Philosopher Stéphane Vial’s book l’Être et l’écran (Being and Screen) looks at the hard facts behind the way we use digital and formulates a rational view of how we should approach the digital sphere.

“The anxiety some people feel over the mass advent of digital is not unreasonable but their response to it often is”

Interview with Stéphane Vial, Doctor of Philosophy and Senior Lecturer in Design at the University of Nîmes, France, whose book  l’Être et l’écran (Being and Screen) has just been published by Presses Universitaires de France (French University Press)

L'Atelier: What led you to work on formulating a philosophy of digital?

Stéphane Vial: Well, I think it’s important to put forward a philosophical approach to digital based on sound knowledge of the subject, especially as philosophers have up to now not really been interested in the subject in its own right, in contrast to other human and social sciences. And yet digital is the basis, the infrastructure of modern society, and becoming ever more so, so it doesn’t seem right for philosophers to just pass over it. 

L'Atelier: This interpersonal but dematerialised structure which has been created by social networking, this re-shaping of social links, do you think it brings people together, or does it really shut them off from each other?

Stéphane Vial: This is the classic question which is worrying people at the moment, but it has already been answered by contemporary sociologists. Young US sociologists such as Nathan Jurgenson and Zeynep Tufekci often cite studies and figures that provide the answer: the more people use social networks, the fuller the social life they lead offline. But this cuts both ways, i.e. the less of a social life people have offline, the less they make use of social networks. The Internet makes ‘loners’ more isolated and ‘socialites’ more sociable, as the psychologist Yann Leroux said to me recently on Facebook. What’s happening these days is what one might call moral panic. As soon as a new trend appears, young people seize it with both hands and parents and teachers are afraid of it. The anxiety some people feel over the mass advent of digital is not unreasonable but their response to it often is. People create phantoms and are quite content to believe that social networks close people off, in spite of what the facts say. Zeynep Tufekci mentioned TV and the car among the technologies which isolate people, but not the Internet. The concern is understandable but it’s nothing new: in my book I quote some strangely similar remarks on the arrival of the telephone at the beginning of the last century.

L'Atelier: Some fears have been raised regarding the spontaneous nature of making comments on these online platforms. Doesn’t this prevent us from filtering our own personal thoughts? Are we posting without thinking?

Stéphane Vial: Instantaneous communication isn’t a new problem. Television is also instantaneous – take the ‘reality TV’ shows for example – and people are no longer surprised by all that. As far as I’m concerned, this issue has to do with freedom. This freedom of expression on social networks allows, enables every kind of freedom – including the freedom to talk absolute rubbish! You just have to choose whom you listen to or whom you read.

L'Atelier: A last question: do you have any advice for those who are still wary of digital?

Stéphane Vial: If you have children, sit down with them in front of their screens and talk to them about it. They’re learning about the world through their screens and this is really no big deal to them.  People who don’t make the effort to grasp what’s happening will cut themselves off from the younger generation, and then there’ll be even more complaining about a lack of communication. That’s why my book is dedicated to all those little ‘Thumbelinas’ as [French science historian and philosopher] Michel Serres called them.

By Quentin Capelle