About Digital Humanism

Article  by  Milad DOUEIHI  •  Published 16.07.2013  •  Updated 16.07.2013
Digital technology is changing the actual notion of territory as well as that of knowledge and habitat. Digital humanism is then a way of perceiving this new reality.
For anthropologists, modern means of communication, while intensifying relations, increase the lack of authenticity in those exchanges by bringing in a layer of bureaucracy, a sort of distancing and fragmentation that are part of a framework that is both administrative and global. In L’anthropologie face aux problèmes du monde moderne, Claude Lévi-Strauss, identifies this condition as being political because it characterises modern relations between citizens and the powers that be. This is in part what explains his interest in the first communication theory founded by Norbert Wiener and John von Neumann. The global scale of communication structures and what we chose later on to call the information society invites anthropologists to rethink, at least partially, the concepts and the main categories of his work. The terrain, the method, the forms of exchange and especially the ways social links are formed are to be reviewed. So, we are not surprised to find out that anthropologists are more at ease in a village or even in an area of a town than in a large city. Why is this? Because, Lévi-Strauss tells us, “[...] fifty thousand people do not form a society in the way that five hundred do. In the first case, communication is not established primarily between people, or on the model of interpersonal communication. The social reality of the “emitters” and the “receivers” (to use the language of communication theorists) disappears behind the complexity of “codes” and “intermediaries”.”[+] NoteClaude LÉVI-STRAUSS, L’anthropologie face aux problèmes du monde, Seuil, “La librairie du XXIe siècle”, 2011, p.42X [1] The personal link remains a key element of what is specific to the way an anthropologist views matters. They scrutinise, through so-called authentic societies, the expression of myths and their contributions to modes of thinking. In this context, contemporary intermediaries (communication systems, technology, etc.) deepen the abyss that separates myth and history, authentic and inauthentic societies.
 
This perspective also explains why Lévi-Strauss considers anthropology to be a humanist discipline, and first and foremost the culmination of the humanist modes of thinking that have placed their stamp on history and on the changes that have taken place in Western societies. Anthropology is not a new science or a recent discipline. Back in 1956, in a note written for UNESCO, he identified three kinds of humanism in the conclusion to his analyses of the relationships between the sciences and the social sciences. According to Lévi-Strauss, these three forms of humanism have always been anthropological. The humanism of the Renaissance, based firmly on the rediscovery of classical texts from Antiquity, exotic humanism, associated with the knowledge from the Orient and the Far East, and finally democratic humanism – this latter form where the anthropologist calls upon all human activities in society for his analyses. We should stress that these three kinds of humanism are linked to discoveries: in one case that of texts; in others that of cultures and the many ways they are expressed; and finally, that of all human phenomena as a subject of study (myth, oral communication, etc.). In each case, new fields of investigation have resulted both in methods and in the questioning of values associated with documents and cultural and scientific practices. As regard the first kind of humanism, we simply have to evoke the case of Valla and his philological demonstration[+] NoteLorenzo VALLA, La Donation de Constantin, Les Belles Lettres, 1993, (tr. J.-B. Giard).X [2] about the Donation de Constantin. In this case, thanks to philology, we can replace one concept with another, making it possible to produce a transformation of the very first order (a move from the apocryphal and the authentic towards the establishment of the truth of the terms on critical and objective bases). From the authenticity of a document to the truth of what it says, there is a huge gap. But we should not forget the diversity of the languages (Greek and Latin) which provided the essential comparative basis for the development of critical methods. Mastery of languages, knowledge of history and internal criticism weaken the authority of an institution as powerful as the Church. Exotic humanism - Eastern cultures - by fostering comparative studies, gave rise to new sciences and new disciplines (linguistics, etc.). The third kind of humanism - that of anthropologists - gave rise to, among other things, structural method.
 
These three kinds of humanism also correspond to political development: the first is aristocratic, because it is limited to a small number of privileged people; the second is bourgeois, because it ran alongside Western industrial development; and the third is democratic, because it does not exclude any people or cultures and importantly, no human phenomena or behaviours. So, the history of anthropology as a discipline is also the history of modern Western civilisation, with all its ambitions and tribulations. Anthropological humanism is universal because it draws upon all disciplines for its methodology, while working together reconciling man and nature. It is indeed this universal dimension that prompted me to put forward a fourth kind of humanism, digital humanism.
 
