Pit Schultz on Thu, 22 Oct 1998 14:38:48 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Michel Serres: Knowledge's Redemption

Knowledge's Redemption
by Michel Serres

Luis Join-Lambert and Pierre Klein in conversation with Michel Serres.
Published as the feature 'Superhighways for All' in 'Revue Quart Monde'
(1), Paris (No 163, March 1997)


The new communication media will profoundly influence knowledge, meaning,
and hence, one may assume, mankind ('homo sapiens') itself. This provides
an extraordinary opportunity to shake up the current social dispensation
on the knowledge front, by acting in consort with today's most deprivated

Michel Serres is member of the French Academy, and he also holds
philosophy tenures at the Sorbonne (Paris) and Stanford (USA)


Revue Quart Monde (RQM): What is your opinion on the new information and
communication technologies, such as the Internet. Do you see them as an
opportunity or a threat for the poor?

Michel Serres (MS): What is unprecedented here is that concentration of
knowledge no longer obtains. Up to now, any form of education consisted, for
every one of us, in the bridging of not one, but several stretches of
distance, between one's place of birth, or point of departure, and that
particular place where the elements of knowledge happened to be localised:
the local libraries, universities, labs, natural science museums, etc. That
was already the case with the great library in Alexandria or Plato's academy;
and after that you had universities, schools, etc. One was always separated
by geographical distance from the place of knowledge. But one was separated
by social distance also: if you were not born to the right class, or were
stuck with a linguistic barrier because your parents were not speaking the
proper language; or there was a financial barrier. Even a 'mindgap' may be
postulated, as when one would not dare to come near these places of
knowledge. And yesterday's education system was a race of attrition on the
bumpy road to the sources of knowledge. So what is new about the world we
live in, is that the people do not have any longer to move in order to obtain
knowledge: thanks to the communication networks knowledge comes to them. And
despite lingering fears to the contrary, the opportunity for certain people
or certain classes to monopolise these assets has radically decreased. Up to
now, knowledge used to be concentrated and accumulated according to the rules
of capitalism, even if this has never been analysed in such terms. In
building the 'Tres Grande Bibliotheque'(2), France today enacts a return to a
past world in the era of the Internet. Here we have a building that fences
knowledge of precisely at the time when the networks enables one to tap into
whatever document wherever it may be located on Earth...

RQM: In 'Le premier homme' (First Man), Albert Camus describes how his
primary school teacher not only instructed him in the curiculum, but also
narrowed the gap towards knowledge by going to his grandmother and convincing
her to let her grandson pursue further studies. The very first hurdle
deprived people have to pass consists in regaining confidence in their own
powers of intelligence.

MS: That is what I just have called the mindgap. I do not want to convey the
impression that the Net is going to abolish every and all distances. It will
not obliterate the kind of human relationships described in Albert Camus 'Le
premier homme'. But it will bring the possibility of knowledge to all. In the
end, we turn out to have been democrats in everything, but not as far as
knowledge was concerned. Knowledge was behind a bulwark, not only of
distances, but of other barriers as well. It was the hallmark of 'merit', of
the idea that one had to be smart to attain it. Now there is nothing that
stands in our way if, for instance, we would like to set up an Internet
server for the 'Fourth World' association, and make it freely available to
the people.

The novelty of it is as great as when printing was introduced. Before then,
knowledge was the preserve of very few people. But subsequently, it came the
way of those people who could afford to buy books. And now, it will reach
everybody, eveywhere, and this is a truly great promise, a promise of the
democratic kind...

RQM: Yet there remain another aspect of knowledge, its inbedding in social
life, in community. The 'capitalist' appropriation of knowledge is not
something that stems from the nature of knowledge itself, but from a way of
living in society...

MS: This way of living in societies has determined a number of social bonds,
of hierarchical bonds, of commercial bonds, of monetary bonds...But - apart
from exceptional cases such as with small schools or monasteries - there were
no bonds stemming from knowledge or information. Today, a social bond may
well be based on these things. Nowadays, the unemployed person is provided
with professional schooling, whereas the excluded person is supposed to be
fed with information in order to become a citizen again. (Re)integration,
professional schooling, and education are three problems that must be tackled
together. For instance, education now comes to grip with society as a whole,
not only by way of scientific and professional schooling, but also in
imparting the 'togetherness' of all citizens.

>From now on, education is going to be an evolutive feature that will be
life-lasting, and the information bond is going to inbed itself ever more
profoundly in the social bond itself. We used to have a society where
knowledge was retained rather than disseminated. That is why so many people
were excluded from it.

