Bernard Stiegler

Bernard Stiegler launches a disruptive project in Seine Saint-Denis: to make it a "contributory learner" territory


A young and economically very dynamic territory but confronted with mass unemployment and the challenges of social and cultural mix. It is here that, at the request of Patrick Braouezec, the president of Plaine Commune, the philosopher Bernard Stiegler initiated a novel and ambitious experimental project: to make this community of conurbations - which brings together nine towns in Seine-Saint-Denis - a "contributive learning territory". Contributory "research-action" projects will be carried out there, i.e. including the inhabitants; in the long term, the aim will be to set up a contributory income to share wealth differently at a time when automation is causing job vacancies. In November 2016, the first researchers returned to work under a contributory research chair created within the Maison des Sciences de l'Homme. (MSH-Paris Nord). Our partner The Conversation France met with the philosopher to find out more about this initiative, where new ways of researching and reflecting on what the work will be tomorrow will dialogue.

What is the objective of this project?

It is a question of inventing a "French-style disruption" and ensuring that the territory of Common Plainwhich is far from being at an advantage, but which shows a striking dynamism, becomes a laboratory, a school, a place of avant-garde, in particular to appropriate what is called the smart cities ("smart cities") - but not to become a smart city as it is defined today, and which seems to us to be unbearable, unacceptable and undoubtedly insolvent. It is a question of installing a real urban intelligence.

We are launching a process of territorial experimentation with a view to encouraging and supporting genuine social innovation, opening the way to a new macro-economy in which industrialists, financiers, universities, artists, administrations and local politicians work together, and with the inhabitants, on this indispensable political and economic reinvention. The long-term objective is to configure an economy based on "contributory income", and which is based in particular on the principle of a gradual extension of the regime of intermittent entertainment workers to other activities.

When did this project take shape?

In December 2013, following the symposium "The New Age of Automation" which was held at the Centre Pompidou and focused on the effects of digital technology in the development of the data economy. On this subject, I have had discussions with industrialists and the president of Plaine Commune, Patrick Braouezec we take the analyses ofOxford and the MIT which predict a collapse in employment as 47 % of current jobs in the United States would be automatable, 50 % in France, etc. - the firm Rolland Berger anticipating three million job losses within ten years. Something must be done.

The minimum living wage alone is not a solution. If we are serious about automation and the disappearance of jobs, we need to develop new production processes and new criteria for the redistribution of wealth.

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Ten trades that will be replaced by robots (WatchMojo, 2016).


Why do you think the distinction between work and employment is essential?

The fact that automatable employment is disappearing is to be welcomed: this type of employment consists of applying procedures prescribed by systems that mechanically control employees. Work is increasingly being done outside the workplace. The pianist works on his scales just as the mathematician works on his math: out of work... In other words, to work is first of all to increase one's abilities - and these abilities are what can bring to the world a richness that is not yet there.

We borrow the notion of capacity from theIndian economist Amartya Sen. It showed that in Bangladesh, human development indicators and life expectancy were higher than those of the people of Harlem, even during a period of famine. Amartya Senwho is interested in communities, not just individuals, has shown how these communities maintain what he calls "capabilities".

Capability is knowledge - a skill as well as a know-how or intellectual knowledge. Many people in Harlem have lost this because they are caught up in a process of proletarianization by production or consumption patterns. In the XXᵉ century, the know-how of the worker disappears and then it is the turn of the consumer's know-how, who starts to adopt behaviours prefabricated by marketing firms. And, in the end, Alan Greenspan himself before the US Congressional Budget Committee that he has lost his economic knowledge !

Why Seine-Saint-Denis?

First of all, there is the marked interest of Patrick Braouezec, the president of Plaine Commune, and this for more than ten years, for the work we carry out within the framework of the "Plaine Commune".Institute for Research and Innovation and theArs Industrialis Association over which I preside. There is also the extraordinary economic dynamism of this territory, particularly in the south of the department with this very strong urban dynamic. around the Stade de Francea project started 20 years ago.

The northern suburbs are also two universities, Paris 8 and Paris 13, with often excellent teams, the Condorcet campus which will concentrate a number of researchers and higher schools in social sciences, such as EHESS, and it is also an urban space where many artists settle. Finally, it is an area that absolutely must find solutions to deal with mass unemployment. If we extrapolate the figures from thestudy by Roland BergerIn the next ten years, unemployment among the under-25s is expected to rise from 38 % two years ago to a staggering 38 % in the next ten years. The consequences for Plaine Commune are likely to be unbearable.

There is therefore an imperative need to open up new perspectives in order to solvabilise a development that might otherwise become apocalyptic. The nation has a duty to accompany this evolution. We believe that this potential for transformation must produce exemplarity, the aim not being to develop a "local" economy here.