Digital humanism is the result of a hitherto non-experienced convergence between our complex cultural heritage and a technology that has produced a social sphere that has no precedent. This convergence, instead of simply forming a link between antiquity and now, has redistributed concepts, categories, and objects, as well as behaviours and associated practices, all in a new environment. Digital humanism is the affirmation that current technology, in its global dimension, is a culture, in that it creates a new context, on a global scale.  Digital humanism is the result of a hitherto non-experienced convergence between our complex cultural heritage and a technology that has produced a social sphere that has no precedent.  It is a culture, because the digital world, despite its having a large technical element that needs to be constantly questioned and monitored (because it is the agent of economic will), is becoming a civilisation that stands apart for the way in which it affects our view of objects, relationships and values, and which is characterised by the new possibilities that are being brought to the field of human activity. The digital world is a culture because it shows us that knowing how to live together and learning how to behave are integral parts of this emerging sociability, this hybrid sociability that forms the stage for bonds, bodies and mobility.
 
One single example would suffice: that of the status of the body in the digital environment. In this case, we should refer to the analyses of Marcel Mauss is his essay, “Les Techniques du corps”[+] NoteMarcel MAUSS, “Les Techniques du corps”, Journal de Psychologie, XXXII, 3-4, March-April 1936. The text reproduces a paper submitted to the Société de Psychologie in 1934. I will cite from the electronic edition available in the collection Les classiques des sciences sociales.X [3]. The works of Mauss shows that there is a link between the position of the body - that is to say the way in which the body is deployed in the social space - and the nature and the functioning of these cultural objects. In this context, we can say that digital culture is undergoing great change. Until now, it has been a sedentary culture, an office and chair culture, whereas now it is starting to turn into a mobile culture. This move from immobility to mobility appears to be taking place alongside the hybridisation of objects, of time and of space. From this we can deduce that cultural practices have also changed: gestures, writing, reading and communication. In the analysis by Mauss, technology plays an essential role, passing on a bodily technique, often prompting imitation and changing local culture depending on the existence and the accessibility of the technical tool. The familiarity and the uniformity of the practices and of the behaviours are in this case, at the core, identified in the relationships between the cultural specificities and the ability of the technique to transform them and to hybridise the cultures. We are no longer in a civilisation that is purely technical; we are also in the heart of a digital culture.
 
Lévi-Strauss speaks of the “totality of the inhabited earth” to identify the field of anthropology – an expression that evokes that which at one time seduced utopians and their avatars, “the known world”. As for his method, it can only reproduce this universalism: it “brings together all the processes that come from all forms of knowledge ...[+] NoteClaude LÉVI-STRAUSS, L’anthropologie face aux problèmes du monde, op. cit., p. 50X [4]”. Digital technology, however, modifies for the first time the actual notion of terrain and territory as well as that of living space. Virtual worlds, sharing, participatory activities, although they often call upon well-known dynamic processes, also bring forth a series of associated practices that are in fact the loci of changes regarding the identity and representations and its links both with genealogy (blood) and geography (earth). A question is therefore raised: what is the situation with the anthropology of this new inhabited earth, these new digital territories that are flexible, fluid and constantly moving? How should we think about them, analyse them, especially since geolocation and smart citiescannot be dissociated from our daily lives? Digital humanism attempts to provide answers to such changes.
 
Digital technology is certainly a Western product, but it is now a global reality. The models on which digital technology are based are all or almost all derived from Western experience: documents and the changes and values associated with them, the notion of an individual and that of identity, the concept of heritage and archives, visual representations of manipulations and their symbols (icons, etc.).  Digital technology is certainly a Western product, but it is now a global reality.  All these elements that have become the vulgate of our everyday experience, even the notion of simplified friendship that has been turned into an agent that is part of digital sociability, are products stemming from the technical exploitation of Western historical and socio-cultural categories. Given this context, how could we possibly think of changes to the digital environment from another perspective - along routes that are not just those of the West - and of its concepts and its categories? Even democratic practices appear to have been changed by digital technology, such as in the case of the Arab Spring (or at least its reception).
 
