Digital technologies and society, a major challenge for movements

, by  AGUITON Christophe


We are currently experiencing a "digitalisation of the world". That statement is both accurate, since it illuminates the major role digital technologies are increasingly playing in our lives and our activities, and false, in the sense that only the interfaces that connect us are digitalised, as well as our social relationships and the realities of the world, and the production processes in industries and in the service industry.

The digitisation of production processes has a very significant impact on employment and the organisation of work. The digitalisation of interfaces impacts most of our activities: communications, social relations, access to knowledge, scientific research, leisure activities, transportation, surveillance, setup and maintenance of most technical installations, etc... Such digitalisation deeply changes our relation to time and space, which we can all immediately experience in our ways of communicating, our access to knowledge and to information.

The rampant diffusion of digital technologies mirrors their extraordinary capacity for innovation. Such a quality can be traced back to the very generic character of their tools, starting with the material aspect, microprocessors and memories, and also the accumulation and simplification of software development, which the free software and the low entry costs of those developments and software applications hugely helped.

This extremely broad spectrum of digitally transformed domains opens up an almost infinite list of questions and issues. To the list of affected area, we need to add new issues that arose because of the exponential growth of data produced and stored and because of the importance of algorithms in applications and services. As it is impossible to tackle all those issues, we shall focus on some central points, including those that specifically affect movements.

Understanding the history and plasticity of digital technologies

Digital technologies, possibly more than others, demonstrate a plasticity that intimately ties their development to the evolution of society. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, computers made possible the rise of the banking sector in developed societies, and they also became central in administrations and large firms, while internalising the codes of Taylorism. In the 1970’s, American counter-culture, with its deep ties to the 1968 global movement, and the development of microprocessors, started a revolution in the IT world, with the creation and development of micro-computers and of the internet. Those directly clashed with the technologies of the prominent actors of the IT sector, IBM being the first of them, as well as of the telecommunication sector.

This historical note is important to understand the importance of today’s political struggles revolving around net neutrality as well as civil liberties.

Defending fundamental freedoms

The question of surveillance arose in as soon as computers were used to compile massive files, in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and with it, that of preserving civil liberties. Inspection agencies such as the French CNIL arose in that time period.

Such questions have gained new, burning relevance, in our current age of "big data", algorithms and AI.

Keeping a critical eye on the progress of artificial intelligence

Artificial intelligence, which was born in the 1960s, has seen a considerable growth in the past few years, thanks to "big data" resources and the introduction of new approaches (deep learning). A critical approach, supported by many a scientist, is now essential in the face of such developments.

Developing production and access to knowledge and information

The growth of free collaborative tools, from free software to Wikipedia and Openstreetmap, has been exponential over the course of the past few years. We should pay closer attention to two main threads: how can we support their development, and, more broadly, how do digital technologies contribute to transforming the human ability to grasp information?

Turning the "shared knowledge and immaterial goods" into a stepping stone for emancipation

The development of the "common" is an alternative to capitalism as much as to statism. The digital sector has seen the emergence of a new generation of shared goods, namely wisdom and knowledge. Those shared goods show new characteristics: they are global for the most part, are managed by original "models of governance", and they offer, in most cases, free access to their production. Such characteristics beg to be studied in order to understand their inner workings as well as the issues their raise, but also in order to interrogate their potential application to other fields.

An immateriality that relies on material elements

Digital technologies are immaterial, of course, but they nonetheless cannot thrive without a very material base: metals, rare soil, plastics, energy resources,... all of them constitute the ground that data centres, computers and smartphones grow out of. And the manufacturing of these tools is now inseparable from the massive exploitation of millions of workers who often have to endure extreme living conditions. It is not an option to shirk such questions if we want to conceive of a world that has rid itself of the exploitation of man by man and embraced the idea that it is not infinite.

The digital sector and the new face of sociability

A mass democratisation of content production lies at the heart of digital social network. The issue of platforms, as well as the questions of ownership and algorithms that are tied to them, must be discussed.

Digital technologies, jobs and employment, surveillance, exploitation and emancipation

The organisation of labour and the structure of jobs have been turned upside down by digital technologies.

The introduction of AI poses a threat to new work sectors, often qualified jobs. And the introduction of digital technologies in companies comes hand in hand with a generalisation of "project-based" work and a truncated chain of command. It also allows for a generalisation of the control of the employees’ work, especially when it comes to service platforms and shift work. What is at stake, then, is to find out how we can fight those new forms of exploitation and how we can use digital technologies to foster new spaces of freedom and fight for emancipation.

Digital technologies and the transformation of activism

New forms of activist engagement, often intermittent and without the mediation of sustainable organizations, are inseparable from digital technologies, which facilitate content production by any participant, while also fostering contact between the participants. The construction of a collective memory or the existence of intergenerational relationships are some of the questions that these new forms of engagement fail to resolve.