In his column published in Le Monde newspaper in 2012, Oliver Ertzscheid ponders on the importance of a basic digital culture for everyone. He opens his text by citing John Perry Barlow’s emblematic A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace (1996), which he compares to students born the same year.
16 years later [in 2012], for these digital natives, there is absolutely nothing left of this declaration of independence. On the contrary, most of the cyberspace is a closed world, proprietary, controlled by marketing, governed by shackles of arbitrary norms, liberticidal laws and “privative” technologies. A hyperterritorialized world under the control of a few multinationals. Apple, Facebook and Google solely decide, according to their own criteria what is publishable and what is not, often invoking the motive of “nudity” or “pornography,” and applying it, for example, to closing an account with a user who chose Courbt’s “Origin of the world” as a profile picture.
Barlow’s text has not aged well, neither has this generation born, like me, in 1996—a generation which does not seem to care about the democratic future of a society increasingly “integrated” (the term is technical) into “cyberspace” (archaism kept intentionally).
Personal exchanges mostly transit through “privative” apps (like Meta’s Messenger), social life happens in parallel spaces that are Meta Instagram’s Stories, entire workspaces rely on Google’s services (editing tools, document storage, professional and personal email), the same company to which we give away nearly all the “cartography” of our lives (from web searches to itineraries on the road). We have two companies to choose from when it comes to the operating of our computer (Apple and Microsoft). These private systems have at least two points in common:
- They are transversal and generic (everyone uses them, in all sectors and in all spheres of life, personal and professional).
- They are non-choices, choices by default proposed by the industry and consolidated by mass adoption.
The problem of “digital illiteracy” is not so much that a person does not understand anything about computers (it is actually pretty normal), but that it becomes impossible for them to have any basic understanding of how systems of their everyday life works, forcing them to entrust private companies (whose main purpose is to generate profits and to incite consumption) with significant parts of their lives.
There are many conditions that lead to a healthy democracy. One of them could consist in guaranteeing individuals the possibility “knowledge-action”—not only liberty, but also the knowledge of how to exercise this liberty. For Bernard Stiegler, cited by Oliver Ertzscheid, this is done through the activity of publishing:
Teaching the activity of publishing and making it the pivot of learning all different kinds of knowledge. With the same importance that we teach reading and writing. Learning to inform and document the activity of publication in its context, in its various environments. Understanding that the impossibility of mastering a “publishing knowledge” will tomorrow be an obstacle and an inequality as cleaving as is today the non-mastery of reading and writing, a new digital illiteracy unfortunately already observable. This issue is essential in order for each individual to find their place in the moving digital world, but it is also a concern for our collective future, as Bernard Stiegler reminded us: “Democracy is always linked to a publishing process—what is rendered public—which makes possible a public space: the alphabet, the printing press, audiovisual, digital.”
To understand the “read-write” processes of the everyday life means enabling the possibility of still having a grasp on one’s very own life.