Sociology and philosophy combine to offer a better understanding of the digital metamorphosis

Photograph by Warren Wong

Intellectual, professional, political, personal, private: every aspect of our lives is affected by technological developments that are transforming our society in a profound way. These changes raise specific challenges that require a connection between the empirical approaches of sociology and philosophical questioning. Pierre-Antoine Chardel, a philosopher, social science researcher and specialist in ethics at Institut Mines-Telecom Business School, answers our questions about socio-philosophy and the opportunities this field opens up for an analysis of the digital metamorphosis.


In what ways do the current issues surrounding the deployment of technology require an analytical approach combining the social sciences and philosophy?

The major philosophical questions about a society’s development, and specifically the technological aspect, must consider the social, economic and cultural contexts in which the technology exists. For example, artificial intelligence technologies do not raise the same issues when used for chatbots as they do when used for personal assistance robots; and they are not perceived the same way in different countries and cultural contexts. The sociological approach, and the field studies it involves, urges us to closely consider the contexts which are constantly redefining human-machine interactions.

Sociology is complemented by a philosophical approach that helps to challenge the meaning of our political, social and industrial realities in light of the lifestyles they produce (in both the medium and long-term). And the deployment of technology raises fundamental philosophical issues: to what extent does it support the development of new horizons of meaning and how does it enrich (or weaken) community life? More generally, what kind future do we hope our technological societies will have?

For several years now, I have been exploring socio-philosophical perspectives with other researchers in the context of the LASCO IdeaLab, in collaboration with the Institut Interdisciplinaire d’Anthropologie du Contemporain, a CNRS/EHESS joint research unit, or with the Chair on Values and Policies of Personal Information. These perspectives offer a way to anchor issues related to changes in subjectivation processes, public spheres and social imagery in very specific sociological environments. The idea is not to see the technology simply as an object in itself, but to endeavor to place it in the social, economic, political and industrial environments where it is being deployed. Our goal is to remain attentive to what is happening in our rapidly-changing world, which continues to create significant tension and contradictions. At the same time, in society we see a high demand for reflexivity and a need to distance ourselves from technology

What form can this demand for meaning take, and how can it be described from a socio-philosophical point of view?

This demand for meaning can be perceived through phenomena which reveal people’s difficulties in finding their way in a world that is increasingly structured with the constant pressure of time. In this regard, the burn-out phenomenon is very revealing, pointing to a world that creates patterns of constant mobilization. This phenomenon is only intensified through digital interactions when they are not viewed with a critical approach. We therefore witness situations of mental burn-out. Just like natural resources, human and cognitive resources are not inexhaustible. This observation coincides with a desire to distance ourselves from technology, which leads to the following questions: How can we care for individuals in the midst of the multitude of interactions that are made possible in our modern-day societies? How can we support more reasonable and peaceful technological practices?

You say “digital metamorphosis” when referring to the deployment of technology in our societies. What exactly does this idea of metamorphosis mean?

We are currently witnessing processes of metamorphosis at work in our societies. From a philosophical point of view, the term metamorphosis refers to the idea that individually and collectively we are working to build who we are, as we accept to be constantly reinvented, by using a creative approach in developing our identities. Today, we no longer develop our subjectivity based on stable criteria, but based on opportunities which have increased with digitization. This has increased the different ways we exist in the world, our ways of presenting ourselves, by using online networks, for example. Think of all the different identities that we can have on social networks and the subjectivation processes that these processes create. On the other hand, the hyper-memory that makes digital technology possible tends to freeze the representation we have of a person. The question is, can people be reduced to the data they produce? Are we reducible to our digital traces? What do they really say about us?

What other major phenomena accompany this digital metamorphosis?

Another phenomenon produced by the digital metamorphosis is that of transparency. As Michel Foucault said, the modern man has become a “confessing animal”. We can easily pursue this same reflection today in considering how we now live in societies where all of our activities could potentially be tracked. This transparency of every moment raises very significant questions from a socio-philosophical and ethical point of view related to the right to be forgotten and the need for secrecy.

But does secrecy still mean anything today? Here we realize that certain categories of thought must be called into question in order to change the established conceptual coordinates: what does the right to privacy and to secrecy really mean when all of our technology makes most of our activities transparent, with our voluntary participation? This area involves a whole host of socio-philosophical questions. Another important issue is the need to emphasize that we are still very ethno-centric in our understanding of our technological environments. We must therefore accept the challenge of coming into close contact with different cultural contexts in order to open up our perspectives of interpretation, with the goal of decentering our perception of the problems as much as possible.

How can the viewpoints of different cultures enrich the way we see the “digital metamorphosis”?

The contexts in which different cultures have taken ownership of technology varies greatly based on the country’s history. For example, in former East Germany, privacy issues are addressed very differently than they are in North American, which has not suffered from totalitarian regimes. On a completely different note, the perception we have of robotics in Western culture is very different from the prevalent perception in Japan. These concepts are not foreign to Buddhist and Shinto traditions, since they believe that objects can have a soul. The way people relate to innovations in the field of robotics is therefore very different depending on the cultural context and it involves unique ethical issues.

In this sense, a major principle in our seminar devoted to “Present day socio-philosophy” is to emphasize that the complexities of today’s world push us to question the way we can philosophically understand them while resisting the temptation to establish them within a system. Finally, most of the crises we face (whether economic, political or ecological) force us to think about the epistemological and methodological issues surrounding our theoretical practices in order to question the foundations of these processes and their presuppositions. We therefore wish to emphasize that, more than ever, philosophy must be conducted in close proximity to human affairs, by creating a wealth of exchanges with the social sciences (socio-anthropology, socio-history and socio-economy in particular). This theoretical and practical initiative corresponds to a strong demand from students and young researchers as well as many in the corporate world.


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