“The way technology shapes our imagination deserves more attention than Elon Musk.”

INTERVIEW. By focusing on Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter, part of the public mind is missing the real issue, which is how social media is changing the way we relate to the world, analyzes Charlene Biondi, author of Decoding, the Counterhistory of Digital Technology. “.

Charlene Biondi is a Doctor of Political Theory with a dual degree from Columbia University, New York, and Cevipof-Sciences Po. Her doctoral research focuses on the political history of digital technology and the modes of truth that have accompanied its development since the cybernetics of the 1950s. to Google surveillance capitalism. She has just published Dé-coder, une contre-histoire du numérique (Books ed., 2022).

LE FIGARO. Should we see Musk’s theater management as a wider crisis on Twitter?

Charlene Biondi. – The theatrical management you are talking about is not unique to Twitter. Elon Musk applied social media management techniques that he had already used in his other companies, notably Tesla and SpaceX. In 2018, when the Tesla Model 3 was having trouble with production, Musk also launched mass layoffs, scare employees and investors with public alarmist statements about his company’s financial health, and urged his teams to work as hard as possible while spending money. spent whole nights in his office, sleeping on a mattress set in a conference room, stretching out a 120-hour workweek… He even made headlines with his tweets (already!!), announcing that he intends to buy Tesla and remove it from the list . — which obviously never happened. In the context of Musk’s “managerial history”, the recent events surrounding his takeover of Twitter seem less specific to the social network than to the entrepreneur himself.

However, I’m not sure that Musk’s figure deserves much attention. Admittedly, his personality and his very clear positions give the Twitter takeover saga a particularly “flamboyant” character; but basically these management practices or practices that we care so much about are layoffs, “extreme” or “hardcore” corporate cultures put in place in the name of profitability, and multiplication of “trials” with no future (e.g. announcing a paid subscription on a social network) – are nothing extraordinary in the economic context of the US, where markets, including the labor market, are deregulated, and where the cult of free enterprise naturally accommodates all-powerful entrepreneurs who must be “hands off”.

For Europe, controlling the actions of Gafam and the influence of new foreign technologies is a geopolitical problem: it is a matter of how not to be subjugated by these new forces.

Charlene Biondi

Thus, the Twitter situation illustrates less a “crisis” than a well-known phenomenon: the irresistible tension that lies at the heart of any market democracy, between the ambitions of its economic sphere and its political institutions.

Are we dealing with a redefinition of free speech in our Western democracies, or is this debate of a different nature?

First, the “absolute” free speech that Musk advocated when he took over Twitter didn’t happen. At one point, Musk was thought to be applying an extreme, uncensored version of American-style free speech to Twitter, which seemed to confirm Donald Trump’s return to the platform. However, unmoderated freedom of expression on a social network can legitimately raise fears of the spread of hate speech, racist speech, and misinformation—which is exactly what has happened on Twitter since its takeover. However, Musk has not eliminated the content moderation groups on Twitter, and what is more, he has reconsidered the radicalism of his original position… However, concern remains, as there are fears that Musk bought Twitter to serve the political interests of the American right (or even the extreme right).

The “absolute” free speech that Musk championed during the Twitter takeover did not happen.

Charlene Biondi

In Europe, Twitter will not be able to escape the provisions of the Digital Services Act (DSA): under European law, unjustified closing of journalists’ accounts (as happened last month) would entail severe sanctions. Therefore guarantees are possible, but they are often incomplete. However, the lack of regulation does give the owner of the social network the opportunity to turn Twitter into a propaganda tool if desired. Again, Musk’s personality and provocative statements make him the center of all criticism, but in fact the same issue is true for all social networks, including Facebook/Meta. The sound formation of public opinion, which is nevertheless one of the pillars of democracy, depends on the good will of individuals and algorithms that are difficult to control.

All of this makes me think that it’s not about regulation of free speech, as even Elon Musk recognizes the need to regulate “free speech” and content moderation. Once again, I believe that Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter and everything that followed, first of all, illustrates the limitations of certain economic policies. In other words, recognizing the power of social media influence on public opinion brings neoliberal logic to a tipping point: it is a reminder (another one) that democracy can only survive if the state regulates its market.

