Can the old philosophers shed some light on the changes now being brought about by digital technology? Pierre Calmard has set out to show how they can. In this interview, he talks about what human beings are likely to become in the digital era.

“We’re now not very far away” from the “disappearance of the human body”

Pierre Calmard is CEO of digital performance marketing agency iProspect, and a passionate devotee of philosophy, a subject which he studied for a number of years. This is the basis for his latest book – L’Homme à venir (‘Mankind in the Future’). ‟I thought it would be interesting to combine the two fields and come up with a new view of things. To look at how the major concepts of liberty, happiness, etc. would be changed through digital technology,” he explains.

L’Atelier: So how can traditional philosophers help us to understand the digital world?

Pierre Calmard: When you read the writings of some of the philosophers from today’s standpoint, some things just jump out at you. Nietzsche is a perfect example with his Superman theory, which corresponds to some extent with what we’re experiencing today with our concept of Augmented Man. He already had an intuition of the future when he said that man was like a tightrope walker who couldn’t stop. Although he couldn’t have known exactly what was going to happen later, Nietzsche had some brilliant insights. If he were alive today, he’s say ‟Good Lord, I was right!” 

This Augmented Man, what will he be like? In your book you talk a lot about the transformation of the human body…

Well, I believe there will be several stages that we’ll go through one after the other. One of the first is making alterations to the body. This has already begun. There are people living with a replacement heart and artificial hearts are on the way. We’re also witnessing a revolution in prostheses made by 3D printers. So little by little we’re seeing the advent of bodies festooned with artificial limbs, embedded chips to monitor health, etc.

The second stage will be a more in-depth transformation of the body. Once you can replace a missing limb with a prosthesis, why not change its shape – give a person a hand with six fingers, for example. In the future, mankind will be able to change the human body entirely (in French), at every level. We’re moving away from ‘homo sapiens’.

‟We can certainly imagine having a disembodied intelligence which lives only in networks”

The third step will be the disappearance of the body. A number of researchers are already working on digitising the brain, on fusing artificial intelligence with human thought. Consequently, we can certainly imagine having disembodied intelligence which lives only in networks. Science fiction is full of these kinds of ideas and we’re now not very far away from the reality.

Won’t citizens or governments block attempts to change the body in this way?

Well, I can see two types of barriers. The first is about people calling for a return to ‘authenticity’. This is basically a gut-reaction to what’s happening in genetics – a fear of these technologies which is leading to calls for mankind to come back down to earth, to undergo a sort of ‘digital detox’, etc. We want to cling to the past. This surfaces at political level with those – quasi-Rousseau followers – who want to go back to a Golden Age. There are always people who talk about the ‘good old days’. I think this reflex is perfectly reasonable, but those who cocoon themselves in the past will finish up dying with their ideas.

‟If you believe there’s a higher intelligence, there also has to be a higher benevolence”

As regards artificial intelligence, some people have groundless fears. In 95% of cases science fiction represents extra-terrestrials as horrid creatures that wish to enslave the world. They always see the threat coming from outside. I think that’s a contradiction in terms given that if you believe there’s a higher intelligence, there also has to be a higher benevolence. We ought to stop thinking that everything that’s beyond our capabilities is automatically undesirable. There’s now an anti-artificial intelligence movement in existence, but why should this type of intelligence be a destructive force? It just doesn’t make sense.

The second point is that governments are ill at ease with these technologies. So there’s a real battle going on between governments and digital companies. This is quite blatant as regards the GAFA four – Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon. Tensions are increasing even in the United States. A growing number of voices are now being raised to attack these companies for imposing their own rules worldwide and disregarding individual countries’ laws. Democracy wants to hang on to power.

                                           ‟The democratic system has run out of steam”

But the democratic system has run out of steam. It’s a fact that people distrust politicians, and the traditional political parties have lost their appeal. Democracy as it was conceived in the 18th century and put into action in the 19th and 20th centuries has now reached the end of the road. Digital technology is a good illustration of this: we only need to look at the speed at which things change. For example, the EU is thinking about regulating ‘cookies’ but meanwhile the web giants moved on a long time ago with, for instance, online identity systems. So when the law on ‘cookies’ is finally passed, it’ll already be too late. There’s a huge time-lag between the snail’s pace of democracies and the speed of technology. 

But at the same time digital is providing new forms of democracy – crowdsourcing, crowdfunding, etc – and helping to engender strong citizen attachment to democracy and its values….

You’re right. We do need to distinguish the idea of democracy and its values from the practical form of democracy as it was established in the 20th century. We should keep the basic idea but the form needs to evolve.

‟The GAFA four are run by people who remind us to some extent of Kim Jong-Un”

The social networks provide a new way of looking at things, but these platforms are ambivalent. If you just look at Google and Facebook, you can see a huge gap between what these companies say and the way they’re run. They say: ‟we’re giving you access to human knowledge, we’re helping you communicate and we’re encouraging the ‘freemium’ model”, but they’re all run by people who remind us to some extent of Kim Jong-Un. People speak about Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs as if they were living gods. There’s a whole mythology created around these figures which embodies the company and focuses power.

Pierre Calmard argues that the digital giants are ambivalent and anti-democratic

Let’s take an example of what happens. One day, Facebook decided not to target married people in advertising campaigns for dating sites. One might well ask why, because we know that lots of married people use these sites. Well, it was Mark Zuckerberg’s decision. That’s the only explanation. This is an example of the absence of democracy. There’s a disconnect between the values the platform purports to convey and this hyper-concentration of power. This also holds for Google’s founding motto: ‘Do no evil’. Straight away this raises the question of who defines what is good and what is evil.

You also write a lot about how the line between communication and information is starting to blur. How is this happening exactly?

The social networks have changed the situation. In the past we used to have on the one hand people who had the right to communicate – the publishers – and on the other hand the recipients, the public. These days this no longer holds true because anyone use the same channels to express their views. On Twitter, we find professional journalists and ordinary people communicating in exactly the same way. 

But isn’t there still a hierarchy? I’m sure people don’t read a tweet from the Le Monde newspaper in the same way as they’d read one from bibi2000.

Of course. But this hierarchy in increasingly fading away. Some major media organisations have made mistakes – the erroneous announcement of the death of [the Chairman and CEO of major French industrial group Bouygues] Martin Bouygues, for example. Their credibility can crumble away when faced with bloggers and influencers coming from nowhere who gain high levels of credibility in certain fields.

By Guillaume Scifo