Bernard Stiegler, director of IRI (Innovation and Research Institute) at the Georges Pompidou Center, and www2012 keynote speaker

Bernard Stiegler Bernard Stiegler, is a director of IRI (Innovation and Research Institute) at the Georges Pompidou Center in Paris, a Professorial Fellow at the Centre for Cultural Studies at Goldsmith College in London and a professor at the University of Technology of Compiègne where he teaches philosophy.

The Web and you, what’s the story ?

I started working on the Web as such around 1994, when the Nord-Pas-de-Calais French region and the European Commission asked me to write a report on the information society. However, one could say that my interest for Web issues started before the Web itself: in 1989, with Alain Giffard, we created a working group devoted to the challenges of digital reading and collaborative annotations within an association which prefigured what was to become the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (French National Library). The goal was then to build a network of annotators’ communities connected through workstations we called Computer Aided Reading Stations (SGML based as Web standards did not exist at the time). This project gave me the opportunity to think practically and theoretically on what we call today Social Web and Semantic Web, i.e. a collaborative indexation in one hand, and bots assisting the readers on the other hand. Unfortunate political changes stopped these promising early works.

Later, I worked on these issues from the audio-visual point of view, when I joined the direction of INA (Audio-visual National Institute) in 1996: I oriented the research department towards signal processing and analysis – and I went on to pursue similar goals at IRCAM in the field of sound.

For the past 5 years now, I have been the Director of the Institut de Recherche et d’Innovation of the Centre Pompidou, where we try to study these questions, in permanent collaboration with the LIRIS, especially cinema, or (more broadly) temporal objects: we think that metadata, be they produced by algorithms or by human individual annotations within collaborative communities, are more and more connected to temporal threads, either because of mobility or the growing image-based access to databases.

In the Web context, there are more and more temporal objects and hypertextual links threaded with audio recordings, films, or even slides sequences ;,hence we think that situating metadata in time is paramount, just as space is essential for an analytic representation of temporal objects.

In short, this is my personal relation to the web.

In your mind, what are the sociological impacts of the web ?

The impact of the Web is not only sociological but economical, political, existential, psychological, epistemological: it is total. The Web radically modifies public and private spaces and times – and deeply alters public-private relationships. This technological framework became a new public space and a new public time – with the growing danger to be privatized. This means that the question is first and foremost political: within the Web a new process of psychic and collective individuation is appearing, according to the concept of Gilbert Simondon, who shows that an individual always psychically evolves through a social relation, i.e. collectively: the individual’s psychic transformation is never only psychic, and the relationship between psychic individuation and collective individuation works always through technical mediations – i.e. through artificial memory’s artefacts, from shaped flints to the Web, and beyond.

The Web has become the trans-individuation space, i.e. the articulation between psychic individuation and collective individuation, and the site of fights to control the latter. The Web is the last stage of a process which started with the “upper paleolithic”: the grammatization process, which allows the discretization of behaviours, gestures, talks, flows and moves of any kind and which consists in a spatialization of time. Spatialization allows to interact with this time, on a representation of this time, and to achieve what we call reflexivity.

Why is www2012 conference so important ?

The Web is the last stage of a process that works on a planetary scale and grows at an incredible speed. It operates in an industrial context that is the one of the economy of memory that the “Moore law” was to make possible.

A challenge for www2012 is to understand what the various Web communities – theoretical, technological, practical, cultural, of citizenship, etc. – will meet for in a global context of economical, political, moral and even esthetical and existential crisis (also between generations). This is a context where the Web and its related technologies can obviously as much provide alternative solutions to “escape the crisis” (crisis of an industrial model becoming out of age) as increase risks of control and aggravate antagonisms.

The Web meta-intelligence which shapes up within communities whom W3C is the main representative has to assume the “pharmacological” property of grammatization, in particular in this Web era, as recently pointed out by Nicholas Carr. To do that, I believe the theoretical debate has to overcome a critical threshold.

To what extent can the web contribute to an escape from the current dead-end? According to myself and the association Ars Industrialis, the Web should be the framework for an industrial model change. The question is to determine if the Web can serve what we called a deproletarianization process, in other words, a process whereby knowledge is restored – our analysis states that the technological developments of the 20th century lead to knowledge destruction through intensive automation and dispossession of human beings as producers and consumers as well as designers and deciders. This is evidenced through the financial crisis itself and pointed by more and more economists.

The question is then to know if the digital space, of which the Web is the basic framework, will lead to a new bootstrapping of the individuation processes, that is, will allow to build knowledge communities able to organize themselves with the help of the Web, in a relevant way and for their own development, or if a dispossession will increase by diverting what the Web produces for the sole profit of actors with a short term and self-destructive vision who monopolize all benefits for themselves.

There is no escape from the economical crisis without extending the movement of deproletarianization that is already underway on the Web – as an economy of the contribution.

As a www2012 keynote, what topics will you address ?

My talk will try to identify the stakes behind what we at IRI call the digital studies. We claim – and we organized a meeting in Barcelona around this hypothesis with CCCB, Barcelona Universities and Microsoft – that the new dynamics of knowledge needs henceforth that Web issues be questioned, practiced, theorizied and critically problematized (I here take the word “critical” as Emmanuel Kant used it). I will try to demonstrate that, as with the Bologna University during the 11th century, then with the Renaissance era, then with the Enlightment and Kant’s question in Le conflit des facultés, we are living a significant organological change – i.e. : knowledge instruments are changing and these instruments are not just means but rather shape an epistemic environment, an episteme, as Michel Foucault used to say.

The organology conditions the whole life of the mind, which does not mean that it determines it – and with the Web we live through an radically new stage of the life of the mind, whereby the whole question of knowledge is raised anew. Digital technologies permeate all domains – quantum mechanics with the scanning tunnelling microscopes, genetic engineering with biostations, linguistics with computational linguistics within the context of what lately Frederic Kaplan astutely dubbed linguistic capitalism, geography with geographical information systems the general public knows through GPS technologies, finance of course, etc. – and this raises tremendous problems. Say nothing of what one usually calls digital humanities, i.e. anything that digital technologies bring to Human and Social Sciences.

Beyond all this, there is one fundamental issue, which will be the horizon of my talk: contributory research.

(1) Organology here means the study of technical organs in their dynamic relation to psychosomatic organs and social organs.