Nowadays, the village has become global, and means of communication have become universal. Digital technology is changing cities and villages; it is drawing up a new space that is shared between the real and the virtual. The hybrid space of digital culture constitutes a new way of creating society, with its myths, its new concepts and its utopias. Digital humanism is a way of envisaging this new reality.  Nowadays, the village has become global, and means of communication have become universal.  Lévi-Strauss already dealt with these changes in his own way when comparing the West and Japan. In the chapter entitled “Sengaï. L’art de s’accommoder au monde”, he remarks: “In today’s France, the only ones worthy of being referred to as calligraphers are the authors of inscriptions called “tags” (or graffiti), that can be read by those in the know on walls and carriages of the underground.” New authors, and new forms of calligraphy that are borne by changing signs and modes of interpretation. It is indeed this play-off between society and the individual that is today at the heart of digital humanism.
 
If we are looking for a philosophical take on this form of humanism, we have to reread in the current context, the text of Husserl announced in 1935 with the (English) title of “The crisis of European humanity and philosophy”. The argument of the “Krisis” is based on the issue of three forms of humanism: the founding form of humanism that is abstract and theoretical, and which stems from Greek knowledge and philosophy; theoretical humanism that is derived from the Renaissance and its savoir-faire; and finally, European humanism (but we should take this to mean Western), the form that pertains to the crisis of the first half of the 20th century. Husserl, however, in his own way, raises a fundamental issue, one that concerns us today, with regard to digital culture and its universal ambitions: the three forms of humanism evoked by Husserl identify the crisis as a divide that is growing between the so-called exact sciences and the sciences of the mind. In other words, the gap between the paradigms of precision and measurability and their forms of rationality, and cultural values.
 
The analyses of Husserl question the universality of scientific and technical rationality, and we should add, today, digital universality, reminding ourselves of the founding role of community in the production and sharing of knowledge. This explains his conclusion, referring the reader to the Greek Paideia, in the most simple, but most eloquent sense, and as far as we are concerned, the most relevant: passing on knowledge which theoretically removes a lack of knowledge: teaching as a collective form of responsibility that is an integral part of the actual structure of the polis; an education that prompts us to take a fresh look at the links between sciences and cultures and to consider what I have chosen to call digital humanism.
 
This conversion of our societies requires new skills and new forms of literacy. It is no longer enough to be able to read and write; rather we now need other forms of knowledge and teaching methodology - knowledge that stems from digital technology and its emerging criteria and its own points of reference.  Digital technology is a new way of creating memory and interpreting it.  It is indeed possible to see digital technology as another example of convergence between humanity and technology. In this case, we are not talking about the convergence referred to as a singularity and which expresses, through various discourses and transhumanist theories, a form of utopia of progress. Far from it. In this case, we are dealing with pragmatic and political thought: accepting changes brought about by digital technology and insisting on the inalienable link between our values and access to content are merely the first steps of the adventure we are embarking upon with this new technology that has become an integral part of our lives. Digital technology is a new way of creating memory and interpreting it. In this sense, we are forced to rethink our relationship with already formed memory, as well as thinking up new ways of keeping and using our purely digital creations. The stakes are very high, for we are living through a transitional period, during which managing this memory, our written records and our identities is blurred and undefined. The challenge we are faced with is to work together on the modalities of a new form of managing memory, identity and knowledge, and to instigate an ethical framework.
 
This ethical framework, it seems to me, remains to be invented, for it is located between two ethical models, as identified by Max Weber: that of political humans and that of the scientists. Two kinds of ethical model: one motivated by conviction; the other by responsibility. Authority and legitimacy conflicts, just like practices stemming from the code, encourage us to find a third way. Indeed, this is the job of digital humanism.

Translated from French by Peter Moss
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Photo credits:
Oksari Niitamo / Flickr
  • 1. Claude LÉVI-STRAUSS, L’anthropologie face aux problèmes du monde, Seuil, “La librairie du XXIe siècle”, 2011, p.42
  • 2. Lorenzo VALLA, La Donation de Constantin, Les Belles Lettres, 1993, (tr. J.-B. Giard).
  • 3. Marcel MAUSS, “Les Techniques du corps”, Journal de Psychologie, XXXII, 3-4, March-April 1936. The text reproduces a paper submitted to the Société de Psychologie in 1934. I will cite from the electronic edition available in the collection Les classiques des sciences sociales.
  • 4. Claude LÉVI-STRAUSS, L’anthropologie face aux problèmes du monde, op. cit., p. 50
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