RQM: And why would this change?

MS: Because today, we have the technological means to do it. Hundred years
ago, when some small paper plant lost in the woods went bankrupt, its workers
had no other recourse than to pack their bundle and tackle the various
distances I was talking about...on foot. Today, those same workers should be
able to go to the town hall, or to their former school, which would of course
be open after office hours, and avail themselves of all data necessary to
change their life. On the negative side, there is this huge crisis we are
facing regarding unemployment and a lagging economy, but on the positive
side, we have got this technology. Everybody knows by now that the only way
out of the crisis is to develop further information and education

RQM: But you've got this fierce competition out there, and the scarcity of
jobs is surely not going to diminish it. Sharing knowledge with my neighbor
in these circumstances might not be in my best interest...

MS: The economy is predicated upon exchanges, which in their turn are
predicated upon scarcity. Now suppose you have got two francs in your pocket
and I have got zero. If you give those two francs to me, I'll have two
francs, but you'll have nothing... This is what you call a zero-sum game.
Knowledge operates from the opposite principle. Say Pythagoras' theorema is
something I know, but you don't. If I teach it to you, you will obtain that
knowledge, and yet I will still retain it. This is not a zero sum game.

Knowledge is the realm of non-scarcity, as opposed to the economy. True,
knowledge has always been classified as a rare good. But who says that the
knowledge necessary to fix a scooter is less important than knowledge about
quantum physics? In a society where garbage-men are more in demand than
natural scientists, knowledge is on an equalization trajectory. Of course,
not everybody agrees. Dissenters will try to throw obstacles into this
dissemination of knowledge in order to keep it to themselves. For them,
knowledge must remain linked to privilege, to 'merit'... I believe that with
the advent of the Net, all knowledge will be at everybody's disposal. And I
pledge to work for it, it is now the time to do so. Knowledge will no longer
be for sale. Today one buys a book and one buys all sorts of knowledge.
To-morrow nothing of all that will be for sale.

RQM: There remains nonetheless the problem of secrecy: trade and
manufacturing secrets, and things that remain secret, because they are not

MS: Once information spreads and circulates there can be no longer dearth of
it anywhere. The Net is the place where you cannot hide anything. My great
hope on the Net is that true hackers will be truth hackers, meaning hackers
going for full disclosure. Twenty or even ten years ago, nobody could phantom
that total secrecy would disapear. Even to this day, big corporations are
buying up scientists, they are buying up unpublished knowledge, trade
secrets, and this is one of the major difficulties faced by scientific
research. To-morrow hackers will show up in labs, and they will throw all
secrets on the Net. Knowledge will no longer be in specific locales, in those
places of scarcity consecrated by society. Knowledge will be an ocean, a
pervasive environment in which society will plunge, but also loose itself.
Scarcity will turn into an overload of information, but correctives will be
found by working on ever more powerfull search engines.

In fact there will be a new approach to knowledge of which we have no idea
yet. It is the human mind that is going to change, just as it changed
radically with the Renaissance. Are you aware that the traditionnal transfer
of knowledge is currently crumbling in whole sectors of academia? Prestigious
universities in the United States see the number of somophores in mathematics
dwindling, because, as things now stand, there is no need any longer for that
type of reasonning, and that particular brand of mnemonic techniques.

RQM: It is because this type of reasonning is already inherently present in
all information that is available, and hence, it is no longer necessary to
master the reasonning oneself. What would you say?

MS: That is partially so. It is still, by far, impossible to gauge exactly
what is going to disapear, but It seems to me that the epistemological shift
is going to be even more profound than with the Renaissance. In this
information volume in which society is going to swim, to 'surf', there will
be opportunities for democratisation which were unfathomable up to now. This
(evolution) is surely not going to be detrimental to today's least educated

Ask yourself, what is the book you pobably would find at the home of people
without much money to spend? It is a dictionnary, a small Webster. Is this a
book that teaches you maths, or history, or economy? Not really. It is a book
where the chief enjoyment consists browsing through it, 'surfing' the mass of
data provided. Internet is nothing but a massive dictionnary, a gigantic
space in which the body travels.

