technological change

Technological change and public action - 2

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Public action is struggling to take into account the potential consequences of the technological changes under way on individual freedoms, but also on equality, sovereignty and even the future of mankind, as illustrated by the following examples the previous article in the health field. What are the possible solutions?
Part II: what solutions?

Political space versus technology

Aublic power is diminishing as States lose their monopoly on data access and regulation and as their financial and technical capacities are being challenged or even surpassed by those of private actors. The social and political reaction is all the more complex to define and more demanding as technological "promises" abound, formulated by actors with different statuses and ambitions.
 
The technicalization of the world was described by Heidegger in his speech Serenity in 1955: "In all spheres of life, man will find himself more and more closely surrounded by the forces of technical devices and automatons. ...] What is really worrying here, however, is not that the world is becoming completely technical. What is much more worrying is that man is not prepared for this transformation, that we are not yet able to explain to ourselves in a meaningful way, by means of meditative thought, what, properly, in our time, is emerging in our eyes. ... No purely human organization is in a position to take over the government of our time.[1].
 
We do not follow Heidegger in this last conclusion, which is too radical, nor on the surprising link with "the rootedness of human works in a native land." which he then evokes. On the other hand, we think that the objects that "emerging in our eyes" deserve that "we explained ourselves validly, by the means of meditative thought." is applicable to the present context of "NBIC" technologies. As in the age of the atomic bomb that marked Heidegger, society is struck by a form of political impotence in the face of accelerating technical developments. In the age of the bomb, it was the fear of the nuclear apocalypse that threatened the concern for the future, and thus the political space. Today, it is an ideology that seeks to "defeat death" and simplify life. But are these two forms of threat to political space with diametrically opposed roots, fear of destruction and fantasy of eternity, so different?
 
In a world where companies decide on decisive developments for society and where States no longer have the means, or even the right, to assert the general interest, the democratic space is simply deserted. This issue is much more serious and complex than the protection of personal data.[2]. And the task at hand is even harder than that of restoring political interest or will: it is to restore the ability even to act in a political space.
 
However, it would be both unrealistic and worse than evil to conclude that states should "regain control" by nationalizing or censoring the companies behind these changes. As already noted in the recent dispute between Apple and the FBI, increased government control is also unlikely to have much legitimacy. As for the judiciary, it lacks competence and resources, is sometimes powerless in an international context, and can only intervene in the following areas in hindsight.
 
Another pitfall, just as terrible, is the capture of public space by militant protest. Indeed, when issues related to technological change manage to be addressed in the public space, it is all too often in the form of spectacular staging and ideological opposition (or defence) that condemns any constructive political approach.
 
Again, let's mention Serenity from Heidegger: "It would be foolish to attack the technical world with our heads down, and it would be short-sighted to condemn this world as the work of the devil. We are dependent on the objects that technology provides us with and which, so to speak, challenge us to perfect them constantly. However, our attachment to technical things is now so strong that we have unwittingly become their slaves. But we can do things differently. We can use technical things, use them normally, but at the same time free ourselves from them, so that at all times we keep our distance from them. We can make use of technical things the way they should be used. At the same time we can leave them to themselves as not reaching us in the most intimate and cleanest way. We can say "yes" to the inevitable use of technical objects and at the same time we can say "no" to it, in the sense that we prevent them from monopolizing us and thus distorting, blurring and ultimately emptying our being"..
 
For this to happen, our expectations of political power must be rethought. In order for innovations that structure society to be objects of collective thought and choice rather than objects of consumption multiplied without reason before the market decides, politicians must make this collective choice possible, and allow, ultimatelyIt is up to citizens to set limits and influence their own destiny.

Articulating science, philosophy and politics

First of all, there is a need to rethink and clarify the role of scientists, intellectuals and politicians.
 
As Ulrich Beck wrote thirty years ago, " if one wants to obtain the material and institutional conditions necessary to afford the "luxury of doubt" (baptized "fundamental research"), one must be able to assert one's claims to knowledge on the market, against professional and secular groups "[3]. Science helps us to define the field of possibilities, to study the nuances of the world as it surrounds us and as we shape it, establishing and making available the necessary knowledge. Their ambition must, however, remain modest. "Their purpose is not to open the door to infinite wisdom, but to close the door to infinite error" recalled Bertolt Brecht in The life of Galileo.
 
