tiny, just 3% tax, on the actual masters of the universe, to which every human and every company are now subordinated. The state, even when it taxes the tech, remains largely inferior in asymmetry of power and asymmetry of information. If tomorrow Macron decides to increase the tax, Google and Facebook will destroy his political career in 5 minutes just by publishing all his emails. Here is the situation.
We arrive at a grave complaint here: in Europe we are educating young people to be somewhat enslaved. We are simply populating this new proletariat even more. Desperate and not knowing what to do, we educate and help young people be mentally enslaved in the new economy. We create new type of cannon fodder, and philosophers are not helping or not enough. Not even when they actually study the technology. It is not enough for an atypical insightful thinker to escape from his prison cell, and challenge our inadequate ideas about life. Life is stronger and it moves faster, eventually our teacher dies, and we are left alone. We need more actors on the stage: we need millions of people to study and embrace science and technology as a career choice, and we need to be more technology aware.
We need also to fire all politicians who do not understand the technology, as they, as a logical consequence, essentially do not understand the economy, and therefore the society, and therefore they simply misunderstand just everything.
Stop ignoring the tech as the most powerful force in the universe, which evolves and lives alongside humans, and is our proper and primary development partner, and unlikely friend of Homo Sapiens. Stop building a different planet, pretending that tech empires do not exist, or that they are neutral, or avoiding that dirty capitalism made by these foreign people, the thing which comes from the others, the evil being those other people (Sartre). Stop building tech instruments to brainwash and manipulate the human population at large, not even in order to fight the established economic order. The French education is also such another tech instrument, less harmful, but also very monolithic and uniform, with too much monoculture. It produces harm, when it lets us down, and we feel that we do not own our future anymore, but rather it owns us and we lose influence. Long time ago we had learned how to revolt against factory owners and against the Church. We now need to develop yet a lot more immunity to influencers, medias and platforms. Play with the tech, but do not let the tech mess with us. The tech is expected to be neutral and respectful of human values identity and even of human imperfection. Deny them the right to cheat, for example using human weakness or human laziness to abuse customers and make a lot of money. Facebook teaches fellow humans a lesson about whatever is free or sponsored and well organised, is not good for you. We need to unfriend Facebook, this is the right thing to do, and this is the right moment. 10 years ago we unfriended the bankers, and 180 years after people started revolting against factory owners.
There are enough prison cells for philosophers, yet philosophers do not belong there. However in fact there aren’t enough prison cells if most of our businesses leaders, our technology and service provider business elite, are all harmful for us. Not enough, if the whole economy and money making algorithms and machinery are not fit for purpose and mass produce socially undesirable outcomes. The tech dystopia, ahead of free market and capitalism dystopia, with a bit of alleged madness with disorder and deterministic unstoppable forces at play, should be the real preoccupation of our times. These things are simply stronger. Then we should worry about crime and human nature: things such as hate and racism. Human nature is also about lying to ourselves every day about why we are unhappy. It is simply wrong, to believe that cause of our social and economic problems is politics, capitalism or how the society works, and that technology is primarily a subservient and a tool for evil doers. I propose to deny that bad intentions or corruption come first. Technology is corrupting our economy from the inside and creates opportunities which potential wrongdoers simply cannot resist. We have to recognize that the old capitalism and how society and politics works, are now secondary and subservient forces. They are a matrix, an abstract space which Facebook alone controls and dominates, and therefore we don’t, and so we are left in a weaker position. Also the state and the capitalists themselves are in a weak position, because Facebook and other software platforms are not just a businesses. They are greedy monopolistic centers of power, and engage in illegal and unethical activity every day.
If the economy is working against us, and Facebook got the job of taming our souls for the benefit of some money making algorithms, we need to first question the role of the whole of Facebook, the new kid on the block making huge profits in 2020, and not really the capitalism at large. We had methods of oppression and making money in 1840s, which same things are making a loss most of the time now. We need to think about how to regulate algorithms and make them, well obey laws, however crazy this seems. Invent new laws and regulations where humans come first, algorithms need to adapt. We are weaker and marginalized, because of technology, and because human spirit and mind is weak, compared to automation and algorithms. No longer because some rent-seeking fat cat owns a factory.
Our minds and spirits are the new frontier for the colonial empires of our times, and old fights to control the labor and the industry are obsolete, and these things have simply lost their prominent position. With the new economy comes a new form of connected hyper slavery, and both people and businesses alike are enslaved by Facebook, Google and alike. The idea of “capitalism” where the ownership of means for production means little and ability to make profits is in decline, not only for workers, but also for most other actors, including the state, and essentially the whole main street industry, which is also marginalized and unable to defend itself against a predatory tech sector. The tech sector is the only one able to make profits no matter what, and which organizes production at a different levels, without owning the means of production which are subservient entities meant to be engaged in fierce competition and deprived from being paid decent wages for their work. Yes capitalists are also deprived on decent wages and business are frequently just destroyed and everybody loses except in the tech sector which is growing all the time, like cancer inside human body.
If owning means of production means little, what do the bit tech firms own? They master primarily the data, without really owning them legally, because in fact they have stolen these data from us and also from businesses under false pretexts. Then, they own algorithms, and complex computer systems with vast capacities. This is the new imperial infrastructure, which we need to challenge: legally, humanly and politically, and reestablish the human rights, against the algorithmic tech masters of the world.