Let’s think about the­ new digital public sphere. I will begin by discussing the anthropological and demographic context of the public sphere shift into the digital environment. Then I will analyze the original forms of memory and communication supported by the new medium. I will then evoke the figures of domination and alienation specific to the new public sphere. I will finish, as it should be, with some emancipatory perspectives.

1 Context

A new era in culture

One of the main factors in the evolution of ideas ecosystems lies in the material devices of production and reproduction of symbols, but also in the « software » systems of writing and coding information. In the course of history, symbols (and the ideas they carry) have been successively perpetuated by writing, lightened by the alphabet and paper, and multiplied by printing and electrical media. At each stage, new political forms have emerged: palaces-temples and first states with writing, empires and cities with the alphabet or paper, nation states with printing and electronic media.

Nowadays symbols are digitized and computed, i.e. a host of software robots – the algorithms – record, count, translate and extract patterns from these symbols. Symbolic objects (texts, still or moving images, voices, music, programs, etc.) are not only recorded, reproduced and transmitted automatically, they are also transformed and generated in an industrial way. In short, cultural evolution has brought us to the point where ecosystems of ideas manifest themselves as algorithmically animated data in a ubiquitous virtual space. And it is in this space that social ties are formed, maintained and unraveled, where the dramas of the polis are now played out…

The demographic shift

The hypothesis of a quick and large-scale anthropological change is based on uncontroversial quantitative data.

Access to computers
Regarding access to computers, we can consider that 0.1 percent of the world’s population had direct access to a computer in 1975 (before the personal computer revolution). This proportion was 20% in rich countries in 1990 (before the Web revolution). In 2022, for European countries, the proportion oscillated between 65% (Greece) and 95% (Luxembourg). Note that these figures do not take into account smart phones.

Internet access
The proportion of the world’s population that had access to the Internet was about 1% in 1990 (before the Web), 4% in 1999, 24% in 2009, 51% in 2018 and 65% in 2023. According to the International Telecommunications Organization, about 5 billion people are Internet users today. Still for 2023, but only in Europe, the proportion of the population connected to the Internet amounts to 93% (data of the European Union).

To complete these statistics with some data more directly related to politics, 40% of Europeans and 50% of Americans and Canadians read the news through social media (I do mean social media, not the Internet in general). It is more than 50% everywhere under forty years old. For specific data on reading newspapers versus reading text online: 80% of those under thirty read news online (Pew Research Center data).

2 Digital memory and communication

The new public sphere

In short, less than a century after the invention of the first computers, more than sixty-five percent of the world’s population is connected to the Internet and the world’s memory is digitized. If a piece of information is found at one point of the network, it is everywhere. From static text on paper, we have moved on to ubiquitous hypertext, and then to the surrealist Architext gathering all symbols. A virtual memory has begun to grow, secreted by the living and the dead in billions, teeming with languages, music and images, full of dreams and fantasies, mixing science and lies. The new publ­ic sphere is multimedia, interactive, global, fractal, stigmergic and – from now on – mediated by artificial intelligence.

The new public sphere is global. Both the web and major social media like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Telegram, Reddit, etc. are international and multilingual. Machine translation has reached a point where we can now understand, with a few errors, what someone writes in another language. I would add that, in parallel to translation, the automatic synthesis of long texts is progressing, which adds to the porosity of the various cognitive and semantic bubbles.

The digital public sphere is fractal, that is, it is subdivided into subgroups, which in turn are subdivided into subgroups, and so on recursively, with all imaginable combinations and intersections. These subdivisions intersect with distinctions of platforms, languages, geographical areas, interests, political orientations, etc. Examples include Facebook or LinkedIn groups, Discord servers, You-tube or Telegram channels, Reddit communities, etc.

Stigmergic collective intelligence

While point-to-point message exchange still takes place, most social communication now takes place in a stigmergic manner. The notion of stigmergy is one of the keys to understanding the functioning of the digital public sphere. We distinguish traditionally three communication patterns: one-one, one-many and many-many. The one-one pattern corresponds to dialogue, the classic postal mail or the traditional telephone. The one-many scheme describes a central editor/transmitter sending his messages to many so-called « passive » receivers. This last scheme corresponds to the press, the recording industry, the radio and the television. The Internet represents a breakthrough because it allows all participants to transmit to a large number of receivers in a decentralized « many-to-many » networked scheme. This last description is nevertheless misleading. Indeed, if everyone transmits for everyone (which is the case), not everyone can listen to everyone. What happens in reality is that Internet users contribute to a common memory and in return become aware of the content of this memory through automated search and selection procedures. These are the famous algorithms of Google, (Page Rank), Facebook, Twitter, Amazon (recommendations), etc.