Scientific knowledge enables problems to be posed in a rigorous manner, it is necessary for any informed choice, it can (or must) lead to alerts, but it must not take the place of political discourse: thus, when the academies of sciences of the G7 countries and partner countries propose to governments to "promote brain modeling and artificial intelligence." andThe aim of the project is to "integrate neurosciences with the social and behavioural sciences to improve education and lifestyles".even if it would be "while engaging in a dialogue on ethics."[4]s, they are making, in the service of an undoubtedly legitimate goal (the improvement of education and lifestyles), a partisan proposal (the promotion of a type of solution) that is not science.
Avoiding the "confusion of arenas" (political and scientific) is a necessity for the proper functioning of public debate, as illustrated by the excesses of the "debates" on climate change. For scientists, taking a minimum distance from the political arena is even a condition for the exercise of academic freedom. However, while refraining from intervening in defence of political proposals, scientists have a responsibility to provide the greatest possible number of people with the available knowledge, but also to provide nuances and identify the risks and collateral effects of techniques. "I hope that in the future you will consider time and substance as much as method and technique"wrote Jonathan Swift[5].
 
One could argue that the ideal of the Enlightenment ofachievement of equality through access to knowledge has perhaps been overtaken by the progress of technology: indeed, if progress in science and technology was then seen as a means of "freeing" humanity from material constraints to make it more autonomous and enable it to attain a higher humanity, it may on the contrary nowadays represent an obstacle to this achievement. This ideal comes up against the proliferation of innovations, the proclaimed or sincere benevolence of their promoters, the belief in their beneficial effects for the economy, the efficiency of the services they enable, the attractions of the proliferation of interactions and exchanges, in short, blind "technoprogressism". In order to revive this ideal, it is also necessary to defend the idea that culture is an obstacle to pre-existing equality, and to bring together philosophy, literature and all the moral sciences, which are also necessary to grasp technological change and understand its potential consequences, particularly on freedom and equality.

An extended political ecology

Politicians exercise their legitimacy on a different terrain from scientists and intellectuals, not that of knowledge, but that of uses.
 
Faced with the lack of a solution offered in the existing institutional structures[6]In the field of health, it seems necessary to invent new ways of taking societal and institutional responsibility for the use of technologies, such as those illustrated above in the field of health. These modalities will have to manage numerous contradictions: between the precautionary principle and patients' wishes, between extending life expectancy and equal access to treatment, between aspiration to efficiency and freedom, etc.
 
 
For this, we can call for a political ecology "extended" to areas other than environmental protection, to accompany the evolution of science and technology and provide a counterweight to a dynamic of autonomous "progress". Indeed, political ecology in the usual sense aims at a better integration of man in the environment to avoid the disruption of the latter. Hannah Arendt already invited us to think of the excesses of the technical world as a deregulated metabolism. The developments described above may lead to fears of a disruption not of the environment but of certain balances in society (such as that of the health system), and of health, and even of the human species itself, under the effect of technologies coupled with the massification of data and political fragility.
 
In a certain sense, such a policy would run counter to a so-called dynamic of progress, and would therefore be qualified as "conservative". Transhumanists or technoprogressists are often themselves opposed to "bioconservatives". But this is an approach of conservation of development potential and complexity. It would be more appropriate to talk about a policy of preserving what is possible.
 
It would be useful to reflect on ways of adapting the institutional framework to allow for a prioritisation of the long term in public action and to undertake a policy of preserving what is possible. Bruno Latour suggested an evolution of institutions around the powers of "taking into account", "ordering" and "monitoring", the latter being provided by the State, and cycles of "perplexity", "consultation", "hierarchy" and "institution".[7]. Bruno Latour reminds us that the objects we need to consider are fundamentally hybrid objects, neither natural nor cultural. Therefore, relying on the "laws of nature" makes no more sense than relying on the laws of the market, and a new "Constitution" must be adopted to enable us to sort out these "quasi-objects".[8]. The above-mentioned technologies in the health field are fully relevant to this analysis."Freedom is redefined as the ability to sort through combinations of hybrids [...]. The production of hybrids, by becoming explicit and collective, becomes the object of an enlarged democracy that regulates or slows down the pace.[9].

How about right now?

In the absence of institutional reform and in the current context in France, the administration must strive to coordinate initiatives aimed at better defining the uses of technologies and encourage the inclusion of emerging technologies in public action.
 
In its 2011 annual report, the Council of State proposed a change from an advisory administration to a "deliberative administration". However, too frequent recourse is made to regulatory developments in small steps, too categorical, which are difficult to articulate, are constantly lagging behind technological developments and case law and present a strong risk of formal drift or capture by lobbies. The administration suffers a loss of sense of its historical missions, and the "good faith" search for improvement is very difficult. The question may arise as to who is best placed between the executive and legislative branches to carry out work in this direction. The Parliamentary Office for the Evaluation of Scientific and Technological Choices would have a strong legitimacy for this, but it would have to rely on a structure for animation and evaluation fed by the work coming from administrations, the academic world and civil society. Some independent authorities also have assets to convey messages that are free from the short time frame and partisan barriers of politics: the CNDP to promote public debate, the CCNE to feed and disseminate ethical questions, etc. The CNDP is the only body in France that has the power to make decisions on scientific and technological choices.[10]They are, however, facing the same difficulties as politicians in getting these messages heard (communication driven by events, leaving little room for complexity), and have no mandate or political weight.
 