Intelligence is not about knowing axiomatically how to reason... The French
16th Century philosopher Montaigne already had dismissed the concept of a
'well-stuffed head'. The advent of the printing press made the memorisation
of Ulysses' travels and of folk tales--the support of knowledge at that time
- redundant. Montaigne saw no longer use in memorizing a library that was
potentially infinite. But does not the Internet ask for a 'well-endowed
head'? Won't the best surfer be a 'Jack of all trades'? The fastest surfer is
not going to be be your typical Ivy-league super-titled philosopher: That
guy's head will be simply too loaded to sort it out on the Net. So, there
will be fresh opportunities for those who were viewed by society as laggards.
It is a clean start with equal opportunities for all.

Mankind is going to wander in the mass of information just as you are now
wandering in the woods and the mountains exploring the real world. Up to the
present time, knowledge was a space where you would be taught how to reason,
and where you had to memorize a lot. Now it is going to be a space to roam
about. That has never happened before.

RQM: But do you think that today's schools are an obstacle to these

MS: Absolutely so, and I would say: all schools. We are now at the threshold
of the biggest revolution in education in history. We will have to radically
change the whole education system. Every time humanity switched of carrier of
knowledge, schools changed. The carrier is independent of the education
system, but the education system is dependent of the carrier. The biggest
revolution in an education system occured with the introduction of writing
among the Greek. And all those big civilisations which came up with scrolls
for instance, as among the Jews, or hieroglyphs among Egyptians, also came up
with the biblical school, the scribes...

RQM: For generations, children were learning their parents' trade, and
learning was an immediate thing. Is that not the case with the school too? It
is the local context that lends relevance to what one learns. The local lore
was imparting meaning to the locally aquired knowledge. Now, if there is no
longer a place of knowledge around, were will meaning be found?

MS: When there is a change in carrier,the current method of transfer gets
interrupted. That happened in the West in the years 1960-1980 and it
constitutes one of the greatest upheavals of that period. Parents did no
longer instill to their children sexual morality, nor religion, nor morality
in general, nor civism...That really has been some shake-up at this end of
the twentieth century.

Meaning depends on the platform. In olden days, people spoke but did not
write. As soon as wrtiting appeared, the world changed. A system of transfer
of knowledge took shape. The drawing of contracts, the basis of law, became
possible; so did stable forms of exchange, the basis of trade; and so did
also institutions, the basis of politics. And thus it became possible for
groups of people to live alongside each other, and this formed the basis of
cities. Hence we speak of 'history', and of what was before that, as

When the printing press appeared, the centuries before that became illegible
to us, and we called them 'the Dark Ages'. A whole new sensation of meaning
came to us with the advent of Renaissance, with people like Montaigne,
Erasmus, Rabelais... The Reformation heralded the liberty of thought,
something inimaginable in a tradition grounded on the transfer of knowledge
that was not based on the printed word.

To-day, a new platform appears, and thus a new meaning will appear too.  It
is not something that is inherent to the channels through which this meaning
will flow. The channels are there before the meaning, they make the meaning,
and suddenly everybody's going to be astonished that a new meaning is there.
Do not look for it today: it is simply not in our world yet. You won't find
it, only your children, or your grand-children...

RQM: Thus, the challenge to-day is about providing access to these new
channels to all kids.

MS: In theory acces is cheap and unrestricted. The estimated budget for a
'distance learning' university on a campus opened by the previous French
government in an outer suburb of Paris was a mere one percent of that of a
traditionnal academic institution...So with sixteen times less money than was
spend on the four towers (8 billion Francs each...) of the Tres Grande
Bibilotheque, all knowledge concentrated therein could have been made
available to sixty million people. And they would even have saved on the
train fare to reach Paris from some distant province...

As you may know, the energy that is going about on the networks does not even
reach entropy scale. For all practical purposes, these kind of things come
for free.

RQM: The falling price of software and the sophistication drive in the
computer industry are not negligible forces. But you self have stated that
access time to a data base is hundred times faster for an American researcher
than it is to her/his African colleague, whose machines and connections are
so much less performing.

MS: That is true. For the time being, the technological advances profit
mostly to the rich, as usual. But things could be different. Of course, the
Americans are trying to keep their predominance, but we, the French, are more
democratic, more 'republican', more inclined to share, and this could make a
lot of difference. I am an optimist, a born optimist...

I am thinking of Claire Herhgert-Suffrin.  Fifteen years ago she set up,
without computers, a 'knowledge exchange' network. She put a number of people
together who were willing to swap their respective skills, being it Russian
language, or repairing scooters, or nuclear physics, well anything you
wanted, as long as money was kept out of the loop. It has become a web of
25.000 people almost all over Europe. She got that true intuition of what
knowledge is about: sharing, gift economy, exchanges, and space. If you put
all these elements in a computer system , you get a full fledged university.

