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Gilles Dowek - 14/06/2019

Michel Serres and Digital Technology

Michel Serres © CC Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

Michel Serres has died and the world has lost a universal thinker, an explorer whose journeys took him from science to religion, from Jules Verne to Hergé and from Leibniz to Carpaccio.

Michel Serres demonstrated his interest in digital technology on many occasions: during talks he gave for the fortieth anniversary of Inria in 2007 and at the 2018 congress of the Société informatique de France (French Informatics Society), in his preface to Inria's strategic plan for 2013-2017, and most of all, in a speech he delivered to the Académie Française in 2011, which become a huge success : Petite Poucette  (Thumbelina), Le Pommier, 2012).

Michel Serres first addressed digital technology through the philosophy of technology. Looking back on his thinking, this interest can be traced to the first volume of the series Hermès: la communication (Minuit, 1969). A key idea in Michel Serres's thinking is that in every era, technology shapes the world in which we live: law, politics, cities, sciences, religions etc. Communication technology plays a crucial role in all of these areas, and is arguably of greater importance than the technology used to produce material goods. In the sixties, this was a groundbreaking idea.

Michel Serres urges us to observe the ways in which computers and networks have changed our relationship to space, since we now are all close to one another, to friendship, since we now have thousands of "friends," and to knowledge, which is now accessible to everyone. And these metamorphoses have given rise to a new kind of human being.

It was only at a later stage that he would focus ondigital technology in relation to the concerns of the philosophy of science, he had been investigating, for instance in Les Origines de la Géométrie  (Origins of Geometry). Michel Serres translated two English adjectives, used to describe hardware and software, as "hard" and "soft." Information technology is therefore presented as an expansion of the scope of scientific investigation, from the hard – material and energy – to the soft – information. This means that the information revolution cannot be considered as a continuation of the two hard industrial revolutions: those of the steam machine and the combustion engine, but as that of the soft revolutions: writing, printing, etc. This transition from hard to soft can be observed in many areas besides information technology: in other sciences, naturally, but also in moral philosophy.  

Michel Serres's classification of sciences differentiates between objective, collective and cognitive sciences, with information technology naturally faling into the third category. The fact that information technology has transformed the cognitive and objective sciences is more or less self-evident, but Michel Serres raised questions about the potential for a similar transformation of the collective sciences. The instrumentation of the objective sciences has been established since Galileo and Leeuwenhoek, but is such an instrumentation of the collective sciences possible? And do computer networks serve as a microscope for anthropologists? In addition, beyond observation, what modelling tools does computer science provide for the humanities? Through such questions, Michel Serres sought to provide an understanding of the emergence of the digital humanities.

In his analysis of the history of ideas, Michel Serres attached great importance to the difference between one generation and the next, with the evolution of our humanity ultimately being the sum of these successive differences. This was probably the basis for his interest in the cultural practices of the generation following his own, and the one after that: that of Petite Poucette. But it must also be seen as an expression of his interest in beginnings: the beginning of the universe, of the Earth, of life, of humanity, these four narratives that shape us. As chance would have it, Michel Serres was born on the first of September and died on the first of June – undoubtedly a sign that he was a man of beginnings.

Keywords: Michel Serres History of Computing