Strengthened collaboration between teams with expertise in data processing, computer security, statistics, and areas such as health, transport or education, could help build a vision of the big data oriented towards the general interest and appropriate regulation. This implies in particular the development of appropriate higher education courses. In his essay What algorithms dream ofDominique Cardon explains and categorizes the risks involved in abandoning certain decisions to algorithms, and concludes that it is necessary to make these algorithms readable and criticizable, and to make them objects of questioning, contestation and regulation.[11]. This is in line with some of the proposals made in the 2014 annual study of the Council of State to promote the right to education."informational self-determination"The Commission also proposes to require platforms to provide information on ranking and referencing criteria and to require the authors of decisions based on algorithms to provide information on the data used and the reasoning followed, or to set up controls on algorithms and price differentiation based on the use of personal data.[12]. In addition to algorithms alone, it is necessary to set up systems for evaluating tools and systems and highlighting the consequences of their use.
 
Reinforcing the prevention of conflicts of interest, competition control and tax regulation of companies collecting, processing and using data, prohibiting certain discriminatory uses of health data, in particular by insurers, and creating non-profit structures hosted in Europe are other avenues of action that could easily be implemented in the current context. In the field of living matter, the non-patentability and reversibility of transformations of living matter could be among the practical "sorting" criteria to be retained.
 
Above all, simple guarantees must be given. As Jean-Claude Ameisen reminds us, "The process of "free and informed choice" is at the heart of the biomedical ethical approach. It is also essential to democratic life"[13]. The guarantee of a free and informed choice as regards the use of technologies, informed both of the technical conditions and of the possible social or political consequences, free because it is nuanced; the right not to have to measure or share everything; the right to listen to the silent and the abstainers of the digital world, must take precedence over research at all costs of innovation and simplification.
 
All this would of course benefit from being thought out and developed at European level. Building an alternative vision of progress (technical and social), a more humane and fairer model for the use of technology, setting up democratic institutions capable of managing long-term problems and serving this vision of progress, would perhaps be a challenge commensurate with the need to recreate a common adventure in Europe.
 
Ambroise Pascal, Bridges, Water and Forestry Engineer - Currently working at the Nuclear Safety Authority
The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of the author.
 
 
[1]Discourse taken up in Questions III and IV, Collection Tel (No. 172), Gallimard, 1990.
[2]In a brief essay in reaction to an episode in the American news, the American writer Jonathan Franzen has rejected the warnings of those concerned about the disappearance of private life, which has instead invaded the public space, whose survival is threatened: Imperial Bedroom, 1998 (in How to be Alone, Picador, 2003).

[3]The risk society. Sur la voie d'une autre modernité, Champs essais, 1986 (p. 357).

[4]The three global challenges recognized by the G7 Academies of Science, Up' magazine, April 25, 2017 (link).

[5]Jonathan Swift, A complete and truthful account of the battle that took place last Friday between ancient and modern books in the Saint-James Library, Les Belles Lettres, 1993.

[6]Initiatives such as the reflection on Big Data for Health launched by the government in September 2015 and the associated public consultation on http://www.faire-simple.gouv.fr/bigdatasante), or the one on the preparation of the Digital Republic Bill (https://www.republique-numerique.fr), but they remain insufficient to create real political and media ownership.

[7]Bruno Latour, Politics of Nature. Comment faire entrer les sciences en démocratie, La Découverte, 1999.

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[8]Bruno Latour, we were never modern. Essai d'anthropologie symétrique, La Découverte, 1991.

[9]Bruno Latour, Nous n'avons jamais été modernes..., op. cit. (p. 193).

[10]As well as the many other ethical reflection bodies: INSERM's ethics committee, COERLE (INRIA's operational committee for the evaluation of legal and ethical risks), CERNA (the Allistene research alliance's commission for reflection on the ethics of research in digital sciences and technologies), etc.

[11]Dominique Cardon, What do algorithms dream of? Nos vies à l'heure des big data, Seuil, La République des idées, 2015.

[12]Council of State, Le numérique et les droits fondamentaux, annual study, La documentation Française, September 2014. The proposals cited here are numbers 1, 6, 24, 25 and 27.

[13]Ethics: everyone must have the elements for a free and informed choice, La Recherche, n°473, February 2013 (link).
 
 

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