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In a short essay titled Contre l’alternumérisme (which could be translated into English as “Against alter-digital”) published in 2023, Julia Laïnae and Nicolas Alep offer a critique of the contemporary sociotechnical system.

What is alter-digital?

We thought it was important to bring attention on the inconsistency and the conformism of the different alt-digital movements. And although there was, in the early 2000s, an alter-globalization—the hope for a different globalization, a fairer and more brotherly one, than the one imposed by the actors of capitalism—a form of alt-digitalization is emerging, at the turn of the 2020s.

Laïnae & Alep, 2023, p. 25

A return of yesterday’s alter-globalization, alter-digital (according to the authors) refers to attitudes longing for a better way of making “the digital,”1 using different means than the dominant technologies (by opposing against privatized and centralized, GAFAM-like platforms, the proliferation of connected objects, surveillance capitalism, etc.).

Doing better with the digital

Many voices are raised in order to “do better” with digital technology: free and open source software, participative platforms with a horizontal governance, decentralized and federated applications, so-called eco-friendly design, and so on. The fundamental problem lies in the initial proposition: it’s all about continuing to do things with the digital, along with the environmental, social, political and economic consequences that such responses entail2.

Alt-digitalization does not allow us to address the political issues of our time. It merely anesthetizes us, fostering the illusion that it is possible to live fully connected while the planet burns; and that this connection is the only possible way to cultivate our social relations and facilitate the processes of collective emancipation.

Laïnae & Alep, 2023, p. 133

Not settling for a simply “different” use of digital technology (albeit a more “virtuous” one), the essay commands learning3 to do without the digital, period.

Doing better without the digital

Whether a solution should be used rather than another one (between free software or a commercially built solution, for example), the mistake lies in the systematic assumption that a computer is required. Such an assumption contributes to an important technician bias: rather than reflecting on the source of the problem or proposing a genuinely sustainable change, one relies on a form of technological solutionism. This attitude has dangerous effects:

  1. it removes the ordinary citizen’s sense of responsibility, since improving the living-togetherness (vivre-ensemble) becomes the job of a limited group of experts, a certain intellectual, but especially entrepreneurial and technician “elite”;
  2. it “disconnects” the individual or the collectivity from a particular technology: it becomes increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to repair an everyday object, like a connected coffee maker which relies on micro-electronics in order to function; a large corporation becomes the only one able of governing a private platform or repairing (when this is not rendered impossible through deliberate sabotaging) the devices it sells.

A criticism that cannot be accepted?

Digital technologies occupy such a place (in Western societies, at least) that a return to a pre-digital world appears utterly unrealistic. Such a radical turn is actually what the essay suggests: not a more modest or reduced use, but the radical non-use of digital technologies.

This is the strength of the essay, which is an invitation to reflect on what such a decline could represent; one must, however, accept to consider it even so little as a possibility. What has become some sort of widely accepted obviousness, an injunction (doing with the digital) evolves into a question (doing without the digital?), enabling one to envision the world differently.

  1. “The digital”: “The digital” (a less usual wording in English than its French counterpart) is a catch-all term which refers to a very broad set of very different things (an app to learn languages, a continuously updated bus schedule in a terminal, an autonomous hydroponics system for growing lettuce, a government platform, an interface for controlling a military drone, etc.). It is usually unfair to treat it as a homogenous phenomenon, or even as a singular term, since it is eminently plural and affects all areas of society. ↩︎

  2. Consequences of digital technology: Digital technologies entail undeniable consequences which are often hidden by corporations responsible for their large-scale deployment. The essay (which should be read as such, and not as a scientific paper) offers several examples of the absurdity of the contemporary use of digital technology, such as electronic shower knobs supposed to limit an individual’s water consumption (the extraction and manufacturing of electronic chips require enormous amounts of water, occurring in countries where local populations suffer from lack of access to clean water) questions not only the bottom line results, but also to whom benefits the markets of such objects. ↩︎

  3. Learning (with the digital): Perhaps paradoxically, doing without the digital implies a minimal understanding of it; otherwise, critical rejection of a given technology (or the conscious adoption of it) can only take place under a veil of ignorance (blind technophobia or unbridled technophilia). All technology has an impact on its milieu and the communities around it. A minimal level of technological literacy is essential to ensure the necessary conditions for living together, enabling a dialogue between the different parts of a community. ↩︎