Do you think that France and European institutions are more aware of the need to regulate social media and new technologies?

For Europe, controlling the actions of Gafam and the influence of new foreign technologies is a geopolitical problem: it is a matter of how not to be subjugated by these new forces. The ability of large digital companies to collect and process data represents an unprecedented leverage. Today, public opinion is at the mercy of algorithms, and it is precisely in order to avoid becoming a “digital colony” of a foreign industry that the European Union has put in place a regulatory framework to oversee the management of personal data and content. These laws, found nowhere else, clearly reflect the political will to create an alternative to the Chinese-American models and protect ethical technologies. Unfortunately, the results of these initiatives will be negligible as long as the big companies in the digital industry are foreign.

Recognizing the power of social media influence on public opinion brings neoliberal logic to a tipping point.

Charlene Biondi

However, it should be kept in mind that while the data challenges are indeed unprecedented, this is not the first time that industrial players have played a major role at the geopolitical level. Before the advent of technology, the aerospace or mining industry also embodied political issues for and between states and crystallized significant tensions on the international stage. It is important to keep this in mind so as not to fall into unnecessarily sensational talk about the “power” of the tech giants.

In your opinion, we should succeed in taking technology away from analysis in terms of power and trying to understand the fundamental movement that it captures in our imagination: that is?

Take Twitter, for example: by making the social network a weapon of Elon Musk or a conduit for the political interests of the American far right, we will reframe, update a debate as old as capitalism, which is to put a guard of political institutions against competing market forces. The “power” of big industrialists, the excesses of their practices, social and environmental abuses, collusion between the economic interests of some and the political parties of others – all this is not unique to our time. From this point of view, the digital industry offers only a new iteration of the problems of power and struggle for influence that existed before it.

However, I am convinced that something specific is at stake in the digital age; that these ubiquitous technologies, essential to every aspect of our existence, are profoundly transforming society, not only redefining the old power relationships that structure it, but much more fundamentally, shaping our relationship to the world “from within”. The purpose of my research is to identify the impact of digital technologies on society, regardless of all its “superficial” tools from such an industrial entity or state.

Indeed, there is a connection between digital transformation and the “crisis of meaning” or “crisis of confidence” that the great Western democracies are going through.

Charlene Biondi

In a sense, tying technology to the “power” of this or that blinds us to what it is and what it produces, prevents us from analyzing it. However, it seems to me important and urgent, at a time when digital technologies are imposing themselves as the organizing principle of the world, to develop critical thinking about digital technologies themselves, and not just about their industry.

How is this new ecosystem destroying the model of liberal democracy inherited from the Enlightenment?

Digital technologies have become a strategic issue of state sovereignty: in terms of national defense, it is both a new weapon and a new space for conflict; from an administrative point of view, this is both a new strategic infrastructure and a new tool for managing state policy and the population; and, as we have seen, this is also a new economic policy issue. Consequently, the need for large-scale public action (regulation of industry, development of sovereign strategic technologies, etc.) is becoming more and more obvious. However, admitting that technology is now a “political entity” is not the same as saying that technology “threatens” democracy. Quite the contrary: as a political object, that is, as a “subject” of this or that state policy, technology is completely harmless. We are not threatened by what we can regulate.

However, and this is the starting point of my book, there is indeed a connection between digital transformation and the “crisis of meaning” or “crisis of confidence” that the great Western democracies are going through. Unlike well-known clichés, this link is not limited to social media misinformation issues, it goes much deeper. Computer science has given rise to a new paradigm, a new grid for understanding the world that we adopt, almost without realizing it, every time we use a digital tool. However, this new way of looking at the world, this new “digital rationality” penetrating the modern imagination, is creating an ever wider gap between the aspirations of our digital society and the political order that governs it. The risk is to assume that our institutions and the underlying principles that underlie them will prove “immune” to digital transformation, that they may remain exactly the same, while all of society, all practices, all individual and collective habits somewhere radically destroyed. Thus, the political task of digital technology is not so much to regulate its industry, but to dare to question the legitimacy of institutions belonging to the past.

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