Homo digitalis: an issue that goes beyond the ­general debate

Text: Stéphane Gachet | Photos: Markus Bertschi | Magazine: Homo digitalis – June 2018

#HeForShe  #Commons  #TheDress

Boris Beaude is Professor of Sociology and Political Science at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL) . In a discussion with us, he shares his thoughts on a subject that is complex and not confined to the general debate, “especially when one considers what’s at stake”. The relentless move towards digitalisation has profound effects on our modern democracies: “We’re trapped between the Scylla and Charybdis of angst and idealisation. And in both cases, the expectations are misguided.”

From big data to big intelligence: how far apart is that? Will we really end up being smarter?

The two terms are already closely interlinked and cannot be easily separated. They feed on each other. Intelligence is based on information and the special way it is processed in order to create meaningfulness, which in turn can crystallise in the form of positive actions. The processing possibilities alone are not very useful, seeing as they are not applied in real-life situations, like for example when one is playing a game of Go. And data alone are not much more useful, especially since there is such an enormous amount of the stuff. So those who succeed in combining the two are the real winners and they’re often the same players. In this regard, IBM takes a unique approach, tailored to specific contexts such as healthcare or urban planning, whereas Google has an important advantage in these areas: with this, I mean by adapting the way we work to the behaviour of the individual.

Is it really revolutionary to watch how a computer wins at Go or a car drives itself?

The effects are far-reaching: the limits of what only humans can do are being more narrowly defined. Driving is inherently a function of multitasking. The game of Go requires strategic thinking and intuition. When such complex activities are taken over by machines, we have no choice but to redefine intelligence and the essence of being human.

“The real difficulty is putting your head around change.”

Does this represent a turning point for mankind?

It’s indeed a decisive moment for all of us. Through the age-old delegation of manual skills to the mechanical and the practical utilisation of energy and metals, mankind already experienced a tremendous upheaval. Nowadays, we are witnessing a delegation of our cognitive abilities, meaning the practical utilisation of energy and information. This admixture of mechanical and cognitive delegation is very powerful and extremely effective. Autonomous driving and industrial robotics are just a few of the outgrowths. So we have to imagine the world of the future differently.

Must we fear those developments, or can we look forward to them?

From a political standpoint, this is a unique opportunity for emancipation, but it will only emerge as freedom if it is actively and thoroughly thought out – this because it concerns the very foundations of our modern democracies, the distribution of added value amongst the various stakeholders, and the place of the individual in the community. The entire subject harbours a rare complexity.

“Will the increased productivity attributable to digitalisation create more quality time for us, or will we merely end up investing it in other tasks? And this brings us back to the issue of how to simply chill out and stay on an even keel.”

Are you alluding to the concentration of productivity, like what already seems to be arising as a result of the GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon) phenomenon?

This expression is extremely troublesome, given that the companies you mention have nothing to do with each other, except for the fact that they only gained importance thanks to mobile telephony, the Internet and the digitalisation of everyday life. Their business models differ greatly, especially in terms of big data. If you need convincing, it suffices to follow the money trail and simply ask yourself who their customers are: by and large, Apple’s customers are users, Amazon’s customers are buyers and sellers, and Google’s and Facebook’s customers are advertisers.

That said, the concentration risk has remained completely unaddressed. And with the evolution of artificial intelligence, this concentration still has much further to go. It should come as no surprise that Google is also increasingly active in the areas of mobility and health maintenance. Apple and telephony are nowadays essentially synonymous, but ten years ago that was by no means a certainty.

Boris Beaude, a French resident of Lausanne, is 44 years old and grew up in the digital age. His first encounters with IT came in the 1980s at the time of Amiga and the Sinclair ZX81. Beaude’s interest in all things digital ultimately also shaped his academic career, taking him from France to Lausanne – first at the EPFL and later at the University of Lausanne – where today he lectures on issues relating to digitalised social interaction and its traceability as well as the contemplative process this has spurred at the political level.

The economic logic and avid interest seems understandable in certain instances, such as in the manufacturing and transport sectors. But you apparently anticipate developments in more subject­ive activities, so why not also education or strategic governance as time passes? Should we be wary about all of this, or simply come to terms with it?

