Next Wednesday and until Friday, at Université de Lyon, the conference “Vivre par(mi) les écrans“. Here is my speech (still in progress).
The challenge of context. Media Ecology is the message
Media ecology is programmatically less focused on messages or individual technologies than on the relationships between contexts, messengers and their worlds of meaning, technologies, and grand narratives.
The mediasphere is the environment in which human cultures evolve. The eco-cultural niches to which humans adapt – or which humans seek to modify – are made up of the connections between all the elements that contribute to the information cycle. Of course, the role of screens, analyzed in this conference, is a pillar of reflection on the mediasphere, because of its connections to aesthetics and epistemology and, also, consequently because of its explanatory capacities on everyday life and its trends, concerns, and mutations.
In order to make a contribution to the discussion, in a context as aware as this one, I thought of structuring the speech as a brief comment on three ideas collected during my research experience, professionally journalistic, but perhaps more generally historical: that is, conducted with a method not only focused on news – as is typical of journalism – but also and above all on the relationship between what changes and what does not change.
The three ideas are statements that I recorded during three meetings with remarkable people, people who have had an important impact on our history.
But this is not an autobiographical account. Not least because I should first discuss the topic of autobiography. A topic that raises some pretty important questions today. And to which in this premise it is obligatory to mention.
This may seem paradoxical. But the question is, “Who writes my autobiography?”
But first, what does it mean to write? In the analog context, the choice to write was expensive – in terms of time, education, and technology – and thus was reserved for what was considered a priori important.
In the digital context, recording anything is very easy, physiological, automatic. Everything is written, in multiple versions, on many servers. A machine that someone considers a prosthesis of my body, writes that I am here, that I have seen a sunset, that I have followed a map, that I have bought something, that I have asked myself a question, that I have chatted with someone, that I have created a thought, every moment of the day and night: everything is written, recorded, classified automatically. He doesn’t just write what in the analog world, I would have written about myself, studying my experience to choose what was important to write. He writes without evaluating the importance of what he writes: he records everything for the simple physiological purpose of functioning. In short, an electronic prosthesis of my body writes my life while I live: and so am I or am I not the one writing my autobiography?
The answer lies in the historical context.
The multiple identities assigned to each person from their relationships with others and with the world, in the digital context, very easily transform the individual self-representation into a plural representation (Homo pluralis, Codice 2016). Mauro Carbone discusses this in his Filosofia-schermi (Raffaello Cortina 2016). “Since individuation ceaselessly becomes the other side of one of the multiple relations that weave us together, it cannot but lose any implicit referral to an individualizable residue and must therefore be conceived rather as dividuation” (p. 155).
The fabric of relationships involves every single neuron of every single brain connected, in some way, to the neurons of the others, on the basis of a system of media, whose complexity is understandable only by trying to embrace the whole. This is why we talk about media ecology.
In an ecological approach, it is not so much the individual things that are important but the relationships between things. In media ecology, it is not so much the individual messages that are important as the relationships between people and their minds, messages and their contexts. These relationships are connections – at the same time – symbolic-cultural and technological.
And since in the digital world connections are simultaneously structured on multiple levels, as are people’s identities, whether consciously experienced or not, then the main narratives that are based on the vision of a humanity made up of individuals capable of thinking for themselves, able to consider the media as neutral tools used to pursue their subjective ends, become obsolete.
Just like autobiographies written with the sole pen of the author.
Having made these premises, which are too long, perhaps it is better to go straight to the conclusions. Not without recalling the three facts that I imagined I wanted to present. Facts that I propose as windows on complex worlds that can develop in many directions. They are not recent facts. But they are facts that have a duration.
Money and information
So the first meeting I’d like to remember is with Bill Gates. I interviewed him seven to eight times. It was hard to surprise him with a question. And usually, surprised or not, he would answer what he wanted or what he had on his agenda to say. But I happened, once, to induce him to a moment of reflection, it was 1994.