Its Greek etymology explains the meaning of the word « stigmergy » quite well: marks (stigma) are left in the environment by the action or work (ergon) of members of a community, and these marks in turn guide their actions, and so on recursively. The classic case is that of ants leaving a trail of pheromones in their wake as they bring food back to the anthill. The smell of the pheromones incites other ants to follow their tracks to discover the booty and bring food back to the underground city by leaving a scented message on the ground as well.

It can be argued that any form of writing that is not precisely addressed is a form of stigmergic communication: traces are deposited for future reading and act as the external memory of a community. The phenomenon is old but it took a new extent since the turn of the century. Immersed in the new digital public sphere, we communicate through the oceanic mass of data that brings us together. Wikipedia’s encyclopedists and GitHub’s programmers collaborate through the same database. Unbeknownst to us, every link we create, every tag or hashtag placed on a piece of information, every act of rating or approval, every « like, » every request, every purchase, every comment, every share, all of these operations subtly modify the common memory, that is, the inextricable magma of relationships between data. Our online behavior emits a continuous flow of messages and clues that transform the structure of memory and contribute to directing the attention and activity of our fellow internet users. In an endless loop, we deposit in the virtual environment some electronic pheromones which determine the action of other Internet users and train the formal neurons of artificial intelligences (AI).

The role of Artificial Intelligence in the new public sphere

The biological brain abstracts the details of actual experiences into schemas of interactions, or concepts, encoded by patterns of neural circuits. In the same way, the neural models of AI condense the countless data of digital memory. They compress the actual data into patterns and patterns of patterns. Conditioned by their training, the algorithms can then recognize and reproduce data corresponding to the learned patterns. But because they have abstracted structures rather than recorded everything, they are able to conceptualize correctly some forms (of image, text, music, code…) that they have never encountered and to produce an infinity of new symbolic arrangements. This is why we speak about generative artificial intelligence.

Digital memory is detached from its place of origin and reception, pooled, waiting to be read, suspended in the « clouds » of the Internet, embedded in software. This mass of data is now virtualized by neural models. And the patterns hidden in the myriad layers and connections of electronic brains rain down novel symbolic objects. We only sow data to harvest meaning.

AI offers us a new access to the global digital memory. It is also a way to mobilize this memory to automate increasingly complex symbolic operations, involving the interaction of heterogeneous semantic universes and accounting systems.

3 The dark side

The platform state and the new cloud bureaucracy

If the preceding analyses have any validity, political power is largely played out in the digital public sphere. And its ultimate control lies « in the clouds », in the hands of the celestial bureaucracies that calculate social interactions and memory. The clouds, that is, the networks of data centers owned by the oligopoly of GAFAM, BATX, big social media and company. This is why the contenders for global political hegemony, mainly the Americans and the Chinese, ally themselves with the data lords – or subjugate them – because the digital oligarchs hold the material control of the world’s memory and the public sphere. They alone, moreover, have the storage capacity and computational power to train the so-called « foundational » general AI models. What I call a « Platform State » results from the intertwining of a political superpower with a fraction of the digital oligarchy.

Cloud bureaucracy is more efficient than the nation-state bureaucracy inherited from the age of printing. Already, several governmental or regalian functions are provided by large platforms or by « decentralized » digital networks. The following list is not closed :

– Verification of people’s identity, facial recognition
– Mapping and cadastre
– Money creation
– Market regulation
– Education and research
– Fusion of defense and cyber-defense
– Control of the public sphere, censorship, propaganda, “nudge”
– Surveillance
– Biosurveillance

Social media : addictions and manipulations

Our allegiance to the data lords comes from the power of their computing centers, their software efficiency and the simplicity of their interfaces. It is also rooted in our addiction to a toxic socio-technical architecture, which uses the dopaminergic stimulation and addictive narcissistic reinforcements of digital communication to make us produce more and more data. We know how much the mental health of adolescent populations is at risk from this point of view. In addition to the biopolitics evoked by Michel Foucault, we must now consider a psychopolitics based on neuromarketing, personal data and gamification of control.

We should get used to it: the polis has moved into the great global database of the Internet. As a result, power struggles – all power struggles, be they economic, political or cultural – are replayed and complicated in the new digital space. On the slippery terrain of social media, the opposing camps have their armies of trolls coordinated in real time, equipped with the latest bots, informed by automatic data analysis and augmented by machine learning. In the raging worldwide civil war, with domestic and foreign politics inextricably intertwined, the new mercenaries are the influencers. 

