INTERVIEW. Gilles Babinet: “We will have to regain control of the Internet”

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Co-president of the National Digital Council, lecturer at HEC and Sciences PO, specialist in issues related to digital technology and the new economy, Gilles Babinet returns in a fascinating book (“How the hippies, God and science invented the Internet”) on the birth of our technological world.

More than forty years ago, the Internet was in flux among army labs, universities, and hippie communities. What could connect these worlds together?
These are community effects that seem to have very little connection to each other. Hippies aren’t really soldiers… But two elements nevertheless contributed to their contact. First, a geographic fit: they all lived in this corner of California that would become Silicon Valley. Then, everyone had this very American notion of empowerment through technology. This is something historic: the people who left for California in the 1920s were already dreaming of new technologies, in this case those of cinema and aeronautics. In the 60s it was cybernetics and electronics, two fields whose exploration would lead to the birth of the Internet.

Science fiction writers also played a part in the birth of this movement. As?
In the 60s many science fiction writers moved to Silicon Valley because they felt that something was happening there and they wanted to interact with those who were inventing the technologies of tomorrow: scientists from a technical point of view, hippies from a more social point of view than view, the military from the point of view of different scenarios of the future. At the time, there was a pretty incredible resonance between science fiction authors and the researchers, engineers, and community members we just mentioned. If you take, for example, the question of interstellar travel in science fiction, you see that it prefigures the globalization that will come a few decades later: we speak different languages, we have to communicate at a distance, synchronize computers…

The Internet comes after the trauma of the Vietnam War and the deindustrialization of the country, remember, and becomes the new American myth…
The United States has always operated on myths. Bill Clinton understood this very well. When he came to power in 1992, he was looking for a story that could once again unite Americans. Going to the moon had already been done, confronting the USSR had no longer made sense since the Soviet collapse… The Internet and its incredible promises of development arrived at the right time: we could build a very ambitious strategy on this new tool, even by inventing utopias.

The Internet has allowed the creation of huge fortunes, a dazzling technological progress, but it has also caused a weakening of the country…
Americans have gambled hugely on the Internet, favoring the emergence of the digital giants we know today. But this was done by choosing to deindustrialize the country in a probably excessive way, in favor of a mythology of the tertiary sector and of triumphant technology. This choice had economic and political consequences in the following decades.

Digital has consequences for human beings as well. Like that of taking our brain hostage through the attention economy. How to cure it?
Until recently, companies didn’t control their externalities at all: they polluted, they emitted CO2 and they didn’t want to pay for this kind of thing. Now they are forced to do it. Today, the time capture of human attention must be considered in the same way as these externalities. When TikTok takes the equivalent of 200,000 lives in attention time each day, we are faced with an externality that, in addition to undoubtedly affecting our productivity, poses a public health problem. We will deal with social networks as with tobacco companies and impose taxes to combat this danger. We can clearly see that the pressure is increasing every day on these platforms, in the US and in Europe. Technology can also play a role: in the same way that these attention-grabbing technologies have appeared, we should see the rapid emergence of attention-liberating technologies that will help us regulate our practices.

The Gafam
reign over the world today. Shouldn’t we consider curbing the expansion of these companies, which are sometimes more powerful than states?

Economic history teaches us that we have experienced situations similar to those of today and that there is no inevitability. In 1914 we managed to dismantle Standard Oil, an oil company that alone accounted for 5% of America’s GDP. I have no doubt that we will then be able to regain control of these companies, whose size and power are indeed a real problem.
You draw a striking parallel between the digital world and the Ancien Régime. What similarities do you see there?

There is indeed a re-stratification of society reminiscent of this era with, above, elites who are offered fabulous salaries and stock options, and below, a multitude of click workers, messengers or order pickers who have virtually no prospect of social development and professional. This can lead to a collapse of social mobility, as we see in the United States today. However, the dramatic productivity gains we see with new technologies should be used to free people, not lock them into these dead-end jobs. This is why the States, even if they have begun to intervene, must do more in terms of regulation.
40 years after the creation of the Internet, where are the initial promises of mass education, improved health and redistribution of wealth?

In theory, this should have worked. The internet should have allowed it. But for a system to work, it has to have checks and balances… I think we will see the birth of real checks and balances. An opportunity will present itself when legislation is needed to regulate artificial intelligence on both sides of the Atlantic, as more and more actors are demanding. This is not impossible: we have been able to act on a global scale by instituting a minimum corporate tax of 15%, we should be able to do this to regulate digital.

: Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, MicrosoftTo read: “How the hippies, God and science invented the Internet”, Odile Jacob editions, 234 pages, 22.90 euros.

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