At that moment in history, people were wondering about the characteristics of the new economy that was emerging in the post-industrial era and in the midst of the development of information technology. I asked him, “In the information society, what is more valuable, money or information?” He replied, after a (for me) long pause for thought: “Money is a form of information”. I immediately understood that Bill Gates had much more “information” than I did. But not only that.
In the almost thirty years that have passed since that interview, the economy has changed a lot. If industrial development was based on the linearity of the assembly line and value was ascribable to the use of the goods produced, with prices established around the sum of costs and profits, today the system is defined around the immaterial dimension that absorbs most of the value: research, design, logistics, information, meaning, and so on. Data, information, knowledge are the fundamental materials of value. The cost of material goods is much lower than the price you pay to access the knowledge they contain and carry. Products have become the de facto means of communication of the knowledge that generated them and that consumers recognize. Goods are no longer objects to be produced and then advertised, but are communicating objects, deeply embedded in the mediasphere. Money is information, value is knowledge. Economic dynamics converge with cultural dynamics, i.e. scientific, social, political and so on. As the connections between all these elements increase, the complexity of the system increases. Ecology is a good way to name it all at once. It is a good way to associate any development in this context with the need to understand its impact at multiple levels.
Applying this reflection to the topic of screens, we can only observe how screens are strategic in the context described because they have a plurality of functions: the protective barrier, the monitoring of phenomena, the connection with narrative worlds of all kinds, the extension of visual perceptions, and so on. But at the same time they have such an attractive capacity that they concentrate the multiplicity of possible sensory connections on a few gestures. In ecology, any radical homogenization tends to become fragility. And from a cultural point of view, the hegemony of screens is a potential source of fragility. Above all, if the homogeneity of screens proves to be compatible with the financial strategy of concentrating all economic power in the logic of a very few, very large companies, which have now become centers of economic, political and social power. Comparable only to political control centers such as the NSA.
If money is information and information is concentrated in a few huge power structures, everything that facilitates the homogeneity of information processing also makes easier the further concentration of power. Bill Gates, in fact, wrote in one of his books that the internet makes possible a frictionless capitalism, a capitalism that rests on a market system close to perfect competition. This thought is an absolute simplification, which has very important historical roots in economic thought, but which has all the characteristics of an “ideological hoax”. It is not the case to deepen here, but it must be remembered that perfect competition was able to achieve the goal of allocating resources in the best possible way only if certain preconditions were verified: all individuals in competition are rational and oriented to maximize their own advantage, all individuals in competition are perfectly informed of everything, no economic operator is big enough to influence the whole system. Clearly, in the knowledge economy, these preconditions are unthinkable: individuals are not individuals, rationality is a rarity in the framework of human choice, information is not equally distributed, and the difference in size between economic agents has never been so great.
Screens are part of this pattern, but also a premise for the next, eventual change.
This next change starts with understanding that life in front of and behind screens, life inside screens, is nonetheless transformed into information.
What has come out of that information so far has been very much linked to the project of society that was implicit in the economic philosophy of those who innovated in the framework of neoliberal finance as a criterion of success and of the belief in the inevitability of technological progress.
But by transforming everything into information, digitization has laid the foundations of a society in which everything that is human (i.e., that can decode information) is mediated. And since the human has so much importance on the overall ecology of the planet, the ecology of the media becomes almost the ecology tout court.
What to do?
Revolution and evolution
Should we have a revolution?
This leads to the second meeting I would like to remember: with John Chambers. Perhaps few remember him. He was the CEO of Cisco. A company that for a certain period built all the fundamental technologies of the Internet and grew to become the company with the largest capitalization in the world. A kind person, open to listening, deeply convinced that the internet was the greatest opportunity for improvement for humanity.