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Le 6b, 7,000 m² of artistic and cultural creation and dissemination in Saint-Denis. Facebook 6b account

How will the research component of the project be organized?

We have identified a series of objectives with the elected officials and administrative staff of Plaine Commune. We have started a survey with a number of major players who have validated the approach and we are currently launching a contributory research chair whose first mission will be to produce a file to define the project's experimental perimeter, in close collaboration with Plaine Commune.

In this context, we have launched a call for theses around a dozen themes, which closed on 30 September 2016. Initially, we had to select between 10 and 20 PhD students. The budgets allocated to us in 2016 by the Ministry of Research and Higher Education did not allow us to hire PhD students this year. We therefore recruited five researchers - in economics, political science, sociology, philosophy and educational science - on one-year contracts to start the work and set up the methods of contributory research, which represents a whole series of constraints. Another researcher has been retained in psychoanalysis, which is self-funded.

First of all, they will have to become capable of explaining the subject of their work to the inhabitants of Plaine Commune, whether or not they have a command of French. We will of course help them by mobilising actors, video artists, artists, the media... But they will have to make an effort to explain, even if their subject is theoretical. They will attend two seminars a week: one that I will lead and another that they will lead themselves, presenting their work to each other and inviting researchers or contributors. They will work together, sharing their notes and results, first among themselves and then with the local people.

A concrete example?

In social housing renovation operations, for example, a contributory economy of the building could be put in place in the service of "negentropic" housing - as opposed to entropic - which is also a building site for the qualification of the inhabitants, as the architect Patrick Bouchain was able to do. Here it is the inhabitants who innovate and produce sustainable value for themselves and for the city.

More generally, what is the place of the inhabitants in this system?

For this project, which is giving itself ten years to change things in depth, we hope to succeed in involving the 400,000 inhabitants of Plaine Commune in this contributory research approach; this will start on a small scale and extend to what could be called a contributory democracy. The programme is transdisciplinary, as all fields must be explored, such as sport, for example. Here, the Stade de France is a must and sport has been very profoundly transformed by digital technology in recent years. If you talk to the young people of Seine-Saint-Denis without being able to say anything about football, you won't get very far - all the more so as there is the prospect of the 2024 Olympic Games.

Why put digital at the heart of the project?

Because digital technology is changing all knowledge, and because knowledge is the key to the future. In 2008, Vincent Peillon, then Minister of Education, asked me to lead a group on the introduction of digital technology in schools; I had then somewhat disappointed his cabinet by declaring: "Digital technology in schools is dangerous". In fact, I resigned rather quickly. I work on these issues with Maryanne Wolfan American neuropsychologist. She carries out precise analyses based on medical imaging, and some of her conclusions are rather worrying.

I'm not saying we don't need digital in school, but I'm saying we need to introduce it knowingly. I have continued to support this point of view, particularly at the National Research Agency where I sat for a few years; I had thus proposed to develop doctoral research in all fields to see what digital technology "does" to disciplines. For it is not simply a new means of teaching or transmitting knowledge; it is first of all a means of producing knowledge, scientific objects. Take nano-objects, for example, which are now entirely produced digitally; biology and astrophysics also use digital technology and, in mathematics, the conditions for demonstration are modified.

Digital technology is a scientific revolution on which nobody is working, because all the credits are put on innovation to develop the software and interfaces of tomorrow... In 2008, I had also told one of Vincent Peillon's advisers that we should adopt a rational approach to digital technology and study it. He replied that I reasoned like an "intellectual" and that I needed quick results. I had suggested that we could make progress through contributory research. In other words, bringing digital technology into the school by introducing research at the same time. Finland is always mentioned, but all teachers in this country are obliged to do research - and this is probably not for nothing in the quality of the results in this country. This is what I call contributory research, which, moreover, goes beyond the teaching profession and concerns the entire population.

Maryanne Wolf on Attention in the Digital Age (CASBS, 2015).

So what does digital research "do"?

Digital technology is transforming all scientific activities, as observational instruments have been doing since the XVIᵉ century through what Bachelard called the phenomenotechniques. But unlike previous scientific technologies, digital technology also changes life skills and know-how, i.e. daily life and social relations as well as language skills, for example: scientific objects are changed.

Moreover, we are in a period of extremely rapid technological change; if we follow the normal channels of scientific deliberation, we are always too late. This is the "disruption".

