“In the future our bodies will be readable text that can be modified by others”

By June 03, 2016
Alexandre Lacroix

Interview with Alexandre Lacroix, writer and editor of French monthly philosophy journal ‘Philosophie Magazine’. In ‘Ce qui nous relie’ (What Links Us Together) published by Allary, he demystifies the current digital revolution and highlights the changes in our values and reference points as a result of the ‘invasion’ of the human body and soul through hyper-connectivity.

Today we take a step back from our pursuit of innovation and look at the digital revolution from a slightly more philosophical angle. Alexandre Lacroix, Editor of ‘Philosophie Magazine’, writes in his recent book ‘Ce qui nous relie’  (published by Allary) about a journey he took to meet people from the four corners of the earth, including three men who have helped him to ask the right questions about the current digital revolution: information ‘leaker’ Julian Assange; Philippe, a ‘truther’ or conspiracy theorist; and tech investment expert Peter Thiel. We have now moved into a new era, he argues. Even more fascinating, we are now moving from a ‘spectacle society’ to an ‘information society’. With far-reaching consequences. The spread of information facilitated by the new technologies, are going to affect everything – even our own bodies. Tomorrow, our bodies could be represented in the form of text, which everyone will be able to read and modify. Meanwhile our minds, which nowadays are hyperconnected, have already essentially been fused together.

Interview originally broadcast in French on L’Atelier numérique (L’Atelier Digital) on the BFM Business channel

You recently published a book entitled ‘Ce qui nous relie. Jusqu’où Internet changera nos vies?’ (What Links Us Together: to what extent will the Internet change our lives?). The book tells of three encounters, the first with Julian Assange, then with Philippe, a ‘truther’, and lastly your meeting with Peter Thiel, billionaire entrepreneur, PayPal co-founder and astute investor in Facebook. And you explain that these three encounters have made you realise that the digital revolution is bringing about a change in our values and reference points.

Alexandre Lacroix: Well, my vocation doesn’t involve being a computer expert or technology specialist. It’s linked to the work I do at Philosophie Magazine. And it’s about trying to bring a philosophical view to the latest events in our modern world. When we look at the world as it is today, you might have one of two rather different feelings.
One overall way of looking at things is that France in particular and Europe as a whole are in decline. Economic indicators seem to confirm this notion. And also that our political leaders don’t really have a vision of the future. This is a fairly reasonable view of things. Our civilisation does seem to be running out of steam.

But we could also take a happier view, a more positive outlook on our modern world, and tell ourselves that we are extraordinarily lucky. I was born in 1975. I have had this opportunity, as did others of my generation, and many of your listeners and readers as well, to be able to follow one of the fastest, most far-reaching revolutions that humankind has ever known: the third symbols revolution.

Following the invention of writing, and the invention of printing, we are now facing – with the advent of the web in 1989 – a revolution which is certainly a technological revolution, but far more than that. Writing is essentially a technology. It started out as a technique involving drawing signs in fresh clay with a cut reed.
In the same way today we have techniques which fundamentally modify the way human beings record and leave traces of their activities and exchange them between each other. We can see that all areas of human activity have been impacted since 1989, both at work – where everyone has had to re-learn his/her job using the new digital tools – and also in our private lives – i.e. the way we view love, meet each other, the way we run our family lives and our relationships with our friends. All this has been fundamentally changed by the arrival of these tools, by the arrival of the social networks.

We’re being projected into a sort of gigantic machine-assisted telepathy.

Is this where the title of your book – ‘What links us together’ comes from?

The title of my book – ‘What links us together’ is indeed designed to point up one of the most spectacular aspects of this revolution.
We’re now being projected into a sort of gigantic machine-assisted telepathy. Of course we have flows of conscience, thoughts. But at any hour of the day wherever we are, even if we’re out for a walk, far from a city, all we need is to be in a connected area and then other people’s thoughts – of friends, colleagues and the rest of our circle – can reach us. Messages reach us all the time from absolutely everywhere. This is a new and quite staggering change.

And we’re so linked up, so connected that you almost get the feeling that the frontiers of our identity are becoming porous and fuzzy. We need to rethink our identity, the fact of being an entity in the era of connectivity.

Another striking encounter which you talk about in your book is with Peter Thiel, the well-known libertarian and transhumanist. During your visit to California you met researchers and also some members of the [Silicon Valley think tank] Singularity University. This made you realise that tomorrow’s challenge is perhaps biological information. You explain that in the future our bodies will be readable text that can be modified by others.

If we stay in the domain of whistle-blowers in the company of Julian Assange or in the world of ‘truthers’ / conspiracy theorists in the company of Philippe, we’re still talking about traditional ways of using of information.
Information comes from language, from symbolism. We’re talking about stories and numbers that people exchange with one another.

But what the ongoing technology revolution must now lead us to think about is completely new. Biological and genetic information is gradually going to be posted online. This has to some extent already started to happen. In the United States there’s a company which offers personal genome sequencing for just $200. And many patients in the US are using the service.

In the future you’ll go to the doctor with your biomedical and genetic data on a USB stick.

The company was founded by Anne Wojcicki, who used to be married to Google founder Sergey Brin. That’s clearly not just a coincidence. The digital revolution we’re experiencing, and the information revolution we’re going through with Google, are linked to another revolution, the genetic revolution.

Research is increasingly focusing on finding ways to compile the biomedical data of every patient; this can then be processed using software applications and made available on a USB stick.

Last year the US authorities gave the green light for the printing of medicines. This means that 3D printers can be used to produce medicines, with dosages that are exactly suited, to the milligram, to your biomedical data.
And this is the future of medicine. Tomorrow you’ll go to the doctor with your biomedical and genetic data on a USB stick. Your doctor will then prescribe an active molecule. An app will calculate the right dose for your body, and then you’ll go and get it printed out.

So we can really imagine a day when pharmacies will be transformed into ‘fablabs’. And we see that, little by little, this world of biomedical and genetic information is being captured by the same players who today manage online information.

We’re now getting our hands dirty. We’re opening the lid on life as we begin to rummage about in genetic information.

And we cannot accurately predict the consequences. The information will be filtered, monetised and used in exactly the same way as traditional information has been. It’s fairly obvious that this genetic information will be of interest to insurance companies, which raises huge ethical and financial issues.

But this also opens up the road to genome modification. Two months ago, the United Kingdom authorised the use of Crispr-Cas9 technology. This technology enables the deletion of strands of DNA, at the moment when the first cellular divisions of an embryo take place, in order to introduce modifications into the genome. So it seems we’re about to see a kind of gigantic wave of genetic DIY.

We’re now getting our hands dirty. We’re opening the lid on life as we begin to rummage about in genetic information.

It has been said that ‘Man is a being that uses language’. This means that, unlike other animals, we can talk. But now we need to see the situation in a much wider context. If ‘man is a being that uses language’ this means we’re going to change in line with the beliefs and values embedded in our daily use of language – our genetic and biological language. The increasing convergence and interconnection between human body and machine will have surprising consequences for our definition of what a human being is. This will have to be thought through again. We’re now faced with a situation where human nature is rapidly becoming more artificial, less natural, more of a construct.

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If you want to pursue the question of what links us together, just click to hear  the rest of the interview (in French only) or set aside a few hours to read the book (English translation not yet available).

« Ce qui nous relie – jusqu’où Internet changera nos vies », Alexandre Lacroix. Allary Editions.

Crédits photo : Flammarion.

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