I met John Chambers at a press conference in Paris in late 1998. The CEO of Cisco, who was conquering the world of connections between people, was talking about the great Internet revolution and claimed: “The Internet changes everything”. When it was my turn, I asked him if he didn’t consider the fact that for every revolution there is a counter-revolution. I reminded him that we were in Paris and that people there knew a lot about revolutions and counter-revolutions. Not only because of his natural kindness, he was impressed by the question. He said it was a very interesting observation, he hadn’t thought about it, when he got off the stage, he promised me to look into it further. As is obvious, there was no opportunity to put that intention into practice. But in the midst of the conformity generated by the dot-com bubble that multiplied the financial value of any company that had the internet in its business model, the most important considerations were those that signaled some critical consideration. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said that at the price levels his company’s stock had reached, he would not recommend it as an investment for families. And, with an even more developed critical sense, a couple of years later, the historical leader of Intel – the microprocessor giant – commented on yet another version of the “internet changes everything” statement by saying: “People’s brains always travel at the same speed”.
Actually, today we know: nothing changes everything!
A revolution doesn’t free humans for long. Its consequences often cage them more than they were before.
The Internet changes information flows, storage, the forms and incentives of knowledge production, the relationships between customers and suppliers, the relationships between companies and employees. Which is a lot. But it’s not everything. Certainly, it changes enough to require a collective reflection that has been going on for thirty years and does not seem to be ceasing. But we can start by saying that in order to understand what the Internet changes, it is necessary to realize what it does not change. The topic is interesting if we consider the problem of ensuring sustainability in the system that emerges in the age of knowledge.
As we said, in the age of knowledge, value and power arise from the immaterial that functions thanks to the means that connect it. Consequences do not descend from technologies but from the cultural models with which they are conceived, realized and adopted.
Innovation does not occur when a novelty is proposed, but when it is adopted. In this sense, innovation is a cultural encounter.
The strategic elements of media ecology can help us understand how it evolves, how sustainability can be defined in the age of knowledge. The structures that “order”, “enhance” and make knowledge “functional” by “governing the relationships of its elements” in space and time, are platforms and narratives: platforms are composed of a set of data-algorithms-interfaces, narratives are stories-frames-images. Platforms and narratives incentivize behaviors and create perspectives. No element of the media system is neutral with respect to its cultural outcomes.
My autobiography – like everyone else’s – unfolds in this context, in the form of a multiplicity of data repositories, on the back of various algorithms and models, interacting with my life, the lives of others, and the purposes of the companies and political organizations that collect information about me. Like all autobiographies, whether analog or digital, the consistency between reality and representation remains dubious. But certainly this one, from the digital world, is particularly suited to account for my plural identity.
Among the narratives that confront each other, as mentioned, the narrative based on that form of perfect competition that the ideologues of neoliberal capitalism were inspired by, in which there existed only rational, perfectly informed individuals who chose to maximize their own advantage by generating the best possible allocation of resources, no longer makes sense.
The ecological perspective, at the end of the neo-liberal era, in a historical period characterized by recurrent and systemic crises – financial, pandemic, war – imposes an approach oriented to understand how new knowledge emerges, necessary to rebuild an environment suitable for human life.
One eventually realizes that the construction of one’s life and the reconstruction of the environment are part of the same endeavor.
This does not happen through a revolution that consciously, following a linear program, produces an overthrow of the ancien régime and the replacement of a ruling class.
This happens through a process of mutations and adaptations, which occur in the wake of relationships that take the form of conflict or symbiosis. The modification of subjects occurs in the adaptation to the context that in turn goes through the transformation that seizes the opportunities opened by the acceleration of techno-scientific innovations: evolution is the exploration of the possible.
Revolutions are many. Evolution is only one. And it has a much longer perspective.
In this context, the activities of people who want to contribute to evolution are being redefined. And some generalization is possible. An ecosystem is healthier if it is endowed with biodiversity (in this case, infodiversity) and one species is not preponderant but somehow the relationships between species are such that they limit the power of all. Furthermore, evolution is generative if mutations and relationships among species lead to balanced, or even symbiotic, forms of coexistence, whereas parasitism that kills the host is not particularly productive. In a generative, sustainable and healthy media ecology, diversity is not division and indeed it is creativity as long as there is a common ground on which to build collaborative relationships oriented not so much to short-term individual advantage but to maintaining the vitality of the system in the long term.