In the face of disruption, social systems and the people who make them up must seize technological development to become prescribers and practitioners, not just consumers - and sometimes victims, as the social system is bypassed, and in so doing destroyed, by the technical system. To this end, it is necessary to "simultaneous engineering" Thirty years ago, Renault and Volvo introduced such methods to speed up technology transfer by making people work in parallel and not sequentially; today it has become what is known as "agile development". I have been doing this for a long time, particularly with engineers. For Plaine Commune, the idea is to elaborate - with all the different actors of the territory at the same time, including industrialists - a debate, theoretical hypotheses, scientific control require, and using the method of action research.

What do you mean by action research?

It is a method developed in the United States in the 1940s by Kurt Lewin who used it in psychosociology; for him, when working with "subjects", to use the vocabulary of psychologists, people must themselves become researchers, because they are precisely subjects and not objects.

This method was then used in management, which is why it is very much criticized by the left and Marxists who see it as a method of integration and, finally, manipulation. Norway in particular has been very advanced in transforming its industrial production tools. Action research has also been used in the field of psychiatry, such as in the Tavistock Institute from London.

The work of François TosquellesThis refugee from the Spanish War who transformed a neglected psychiatric hospital in Lozere into a place that became experimental, by accident, as it were. Totally abandoned by the Vichy government in the 1940s, this hospital, like many others, had to deal with a dire situation with starving patients; Tosquelles then totally reversed the situation by committing its patients to take over this state of affairs in order to make the hospital the object of care. The institution became the patient to be cared for. This was the beginning of a revolution, in which Georges Canguilhem, among others, took part. At the Clinique de la BordeFélix Guattari will continue along this path with Jean Oury.

What place for industrialists in Plaine Commune?

Orange and Dassault Systèmes actively support us. Orange is indeed seeking to develop territorial platforms and the associated local services, and we say with the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) that a new kind of web must emerge, one that cannot be transformed into a data economy. A contributory tool for people, not people serving the platform!

At Dassault Systèmes, whose engineering communities are already working in contributory mode, there is a very strong interest in the research and experiments we are conducting around note sharing. They are also very sensitive to the problems of the contributory economy.

What will these new contributory tools consist of?

For note-taking, for example, it is a system capable of making contributory recommendations - allowing, through the algorithmic analysis of annotations, to recommend the work of other researchers, on various criteria, in order to highlight convergences and divergences and thus activate the critical dynamics that make science. It is a kind of computer-assisted Socratic dialogue. When you have 24 students, it is the teacher who does this; but it is impossible with thousands of people.

The goal is as well to develop new types of social networks that are built around a controversy or a common goal. This would make it possible to connect not individuals with each other but groups that reconstitute the social bond. Today, social networks are antisocial; but this is not inevitable.

So it's all about re-creating the link...

There's a big debate going on in California right now about the big data and correlationist mathematics, whose advances make some people say that we will soon be able to do without theory: thanks to correlations, theoretical elaboration would become secondary, claims in particular Chris Anderson. I am vehemently opposed to this delusional speech - but which is the basis of the data economy. And I reviewed it in The Automatic Company.

Contributory digital technologies should not be used to bypass the decision of individuals and groups, but to argue and consolidate decisions. The first time I thought about what a "trully smart city"it was in the tiny town of Loos-en-Gohelle with Jean-François CaronThe mayor, who set up a system of flow sensors - for traffic, temperature and consumption - some ten years ago, which do not trigger automated regulations managed by algorithms, but which call meetings of residents and associations.

What difference do you make between contributory and collaborative?

A big difference. Collaborative is what develops free use; it's the logic of platforms such as Uber, Amazon or Airbnb where, gradually, under the pretext of sharing data, you create short circuits, you disintermediate, you completely deregulate and you become a predator because you've captured all the data produced by everyone and you control it all in an occult way. It's a negative contributivity; these platforms that don't redistribute anything - neither money nor symbols - proletarianize and desymbolize. This is also a criticism that can be levelled at Google. I think here to the work of Frédéric Kaplan which showed that Google's algorithmic exploitation of the language tends to lead to a standardization of the language producing entropy.

A negative contributory economy is one that further aggravates the entropy of consumerism. A lot of people in the collaborative and sharing economy are doing very nice things. But the collaborative economy is not yet qualified at the macro level: it is only thought of at the firm level, at the micro level, and the problem is that it doesn't take into account the issue of positive and negative externalities at all. As a result, it leads to the opposite of what it makes you dream about.

It is in order to bring these issues to the macroeconomic level that we at Plaine Commune have the ambition to contribute to the invention of a new national chart of accounts, obviously with other territories. The aim is not to make the local economy, but the localized, externalizable and deterritorializable economy. In short, it is not a question of putting borders - but, on the other hand, of putting limits: limits to the Entropocene that is theAnthropoceneand for a negentropic economy for a Neguanthropocene.

Jennifer GalléHead of Environment and Energy, The Conversation

The original text of this article was published on The Conversation.


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