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What impact do digital technologies have on our minds, and how can we make them positive?

Anne Alombert is a lecturer and researcher in philosophy at Université Paris 8. She previously taught at the Université Catholique de Lille, where she held the "Ethics, Technology and Transhumanism" chair.

She is the author of a philosophy thesis written at the Université Paris Nanterre under the supervision of François-David Sebbah, on the question of the relationships between life, technology and minds in the work of Gilbert Simondon and Jacques Derrida.

She is the co-author of Bifurquer, co-written with philosopher Bernard Stiegler and the Internation collective. She took part in the design and development of the "Plaine Commune Territoire Apprenant Contributif" contributory research program directed by Bernard Stiegler, as part of the Ars Industrialis association.


Anne Alombert recently published her latest book, Schizophrénie numérique (Digital Schizophrenia), in April 2023, in which she examines the impact of digital technologies on our minds, particularly our ability to think. She also took part in the round table "The future of social networks: how can we reconcile user engagement and well-being?" organized by the Human Technology Foundation on May 9, 2023.


1. Your book Digital Schizophrenia conveys the thinking of many philosophers: Plato, Emmanuel Kant, Gunther Anders, Theodor Adorno, Bernard Stiegler... What do they teach us?


All these philosophers teach us very different things, which would be impossible to summarize here, and which I summarize very allusively in my book. Nevertheless, I wanted to mention them, to show that, while they raise unprecedented issues, the mutations we are experiencing today can be better understood if viewed within the long history of developments in "technologies of the mind" or the media of memory. Plato's reflections on writing, Kant's on the book, Anders' on photography, Adorno's on cinema, Stiegler's on television and digital technologies, for example, are all concerned with the effects of these devices on our psychic capacities (recollection, memory, perception, reflection, imagination, desire) and their political implications.


2. In your opinion, our era seems to be suffering from a true "digital schizophrenia". What do you mean by this?


By using the expression "digital schizophrenia", I wanted to highlight a tension or gap between two types of contradictory discourse that run currently: the first type of discourse, widespread among transhumanists, attributes all kinds of mental or psychic capacities to "machines" (we speak of artificial intelligence or automatic learning, and we sometimes even wonder whether AIs will be able to become self-aware), while the second type of discourse stresses the harmful effects of digital devices on these same capacities (information overload, loss of memory and attention, sleep disorders). However, I don't equate the two: the first is ideological, while the second is based on scientific studies. Nevertheless, such an alternative between the anthropomorphizing of machines and the condemnation of screens can no longer suffice today: we need to go beyond it and ask ourselves how we can put digital technologies at the service of collective intelligence.


3. How do "persuasive digital technologies" pose a threat to intellectual freedom?


Persuasive digital technologies have been conceived in the research laboratories of Silicon Valley companies and universities based on a new technoscientific perspective: captology, which combines neuroscience, cognitive science, behavioral psychology, design and computer science to design technologies capable of influencing user behavior and conduct.

Functionalities and interfaces are then developed to capture attention, reinforce behavioral habits and provoke reflex reactions by directly stimulating brain processes (such as the secretion of dopamine, the neurotransmitter responsible for the sensation of pleasure). As a result, the faculties of reflection, interpretation, decision and invention that make up the mind’s activity are bypassed: they no longer have time to be exercised.


4.  So what can we do to protect ourselves from their grip?


It is possible to establish disciplines at the individual level to try to reduce vulnerabilities to these devices, by setting aside time to disconnect, for example, or by using alternative technologies that do not operate based on the data economy or the attention economy.

But, as we also emphasized in the report on the attention economy published with the Conseil national du numérique (French Digital Council), the answers to these challenges must also, and above all, be thought at a collective level - political, legal, technological and educational. Several deceptive designs, which manipulate users down to the subconscious level for the benefit of the digital giants, could be banned. Conversely, technologies that enable the exercise of interpretive or deliberative faculties, or the sharing of knowledge or local solidarity, could be supported politically and financially. Finally, in the 21st century, these issues need to be integrated into education and teaching programs, to make the younger generation aware of the risks, and to design and experiment with alternative systems.


5. Why and how do you think we should work towards contributory technologies for a shared knowledge economy? What are the sine qua non conditions for this paradigm shift?


The problem with the data economy and persuasive technologies is that they are not sustainable:

·   neither ecologically (for example, data storage is very energy-intensive, as is the training of generative AIs),

·   nor mentally (for example, features such as infinite scrolling or notifications lead to attention and concentration problems),

·   nor socially (for example, social networks based on the quantification of views reinforce individualistic and competitive behavior, as well as the spread of false information).


The challenge is therefore to reverse this self-destructive trend by supporting technologies that enable the sharing of knowledge and the production of the commons, and above all, that are adapted to the needs of inhabitants and localities (and therefore aren’t global, standardized systems). This countertrend could take the form of action-research or contributory research projects involving researchers, industrialists, economic players, associations and local representatives in the design and testing of technologies serving their singular interests.


The necessary conditions for such a paradigm shift undoubtedly lie in the development of a new understanding of the anthropological challenges of digital mutations, which are often still poorly considered (through false alternatives such as optimism/pessimism, technophilia/technophobia, progressivism/reactivity, etc.). Such a change undoubtedly also presupposes a genuine political will to steer technological "innovations" towards the cohesion and evolution of societies, rather than the very short-term profit of a few hegemonic players.


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