It is likely that the interfaces with which the Internet is accessed will continue to change. Screens will be joined by interfaces that involve other senses, such as hearing and touch. It is likely that what is now called the “metaverse” and which remains confined to a kind of hyper-screen is not the only possible path of development. But there is no need to speculate on that here. What is important is to think about what the dynamics might be that will give perspective to this development.
If it will be the narrative of the new technology, which is always better than the previous one and therefore will generate the best possible consequences, the financial power of those who intend to impose a model of interaction will be important to trigger the forces of change. If, on the other hand, it will be the ecological narrative, which seeks to multiply the opportunities for connection and perception, within a framework of common awareness, a variety of solutions will probably flourish, but interpreting the most important dynamics of change that confront the need to address the priority issues for humanity, the climate emergency and social inequality. In this sense, self-referential innovation is no longer relevant: innovation that interprets a direction is better suited to the challenges of contemporaneity.
This calls for a historical breadth of vision, which cannot stop at the analysis of technologies.
Revolutions are many. Evolution is only one.
Structure and narrative
This leads to the third meeting I’d like to remember. It was 1979. For my dissertation I had a wonderful mentor. He was Fernand Braudel, the French historian who then led the school of Annales. I asked him many questions during the time he was my guide. I once asked him whether in his historical perspective there was room for the importance of individuals or did long-lasting structures count above all. He said, “I’m afraid structures count a lot.” For me who was looking for my own way, with numerous possibilities apparently still open before me, it was a harsh lesson. And another time I asked him what his political opinion was. He didn’t talk about it often. He said with smiling eyes that he was a “Gaullist anarchist.” I thought about it a lot. And in the end this is my proposed interpretation: if structures count more than individual choices, anarchy is the most logical system, since true government resides in the complex system of the great choices of civilization; but humans are not ants and can only live in the cultural atmospheres generated by great narratives, such as the one embodied by General Charles De Gaulle. The role of people is to narrate, or rather to contribute to the creation of narratives.
The governance of events that have long duration and therefore great importance is fundamentally independent of events generated by humans. But this does not mean that humans do not have power. The power to explore existing possibilities and to generate new possibilities. The telling of experience and the creation of new narratives is the activity that seems best suited to these investigations of the possible and its overcoming.
The freedom to explore the possible is the premise of overcoming it. The narratives that the mediasphere allows us to develop are essential to the process of adaptation needed to live in the existing eco-cultural niche. But they can help modify that niche when they create a profound awareness of the context, structures, environment, media, and forms of organization of knowledge in space and time.
The task of the person is therefore to tell. The very life of the person is his story. Biography and autobiography converge.
With Antoine Compagnon, we wondered whether autobiographical narration is possible. Today we must admit that this is inevitable. It is physiologically realized by machines with a more or less conscious intervention of people.
Life in the digital context, in front of and behind the screens, sometimes inside the screens, is physiologically its own story. It is the information that tells it. But information can be simply a set of data, or a system of data-models-algorithms that perhaps simulate the digital twins of people or situations in which people find themselves. Or it can be knowledge. Or even wisdom.
The freedom and beauty of the life that is being told can be read in the balance of the plurality of dimensions of which each person’s life is composed.
In an era in which the great challenges are all fundamentally ecological – climate, pandemic, globalization, migration, poverty and social inclusion – the environment and the set of individual gestures co-evolve. The plurality of social time durations, the plurality of dimensions of the digital environment, and the plurality of identities and narratives that each person experiences are the context for this co-evolution.
Intentional mutations and innovations are our gestures of freedom. The part of the narrative of our lives that we intentionally write is our contribution.
If we have our lives written completely by the system we are lost. If we think we are writing it completely by ourselves we are lost. If we fully live our plurality we can find ourselves.
The challenge of context can be met.
foto: tadzio marion roche et des tanneries cac amilly