Discussion of the Onlife Manifesto

The Onlife Manifesto was produced by a multidisciplinary group for the European Commission DG Connect. Its focus is “what it means to be human in a hyperconnected world”. I was one of 7 people asked to react to it at the occasion of its publication on 8 February 2013 in Brussels. The others were representatives of Nokia, ATT, Microsoft and Google, of the European Consumer Union BEUC and of the DG Research and Innovation social and human sciences programme.

Good morning and great thanks for the invitation to comment on the manifesto. I am:

  • a computer scientist interested in the anthropology of technology,
  • an activist for Internet freedoms and copyright policy reformer, and,
  • an amateur practitioner of writing literature on the Web.

I will say one thing in each of these three capacities.

I feel forced to revisit 2 out of the 4 core assumptions on which the manifesto is built. The blurring of distinction between reality and virtuality is only the end of an illusion for those who believed that the information world was not as real as the physical world. What happens on the Internet, whether it is love, politics, small talk or creativity is no less real that what happens in a meeting like this one. Of course, some activities are better practised in one of the 2 realms, but describing one as “virtual” is not a good start to think about how they could be articulated. Words such as “computational” used earlier by Judith Simon or “informational” might suit us better. Similarly, rather than speaking of a shift from the primacy of entities to the primacy of interactions one could consider the new ways in which individuals are shaped and collectives shape themselves through interactions. Entities and interactions are inseparable. So let’s keep in mind that the Internet is made of computers, with people around the computers and networks in between that should remain dumb if we want humans and not corporations to be in control. We need a neutral and universal Internet in order for each of us to be able to construct her or himself through creating and processing information using computers and through interacting with others.

I am grateful for the manifesto highlighting the importance of the relational self ( by Stefana Broadbent), digital literacy and attentional capabilities. But I am afraid that it will have no effect without engaging policy makers in a sufficiently explicit and strong manner. If I write a copyright reform manifesto, it starts by « A spectre is haunting the world, the sharing of digital works between individuals » . This directness is presently missing in the manifesto but it could be included in a later version (there is no finished text in the digital world). Side note on the relation between public and private: I am not sure that it can be salvaged as a duality. I believe we need an unholy trinity of private, social and public. You can replace social by collective if you prefer, or with the concept of plurality tabled earlier by Peter-Paul Verbeek. Data which is shared within a group also deserves to be protected from plundering. In contrast, information in the public sphere is … public.

Finally, I urge you to look at creative writing in all media as one of the core path along which digital literacy can be built in our societies. If you lament that people are no longer able to sustain attention when reading, help them to write. Accepting that we are all potential authors means departing from the notion that authors or creators would be of any special nature. But it does not mean -all the contrary- losing our appreciation of particular achievements. We are living through exciting times where I witness what I dreamt of for thirty years: large groups of cultural practitioners are starting to understand that policies for the digital world are a matter to be taken in their own hands. The question is whether digital orphans will be able to educate their political parents.

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