As to the objective activities, I think we should invest in and accompany the change, because the results will be substantial. With everything subjective, meaning everything where – thanks to the ever-increasing volume of data – innovation or the prediction of “social facts” is concerned, you first need to be convinced of the data quality; quantity alone is not enough. The classification of data in the social sciences field is not a matter of course, because the respective context is decisive for the interpretation of the data and the factors that can contribute to its value.

Contrary to a widely held belief, forecasting social facts is more difficult than shooting a rocket to the moon. Big data is a good tool for describing, but less so for predicting, simply because it foresees the future based on the past. In the financial industry for example, the use of a predictive trading algorithm leads to a change in trading behaviour, as it becomes increasingly difficult to take larger positions without influencing the market. Forecasting plays a decisive role in competition, but it needs to be handled with finesse. Applying this tool to society is an even more complex task, yet there are many tempting promises in this area.

Frankly, though, big data is a rather conser­vative tool. Using it for predictions is the best way to change zilch – you end up reproducing errors instead of conceiving a world worth striving for!

Let’s return to the present for a moment. What about today’s hyperconnectivity? Has it really changed everything?

The real difficulty is putting your head around change. We always look at the world from our own perspective and find this view to be normal. Given the far-reaching structural change we’re currently experiencing, we as mere mortals can hardly swim against that stream. Yes, one’s autonomy and ability to act and react have increased considerably, but this in an environment where the interrelationships are largely concealed somewhere in the background.

“Big Data is a good tool for description, but less for prediction, since it forecasts the future on the basis of the past.”

What’s your take on the future of Homo digitalis? More and more gadgets? More and more dependence on technology? Or do you already see signs of a counterreaction?

The “cultivation” of society has been progressing relentlessly since day one. This has resulted in an unavoidable dependence, to the extent that technology is now a means. If it becomes an end, there is the risk of losing oneself, of not being able to control the energy nor the time we devote to technology.

And what about the relationship to time: does Homo digitalis almost by definition equate to Homo acceleris?

It’s quite noticeably a matter of the same phenomenon, because digitalisation is primarily a time-saving technology. Even a nutcracker saves time: with it, we can open a nut faster – the result being that we tirelessly invest the saved time in doing other things. This brings us back to the issue of how to simply chill out and stay on an even keel. We have to learn to use things the way that’s most agreeable to us, according to our needs. If these needs arise out of economic considerations – for example, with a view to growth, whether personal or corporate – then growth becomes an end, which of course can be positive, but not necessarily just that. Like technology, growth is not static; it can be engendered, measured and shared in many different ways. In this context as well, we need to shape growth and technical possibi­l­ities in a desirable way, one that enables us to maintain our chosen rhythm of life. In other words, we have to ask ourselves a question: will the increased productivity attributable to digitalisation create more quality time for us, or will we invest it only in other tasks whose sole purpose is to replicate work in a manner similar to the mindset that drove the Industrial Revolution?

University of Lausanne

Boris Beaude
Short questions – short answers

Which three hashtags would you say define you best?
#HeForShe #Commons #TheDress

If you had just one app, which would it be?
Without a doubt, Firefox.

What do you appreciate most about your virtual friends?
That they’re undefined right from the start.

What do you detest most about today’s digital technologies?
Their relentless proliferation, a move that is not adapted to the rhythm of our bodies, organisations, culture or politics, as well as their concentration amongst only a few players who have utterly unlimited power that we don’t attach enough importance to.

Your digital dream?
To not wake up.

Which digital technology did you first lose your heart to?
No question, the Amiga at the end of the 1980s – it overshadowed everything that previously existed, in particular the Sinclair ZX81 (early ’80s). The Macintosh IIci also meant a lot to me.

Do you still remember your first mobile phone?
Above all, my TamTam in 1995. ’Twas moving, indeed. But the same as with my later Alcatel HD1 in 1997 (OLA d’Itineris), there weren’t too many other users to call at the time….

Are you doing the job of your dreams these days?
Almost; I’d just prefer if were a bit more creative. The research realm is a vast “normative institution” where innovation is currently not a hot item. The activities, evaluations and responsibilities are too numerous, so much so that one tends to veer far from the original task. Nevertheless, research remains a work environment that enthuses me and one in which I meet many highly interesting people. The apprenticeships are also a real enrichment that cannot be found in every profession.

Your feelings right now: Like or Dislike?