But all these novelties do not invalidate the classic rules of propaganda, which are still valid today: continuous repetition, simplicity of the catchwords, memorable images, emotional provocation and identity resonance. No one has forgotten Machiavelli’s wise advice on how to get the enemy to destroy himself: « Secret warfare consists of taking the confidence of a divided city, mediating between the two parties until they come to arms: and when the sword is finally drawn, giving carefully measured help to the weaker party, as much with the aim of making the war last and letting them be consumed by each other, as to guard against revealing one’s intention of oppressing and subduing them both equally, by a too massive help. If you follow this course carefully, you will almost always reach your goal. »[1]

With our heads down on our smartphones, we spin in a loop the stereotypes that reinforce our fragmented identities and our short memories under the snide gaze of intoxication experts, subsidized communicators, marketing specialists and geopolitical agents of influence…

AI and cultural domination

Let’s continue this review of the dark sides of the new public sphere with the issues of cultural domination linked to Artificial Intelligence. There is a lot of talk about the « biases » of this or that model of artificial intelligence, as if there could be a non-biased or neutral AI. This question is all the more important because, as I suggested above, AI is becoming our new interface with symbolic objects: universal pen, panoramic glasses, general speaker, codeless programmer, personal assistant. The large generalist language models produced by dominant platforms are now akin to a public infrastructure, a new layer of the digital meta-medium. These generalist models can be inexpensively specialized with domain-specific datasets and adjustment methods. They can also be equipped with fact-checked knowledge bases.

The results provided by an AI are thus the result of several factors that all contribute to its orientation or, if you like, its « biases ».
a) The algorithms themselves select the types of statistical calculations and neural network structures.
b) The training data favor the languages, cultures, philosophical options, political biases and prejudices of all kinds of those who produced them.
c) In order to align the AI’s responses with the supposed goals of the users, the inclinations of the data are corrected (or accentuated!) « by hand » through what is called RLHF (Reinforcement Learning from Human Feed-back).
d) Finally, as with any tool, the user determines the results by means of instructions in natural language (the famous prompts) It should be noted that communities of users collaboratively exchange and improve such instructions.
The power of these systems is matched only by their complexity, their heterogeneity and their opacity. Regulatory control of AI, while undoubtedly necessary, seems difficult.

4 Emancipation perspectives

Digital literacy and critical thinking

Despite all of the above, the public sphere of the 21st century is more open than that of the 20th century: citizens in democratic countries enjoy a great deal of freedom of expression and can choose their sources of information from a wide range of thematic specializations, languages and political orientations. This freedom of expression and information, the new distributed power of data creation and analysis, not to mention the possibilities of social coordination offered by the new medium, all represent emancipatory potential. But only a true education to critical thinking in the new communication environment will actualize this potential of renewed citizenship. To set the record straight, a BBC study recently showed that half of young people aged 12 to 16 believe news shared on social media without checking them. And we know from experience that children are not the only gullible subjects. Ideally, the new critical thinking education should teach future citizens to organize themselves as small, autonomous intelligence agencies that prioritize their interests, carefully select diverse sources, analyze data based on explicit hypotheses, and maintain a relevant classification of their personal digital memory. They must learn to discern data sources in terms of organizing categories, dominant narratives, and agendas. The basic journalistic reflex of cross-referencing sources identified in this way will be instilled. Finally, students should be trained in collective stigmergic intelligence and collaborative learning.

For a governance of the digital public sphere

I will limit myself here to indicating a few major orientations for the necessary governance of the new public sphere, rather than determining precisely the means to achieve it. While steering in heavy weather may require many detours, the course is clear: it is a matter of perfecting, as much as possible, the reflexive dimension of a collective intelligence already in action.
a) In support of this goal, transparency of online processes seems a sine qua non. In particular, but not only, I am aiming at a clear, brief and natural language description of AI training algorithms and data.
b) Following the example of Wikimedia, let us strive to maximize the knowledge commons.
c) Let’s open up the data sets and algorithms along the lines of the free software movement.
d) Let’s ensure the practical and legal sovereignty of individuals and groups over the data they produce.
e) Finally, let’s decentralize the governance of online interactions by promoting consensual procedures. The social movement that supports the blockchain indicates a possible path here.

In order to contribute to the project of a collective reflexive intelligence I invented a language (IEML, Information Economy MetaLanguage) having the same capacity of expression and translation as natural languages but which also has the regularity of an algebra, thus allowing a calculation of semantics. This language could serve as a semantic coordinate system for the new public sphere. It would thus contribute to transform the digital memory into a mirror of our collective intelligences. From then on, a more fluid feedback loop between the ecosystems of ideas and the communities that sustain them would bring us closer to the ideal of a reflexive collective intelligence at the service of human development and a renewed democracy. This is not to entertain any illusion about the possibility of total transparency, but rather to open the way to the critical exploration of an infinite universe of meaning.

[1] Discours sur la première décade de Tite-Live. La Pléiade, Gallimard, Paris, p. 588, my translation.

Publié par Pierre Lévy

Assiociate Researcher at the University of Montreal (Canada), Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. Author of: Collective Intelligence (1994), Becoming Virtual (1995), Cyberculture (1997), The Semantic Sphere (2011) and several other books translated in numerous languages. CEO of INTLEKT Metadata Inc.

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