The current debate between the “reactionaries” opposing globalization and the progressives behind it somewhat smacks of the 17th century row between the old and modern schools of thought. Unlike the highly political spat sparked off between Paris and Brussels, the earlier quarrel was mostly intellectual and pitted those who rated Greek and Roman times as the high watermark of world culture against those arguing that creativity and innovation cannot but keep moving forward. Interestingly, the leader of the former camp, Nicolas Boileau, went down in history for deciding that two heads are better than one (“Du choc des idées naît la lumière”).

Four centuries on, his saying holds truer than ever: however much they enjoy clinching to the past, articulate conservatives given proper explanation may concede that the future holds more rewards than threats. At least we took it as an invitation to conjure two brilliant French minds, Pierre Lescure and Michel Serres, and to make up an imaginary conversation on how digital technology impacts culture.

A meeting of high minds

Both Serres and Lescure agree that digital technology has brought about a sea-change:

  • M. Serres, self-proclaimed “unrepentant optimist”, waxes lyrical on painting the transformational abilities of ICT. His interview of 30 December 2012 ran under the heading “A crisis? No, a brand new world is born”. Change of such tectonic magnitude, he reckons, happened only twice in history, when alphabets enabled writing and when the printing press set brain works free from hand distribution.
  • P. Lescure takes a grumpier look at the disruption inflicted to a system of support to culture that has thrived for decades behind the shield of hard-fought immunity from rules-based international trade: “Developments in information and communication technologies are calling into question and sometimes threatening a number of these measures.” Regardless, he acknowledges that “the growth in digital technologies and services is a great opportunity, both for creators who can create, produce and distribute their works more easily than in the past, and for the public who have access to a continually richer and diversified offer, which is more affordable than physical cultural products.”

Both of them would also admit that there is no more way back from the digital revolution than was when the paradigm shift to writing or printing struck.

Any problem?

None, says M. Serres whose born optimism will zero in on opportunities held by a crisis before addressing possibly related threats. He relishes trends that eluded planning such as the world population doubling twice in his own lifetime – or farmers melting down from 50% to 1% of the French workforce over the last 50 years – as mere facts of life calling for drastic adjustment. In this respect, he commends the younger generation – dubbed “Little Thumblings” to gently mock their dependency on how agile their thumbs run on handheld keyboards – on the amazing resourcefulness that makes them reinvent the use of the human brain and push it to new limits: digital technology, this plain, at times unwieldy tool for digital migrants is the very lifeline of digital natives. M. Serres believes in unfettered innovation: he contrasts the optimistic heirs of Jules Verne at the turn of the 20th century to his all too despondent or fainthearted compatriots at the dawn of the 21st century; he laments the fact that France would invariably top the rankings of those countries found agonizing over the progress induced by science and technology.

Hold your horses, digital natives!

On delivering on the remit entrusted to him by the minister of Culture, P. Lescure has dug out a full can of wiggling worms. Indeed he was expected to shore up a mind-boggling, “consistent collection of measures to support the creation, production, distribution and publication of cultural works: regulation mechanisms, financing tools, tax provisions … Some are specific to a given cultural sector (fixed book price, media release chronology, investment and broadcasting obligations, financial support for cinematographic and audiovisual production, French song quotas), whilst others have a more general range (payment for private copying, reduced VAT)”.

His litany regarding the disruptive effects of digital technology sounds like the stuff nightmares are made of: “The globalization of exchanges inherent in the Internet is allowing foreign players to emerge on the French market who escape national regulation and financing constraints. Changes in technologies and practices are undermining sources of income for designers and cultural industries: the legal online offer which is still inadequate and under remunerated, faces competition from an illegal, free and almost unlimited offer. The increase in cloud computing at the expense of storage on physical media is undermining payment for private copying.”

How not to feel helpless at the mere idea of having to fix this thicket of issues at once? Also, the sub-title showing on the roadmap he was handed out proved a self-fulfilling prophecy. His eyes riveted on the rear-view mirror captured the concerns of those constituencies that benefit the most from the cornucopia unlocked by the above described array of struts: turkeys wouldn’t vote for Christmas. In defiance to Antonio Vitorino’s forward-looking recommendations and as if eager to add insult to injury, he even suggested that private copying levies should be topped with additional burdens. Not much has changed in France since Pascal observed that a truth this side of the Pyrénées is often called a lie on the other side: only the former matters to domestic policy.

In short, M. Serres can’t wait to see all the benefits of a full-blown digital revolution, this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that transforms our lives. P. Lescure takes the opposite stance: he hopes that tweaking the framework that has afforded French culture smooth funding throughout analogue times will suffice to shoehorn a suitably played down digital revolution in it. True to his masters, he went on a mission to salvage and expand the construct that underpins the cultural exception. The point that its core justification, i.e. the scarcity of quality content, is now gone is deemed to be moot at best and downright irrelevant.

The demise of scaremongers

Luckily, Cassandra’s followers have proved fallible in the past: writing has defied Socrates’ prediction that it would ruin the brain’s memory; Gutenberg’s press has not spread rebellion or spelt the end of religion. Likewise, our “Little Thumblings” yet unsullied by exception, subsidies or quotas are quietly ushering in the happy times of unfettered innovation and grassroots cultural diversity, the variety that grows from the bottom up. Indeed digital technology substitutes content shortage with unlimited choice, controlled distribution with easier and affordable access to a “continually richer and diversified offer”, in P. Lescure’s own words. Once turned a foregone conclusion, cultural diversity needs only support to match, i.e. considerably downsized. Quod erat demonstrandum. Is it time then to trim the maze of rules and regulations that suited the analogue era? Not until control freaks quit the habit of liking the flavor of cultural diversity decided rue de Valois better, presumably.

The equalizing merits of digital technology

Not surprisingly, this fictitious dialogue based on actual quotes from Michel Serres and Pierre Lescure reveals that they hold different views on how freedom – and particularly the freedom to create – fares on informing our social and economic life. In all fairness, the former thinker enjoys the luxury of casting a soaring bird’s eye on these developments whereas the latter was on a tighter leash. At the end of the day the cultural revolution enabled by digital technology is everybody’s challenge

– “Frenchness” is no liability, only bureaucracy is. As illustrated by the Lumière brothers, there was a time when French cinema didn’t owe its world fame to the high-flying caste of subsidy-hunters and other support-seekers that holds the EU hostage to the past.

– “Little Thumblings” have no monopoly, not even an edge. Age is immaterial: ask Michel Serres!

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