After forty years of computerization against a background of reconfiguration of the geopolitical spectrum, the broader question of developing a new interpretation grid for the current socio-technical system is now more urgent. Our economies are not only transformed by “digital” flows and networks. They are more widely affected by the combined effect of ubiquitous connectivity, microelectronics and software engineering, in short, by rampant computerization, which has become the backbone of the contemporary socio-technical system and the mutation of the industrial system. In the 1980s, the Internet and the smartphone followed in the footsteps of the birth of microelectronics and then led to the cloud, big data and blockchain in the 2000s. In 2020, we are now in the Internet of Things and on the threshold of a new stage of ubiquity with 5G connectivity. A large-scale informatization transition is taking place. It is up to us to understand it and rise to the challenges.
In fact, beyond each successive technological advance, it is clear that our minds find it difficult to apprehend this enveloping movement, as if there was an obstacle to name and conceive it, without betraying or distorting it, or as if it could be understood only in the ultimate effects it creates. “Digital affairs”, “digital economy”, “cyberspace”, “digital neo-imperialism”, “transhumanism”, “collaborative economy”, “artificial intelligence”, “third industrial revolution”, etc. These terms, in turn, refer us to as many real dimensions of the phenomenon and have the merit of speaking to non-specialists. But they often cut out a lot of what we need to discern, measure and put into perspective. Often times, blissful optimism, Orwellian pessimism, herd tailism or the various ideological atavisms have even prevented us – without really knowing it – from facing the real risks and potentialities of this evolution, leading us to bow before the play of the powerful, that is to say, of those who have been able to tame the transforming force of this evolution through intelligence.
However, a quick detour through the history of innovations reminds us how much the turbulence generated by this type of transformation drives the actors involved to act on the basis of opposition, predation and violence. This is the message, which we need to read again more carefully, of Schumpeter, Simondon and Gille, among others. Michel Volle also underlines that society does not make the effort to understand an industrial revolution until after a more or less prolonged episode of destruction. In fact, it is obvious that the new computerized economy is very far from being simply the instrument of a brotherhood of all-powerful people manipulating the reins of intangible capitalism in the shadows. It acts naturally, so to speak, precisely because it transforms the relationship between beings and nature, in an ultra-capitalist and destabilizing way, by stirring up certain forms of violence. Under current conditions, computerization exacerbates market warfare, the ultra-financialization of capital, competition for monopoly and mobility, in particular tax mobility, not to mention the consequences on inequalities, lack of job security and job structuring. This behavior is somehow written into the “source code” of the new computerized economy. It has swept away some monopolies, strengthened others, reconfigured entire swathes of the industry in the name of IT efficiency by generating new kinds of creations and rapaciousness. Does this mean that the computerized economy is the final stage of capitalism converted to imperialism and that it should be one of the new avatars of domination? The obligation of discernment forces us to open up the horizon and not stick to binary answers.
Since Snowden’s leaks in 2013, whistleblowers and defenders of computer rights and freedoms have been constantly denouncing a neo-feudal drift in the “digital industry” and seeking alternatives. While the digital giants dislodged the oil titans on the podium of the first world companies, a diffuse movement of sovereignization and re-territorialization of IT resources has emerged, continuing the struggles denouncing the rise of social inequalities initiated long ago during the first industrial revolutions and accelerated thereafter, almost half a century ago, by the unifying free trade which emerged victorious from the East-West tension. Because, indeed, how can we not worry about a new wave of widening inequalities in a world already destabilized and made cynical by endemic and inherited inequalities? Reactions to the new digital “divides” have thus come on top of those generated by deregulated ultraliberalism, with the 2008 financial crisis being a new suture. It marked a turning point by instilling a relative decline in Western hegemony and fueling nationalist ambitions. But nothing substantial has been done to alter the course of an economic matrix reviving competitions for monopoly and network predominance. Without supervision up to the stakes, this profound transition to a computerized economy continues to progress, with its share of “creative destruction”, against a background of growing geopolitical heterogeneity.
For this transition to be favorable, controlled and less predatory, in theory, a major reform should be undertaken of the institutional architecture and governance. And not just Internet governance. It will take a lot more than the cautious efforts made so far in this area. Vast ambition indeed, almost unthinkable today in view of the multilateral backpedaling that is taking place before our eyes. However, notwithstanding the sluggishness or the atavism of institutions, nothing prevents us from considering the new reactions of social masses, which have shown exceptional vigor over the past decade. Just think of the year 2019, filled with an astonishing wave of multinational indignation, the anti-racist and climate upsurges now present in both the North and the South, and especially within each society. Social resilience has reiterated its strength to counteract the political inertia on these issues. Certainly, it is to be expected in the short term that the crowds will not go straight to knock on the doors of the authorities that legislate on monopolies or the ministries of digital affairs. But for some time now, they have occupied roundabouts and urban arteries to denounce the deleterious effects of exclusion and segregative globalization. There is every reason to believe that they will continue to react vigorously to institutional laziness to address the nagging issue of injustices and heterogeneity, thus placing the computerized economy in the crosshairs of movements that question social injustice.
Our hypothesis is that the first pitfall encountered by a potential reform of the computerized economy, at least amongst decision-makers and leaders, though we could go much further, for example within civil society, is that of a barrier of discernment and perception. Information technologies fascinate, entice, seduce, as much as they frighten or repel. But above all, especially because of their obsessive referencing to the technical register, they evolve, so to speak, outside the field of culture, failing to attain a more lucid and unified understanding going beyond disciplinary interpretations. They slide on a very broad conceptual and philosophical framework which reduces the politicians’ capacity to actively orient themselves in this new computerized world. Of course, there is no shortage of ideologies and influences. How not to conform to the promises of growth distilled by the soft power of the United States of America, master of innovations in this field? How to face the weight of digital giants lobbying capable of leading States to compete? But precisely, even passive tailism comes at a high price in this area, Europe for example and many other nations with proven capacities, which remain in strategic failure.
Beyond an overly conformist and defensive agenda and like that which embodies a new green deal to guide the efforts towards sustainable macroeconomics, is it not now necessary to strengthen the bases of an imaginary, a philosophy and a conceptual framework of the computerized economy with the aim of orienting politics? This new type of economy cannot be reduced to the commons, the misnamed “digital economy”, collaborative economy or the reductionism of a “third industrial revolution”. It integrates them, overlaps them and nourishes them at the same time, following the assemblies taking shape between the material world, productive processes and intelligence. But in order to get out of the hustle and bustle of the moment, it is necessary to get rid of overly biased, partial and disproportionate visions, by looking for anchors in new socio-political issues.
Some initiatives are already moving in this direction, in addition to all the battles that are already being fought in the multiple thematic trenches of computerized societies. But they often remain isolated and segmented, without opportunities to converge. In the absence of such a commitment to the governance of the “e-economy”, it is very likely that other projects will continue to occupy the vacant space, such as that of Facebook and the Libra, announced in 2019, which puts a foothold in this field by combining a global social network and the monetization of micro-exchanges, while being careful not to reveal its society project and its business based on intelligence, extractivism and influence. Launched without regulation or supervision by the public authorities, the Libra potentially opens the possibility for two billion users of carrying out cooperative, social and environmental micro-exchanges, given the absence of other unified instruments to enhance the wealth of collaborative economy. China followed suit by announcing a stronger integration of the digital economy in its national exchanges (crypto yuan). In the coming decade, these advances, conveying cooperative and imperialist aims that are not mutually exclusive, will place the world economy in front of new ruptures. Hence the effort required to prepare our minds and minimize the cost of destruction.