Félix Tréguer: “Computers accentuate power relations more than they equalize power relations”

Internet pioneers firmly believed in it: by allowing everyone to express themselves, communicate, share, the personal computer and the network would radically overturn power relations. For those who saw in computing a promise of emancipation, the disillusionment, at a time of mass state surveillance and the domination of large digital platforms, is severe. This pendulum movement, Félix Tréguer, associate researcher at the CNRS Internet and Society Center and post-doctoral fellow at the Center for International Research (Ceri-Sciences-Po), replaced it in the long history of relations between the State and means of communication, struggles between central powers and disputes, from the birth of the printing press to the present day. But the work from his thesis, fallen utopia. A Counter-History of the Internet, XVe-XXIe century, can also be read, in many ways, as the critical counterpoint to ten years of digital activism – Tréguer is one of the co-founders of La Quadrature du Net. Faced with the technological leap forward, when automation extends to all fields of social life and even into our private lives, it is time, he says, to oppose collective refusals and reinvest the idea of ‘a de-escalation.

Computerization has not always been perceived, if need be, as an emancipatory horizon. After more than two decades marked by the imagination of digital utopias, are we witnessing today a “technocritical” return?

In the 1970s, computerization was thought and criticized by social movements in ways that are very reminiscent of today’s debates – around issues, emerging at the time, such as surveillance of communications, filing, automation of bureaucracies. We see it with a magazine like interference, close to the free radio movement, one of whose numbers analyzes computers as a tool in the hands of the army, the police, etc. But these very “technocritical” movements were subsequently largely forgotten. From the 1980s, at a time when economic liberalism was playing the full language of political liberalism, there was indeed a reversal: while personal computers entered homes and the first networks developed, those that had access to these tools discovered the possibility of using them to communicate, with the prospect of democratizing these new capacities to circulate thought and information. It was in this double context, technological and political, that the “internet utopia” was born. Today, there is a very strong disillusionment among activists and researchers who have been working on these issues for years. In this regard, Edward Snowden’s revelations in 2013 about surveillance by intelligence agencies were without doubt a turning point, sounding the death knell for the hope of preserving what we analyze as the emancipatory potential of the Internet.

Many pioneers of cyberculture saw technology itself as a means of “rebuilding society”. At the risk of deserting the terrain of political struggle?

It is an issue that cuts across emancipation movements: must we penetrate the political system to change it from the inside, exert pressure from the outside to transform it, or else create alternative forms of life, sheltered from forms of domination that prevail in mainstream society? This strategy of escape was the bet of certain important figures of the internet utopia, like John Perry Barlow [Americanpoetandactivistauthorin1996of[poèteetmilitantaméricainauteuren 1996de the “Declaration of Cyberspace Independence”, note], with the idea that the network, because of its technical properties, would remain sheltered from the sovereignty of the States. We find a somewhat similar point of view, even if it is part of a strategy of political struggle, in an anarchist thinker like Hakim Bey, with the “Temporary autonomy zones”. However, these very influential discourses in the 1990s have been widely denied since then: escaping surveillance devices remains extremely difficult, and this strategy of escape, if it is still possible, is only accessible to technical elites. After ten years of engagement in these debates, I am convinced that IT tends to accentuate power relations more than to equalize power relations, which poses important strategic questions.

Why did you go, to write this “Internet counter-history”, of the XVe century and the invention of printing?

It was a question of understanding how the contemporary controversies on the regulation of Internet and the protection of fundamental freedoms on line register in a long history, that of the State and its relations with the means of communication. The appearance of the printing press, which democratizes the capacity to write and to circulate its writings, is at the origin of very important political disturbances, in particular the wars of religion. This moment of deep historical crisis, which sees the emergence of very strong democratic demands, is also a moment of foundation of the modern State, with the consecration of reason of State and the associated practices of power – notably censorship, secrecy , surveillance, propaganda. We are still in this long political cycle: the Internet has thus faced radical democratic demands – for example the desire of WikiLeaks to keep state secret in check – and the logic of state control. Tracing this history makes it possible to observe the repetition of certain motives and to understand that beyond information and communication technologies, there remains a fundamental contradiction between the democratic principles supposed to drive our political regimes and the dehumanizing and even authoritarian practices. institutions that govern us.

Beyond this constant – the reappropriation by the State of technologies which let envisage a redistribution of power -, how are the modalities of control of public space evolving?

One of the challenges of my work was to re-inscribe the question of public space in the relationships between power and resistance, based in particular on Michel Foucault’s analyzes on the mutation of power systems. To sum it up broadly by taking the example of censorship, the feudal regime was extremely coercive, beating those who, through their writings or posters, had challenged authority. In the disciplinary regime which took shape in the XIXe century and symbolized by the 1881 press law, some freedoms are granted, but one counts on the figure of the editor to discipline those who express themselves in the media, under the control of the judge. Today, censorship is extrajudicial, increasingly based on digital multinationals. It automates and massages thanks to artificial intelligence techniques, becoming almost undetectable. To use Gilles Deleuze’s formula, we are in an era where the computer machine is participating in the advent of “control companies”, even if we are seeing new phenomena appear, such as “surveillance capitalism” based on the predation of personal data.

Is digital activism, as it was built on the defense of liberties, doomed to failure?

Foucault thus sums up the big question that arises in any critical and dissenting, theoretical or militant approach: how to disconnect the growth of capacities, which allows in particular technological progress, from the intensification of power relations? It was precisely one of the great promises of the Internet to end this correlation. However, I believe that we have failed. Strategies that aim to curb the harmful effects of IT and its overlapping with power systems, based on law – the law of personal data in particular – or on technical responses – such as the development of cryptography to protect privacy – are clearly reaching their limits. It is undoubtedly necessary to articulate them with a more radical refusal. It seems to me that the phenomenon of increasing automation of bureaucracies, presented as inevitable in the name of efficiency, rationality, low cost, generates an increasing uneasiness. We saw it in the opposition to Parcoursup [l’application qui gère l’affectation des bacheliers dans les universités],we see it with the parents of students who oppose the experiment of facial recognition in educational establishments. These are all signs of resistance to forms of government by information technology, from which we should be able to build a collective response.

Is that what it means to “stop the machine”, as the conclusion of the book calls for?

My conviction is that, in a context of security drift and very strong recentralisation of storage and computing capacities in the hands of large private players, with the development of “big data” and artificial intelligence, it is necessary to know how to assert a collective rejection of new technologies of social control. The negative feeling generated by computerization is still drowned in a form of ecstasy towards practicality, and in a sacralization of technology which would make it possible to solve political problems – a sacralization which also fits in, in its own way, the internet utopia. This type of discourse is still working at full capacity, but the resistances that arise in our daily, intimate confrontation with computerized power devices are all points of support. It is for this reason that the speeches and repertoires of action of past generations carry lessons and paths for the future, because they help to reinvest the idea of ​​a technological de-escalation. While this may seem unrealistic, building a desirable future for humanity will require resisting the headlong rush we are witnessing.

Amaelle Guiton

Félix Tréguer Fallen Utopia Fayard “To Come”,

350 pp., 22 €.