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Looking at the ongoing digital revolution

Il préside le Conseil national du numérique depuis janvier 2013. Pour Benoît Thieulin, fondateur et directeur de l’agence digitale La Netscouade, la révolution numérique entraîne un changement de civilisation à travers le phénomène d’empowerment, qui préside à l’invention d’Internet.

Looking at the ongoing digital revolution

Interactions - What are the challenges raised by the digital revolution?

BT – Well, I can readily identify two: 1° the need to apprehend the digital world as a whole, and 2° to save our values of liberty and autonomy that were in fact advocated by young computer scientists and by the Founders of Internet. Total digitisation of Society, currently under way, is leading not only to a technological and economic revolution, but also social, cultural and cognitive change. It is akin to inventing printing in the 15th Century and the industrial revolution in the 19th Century – progressing with all the pressure of immediacy. To illustrate this, we recall that while the first Bible was printed in the 18th Century in Georgia, Africa today is using certain digital services that are more sophisticated than in Europe! The digital revolution is not only a sector of activity: it is even bring in a new and deep-reaching change in the way we think. Moreover, and to avoid excesses, the second challenge consists of preserving the frame of mind of the Founders of Internet, who shared a strong political will: to give back to the citizens the powers of calculation and increasing miniaturisation of computers, with a view to providing for a new and greater autonomy. As of the 1950s, these young computer scientists – themselves often college lecturers who wanted to teach, to share and were opposed to the War in Viet-Nam, to a hierarchized society to centralised data in the hands of a few enterprises or states. The digital revolution would only have meaning is it continued on that direction, that of empowerment of the people.

Interactions – Can we guarantee this ‘empowerment’?

BT – The digital revolution also gives institutions the possibility to better serve citizens, clients but also to better monitor them, control them. We must therefore always be wary that digital innovation is both made available to the institutions but also to improve individual autonomy, failing which we shall induce rejection and revolt. This is the underlying meaning in the Advice Notes issued by the Conseil national du Numérique (French National Council for Digital Applications) when it refers to Internet neutrality and open data. In this respect, computer generated data (monitoring consumption patterns, expenses, health questions, etc.) do bring an added value to the companies: those that use such data must tell us what they are doing with them; and restore them to the clients so that they too can choose in an informed manner. If in the future one of my consumer cards tells me I’m buying more sugar and fat than recommended by WHO, I shall be in a position to regulate my consumption as I see fit. Internet has already made a phenomenal number of things possible: I can publish articles, edit videos, and share music with literally billions of people. But, if as we see we can write more, the recent Snowden affair has shown that a State can monitor the total e-mail flow of the world – which is infinitely more complicated when the exchanges are in paper written format. Digital revolutions will always follow this thin tight-rope wire, between Orwell’s Big Brother world and one of total freedom. In the political arena, digital processes have become a too – President Obama was an almost unknown Senator before the US presidential elections; Ségolène Royal was not a front-runner when the Socialists in France held their primary votes in 2007 and the Arab Revolutions made the most of this tool for concertation, synchronised actions and mobilisation of their forces. Just think, Internet today in Africa allows millions to access knowledge that a European student would never have been able to fin d even in the best libraries only 20 years ago! The consequences here will become rapidly immense.

Interactions – How do you see the role of the Universities?

BT – Even more than yesterday, our Universities must learn how to think and provide the means to think freely. Faced with the avalanche of knowledge round us, how are we supposed to discover the information we really want? The first generation of digital natives is here today and we shall see the effects on them of the digital wave: questions of concentration, dropping memorisation capacity, ‘destructured’ thinking … The University must have them the capability to learn and to analyse, and to enjoy a self-guided access to knowledge.

Interactions – How are digital techniques changing the face of innovation?

BT – The digital world is modifying the fundamentals of innovation, the latter no longer coming from a few scientists or a laboratories – it has become collaborative and collective. Societies today are totally changed: organisation is less pyramidal, hierarchic and is now more horizontal with a collaborative approach to each project. A digital world also takes you away from uniform innovation models – the case in point was Fordism of course – and now we have a hyper-personalised production=everywhere we look.

Did you know this? Today there are 6.4 billion mobile phone subscriptions in the world and the forecasts are for some 9.1 billion by 2018. 50% of all mobiles phones sold in the world in the first semester 2013 are ‘smartphones mobiles. Traffic generated by these phones has doubled over the past year.

Source: Ericsson Mobility Report, June 2013. Cf.