Humanity and the Digital Revolution – Michel Serres at USI

Michel Serres is the author of the well known book The Parasite, in which he uses the model of the parasite/host to draw a link to the ways in which humans can influence public discourse — as a metaphor for human relations. He was invited to Unexpected Sources of Inspiration (USI) to discuss how humanity has changed as a result of the digital revolution.

He begins with a discussion of the word ‘humanely’ which has two definitions in French: an ethical, moral (i.e., dealing with someone humanely) or an anthropological one, which is the definition he takes up in discussing the ‘man’ of today. I found this discussion relevant for my work because it gives substance to the notion that digital technologies are impacting our very being in ways we can’t yet trace. He terms this a ‘transitory period of crisis’ although I don’t think he uses the word crisis to allude to a morality, but rather to an entrenchment in a change — in a newness — which we are not yet able to make sense out of. What do we mean by the word new? Serres provides a quantitative definition of new as being “proportional to the time length that this event is stopping.”  So his argument is that ‘man’ is changing. Here are his supporting points:

1. We are no longer a farming humanity: At the beginning of the last century, farming in Paris comprised a little over 70% of the population, whereas today it is difficult to even see a farmer. This is in large part due to the war, which wiped out a significant number of this population, in addition to introducing new technologies. He marks 1950 as the end of this period.

2. We live largely in cities: in 1830, only 8% of humanity lived in cities; in 2050, we are certain that figure will reach 50-60%. The result is changing housing patterns, in addition to contributing to the marginalization of rural life. This has an affect on history, which has always privileged the city, as well as on our behavior and mindset.

3. Our relationship to our body has changed: Before WWII, the distribution of a physician’s diagnosis were 36%  syphilis, 30% of tuberculosis and 40% as ‘other’ ailments. Today, antibiotics have eradicated infectious diseases (although we know this is also a produces inequities in which the question is really “eradicated for whom?”) and, in the developing world, our relationship to one another is no longer characterized by pain.

4. Increase in demographics and life expectancy: The impact of point #3 is that we are living longer. In 1820, a woman was not expected to live beyond the age of 30, whereas today, 30 is considered her prime. Today’s life expectancy is 84-85 and grows by about 6 months every year, except in the US, where it is decreasing. As a result, our economy – particularly the distribution of wealth along lineage  – is changing.

5. Space is changing: Serres uses the notion of the ‘address’ to illustrate this point by saying that his home address — a metric space — no longer receives mail; however, his mobile devices do. This isn’t to suggest that there is a time-space compression: we have changed space, not address. This requires a new imagining of institutions that have not yet been invented, thus impacting laws which serve to regulate this new space.

6. Language is changing: The rate of change, which he defines as a difference in gradient between words that enter and exit a dictionary on a given year, is extraordinary. In the case of the French language, an average of 2000-3000 words shift from those leaving to those coming in; however, the next publication will have a difference of 37,000 words in a language which has 150,000 words. This shift is taking place across a number of languages, including English, and is largely the result of the fact that most of the trades that existed in the 1950s don’t exist anymore.

7. The West has been living in peace for 65 years, which hasn’t happened since the last Trojan War.

I find his points convincing, but certainly lacking in the sense that he provides observation of major changes ‘mankind’ is undergoing, linking largely to statistical data, but doesn’t seem to touch upon the ways in which the West, by its very definition, is constituted by the exploitation of resources and labour in countries it terms developing. As if our accomplishments were achieved without a cost. Arguably, it is the very advancement of our civilization that will lead to its collapse.