RQM: This idea thrills and baffles us at the same time. Father Joseph
Wresinsky, who is our movement's founder figure, always asked those of us who
were academics to try covince their colleagues that we needed their

MS: Well, at that time Father Wresinsky was probably right. But today, you do
not need academics any more. Their knowledge is available to you, period.
That's the big difference.

RQM: On the other hand, Father Wresinsky made a distinction between different
types of knowledge. In his opinion, the knowledge of academics and that of
'field workers' was not the same. The latter is an empiric kind of knowledge,
rekindled and established by practical experience. Father Wresinsky used to
say to academics: "bring in your knowledge, but for God's sake don't prevent
those on the other side from gathering their own!"

MS: That's exactly what I am fighting for. I am totally opposed to the way
politicians in France are now dabbling with information technology in their
bid to wire up all schools. What they want is a top-down approach, starting
with experts, school inspectors, etc. and then making their set-up
compulsory...It is a carbon copy of the old world pushed into the new world:
dinosaurs plus the Internet.

My idea would be to no longer start with preconceived ideas about knowledge,
education and diplomas, but to bring people into contact according to their
needs and abilities. Poeople who are excluded will be less so if they are
brought together, and out of this gathering of people an effective demand
will surge. Today's education system is a supply system without a demand
function. It makes egg sellers set up shop on the vilage square when there
are no buyers around. As things stand now, teachers could not care less about
what pupils really want.

The premisses of the education system must be turned on their head.
Enpowerment (3) must be the key element. Empowerment means to give to those
who are excluded from society's mainstream: first the possibility to form a
true community, and then, to open a dialogue among themselves, and talk about
their needs. Then, you will have an effective demand for 'eggs'. These people
will learn fast, and will before soon know where to get hold of the knowledge
they want. Meanwhile, the supply side, like the National Centre for Distance
Learning, the universities, etc. will have set up free servers. That will be
a real revolution that will not have been started at the top, for once.

With this change of platform, everything is going to change: knowledge,
meaning, the human mind, just as when the printing press was introduced.

When the brain gets rid of certain kind of loads, it makes room for others.
When printing started to spread, the amount of memory that was 'liberated'
made possible the invention of physics, just as mathematics became possible
at the time of writing. You may compare that with the evolution of the human
race towards an erect position. The forelegs, which became available for
seizing things, became hands, and liberated the mouth from that task in the
process. Which enabled mankind to start speaking. This shift could not have
been anticipated beforehand.

So I do believe that the current evolution of technology is not something
historical but man-inherent. It is not in the order of history, but in the
order of evolution.

RQM: We're dazzled and fazzled! All these developments are going to land us
in a position of great responsability. Allow us to quote Father Joseph
Wresinsky again: "We are not going to wait till the great changes in society
will have taken place...to align ourselves on the side of the poorest, the
more so since these changes are taking place without them, and without any
thought being given to their experiences, and they will not benefit them
afterwards. Structural poverty is not going to fade away as by magic while we
are setting out towards a new society: we take it with us. We will have to
voluntarily get rid of it as we are building the new society, otherwise
poverty will remain as if it was incrusted in its wall themsevelves." You
have just spoken to us about the history of the big shifts in society. Yet
the poverty of the olden times is still with us, incrusted as it were in the
(new) walls of the Renaissance. But these new channels of communication are
going to bring forth a 'new man' of sorts. We are witnessing a 'grace
period', where the deficit of knowledge, or of its absence, is going to be
made good. But will 'new man' also, ipso facto, be less inequalitarian?

MS: Fact is that the circulation of information is a principal parameter that
changes everything. Not to make a berth for the poor in this new world would
be foolish and bloody-minded. It would be a blueprint for a world even more
cruel than this one. If we do not make that turn, we will risk plunging the
world in an even worse kind of poverty.

Today, a lack of knowledge is no longer a handicap. We're in a new ball game
now. There has been a 'moratorium on the debts' a you said, it is period of
grace for knowledge. But this fresh start must profit the weakest members of
society. For them there is a fresh chance, opportunity beckons. Time is up.
And time is now!

translated by Patrice Riemens

Translator's notes: (1)

Revue Quart Monde means 'Fourth World Magazine". The 'Fourth World' has
become in France a paradigmatic appelation for what may be termed 'the Third
World at home', viz these large tracts of the social--and
geographical--landscape that are left behind in the current, market-driven,
race for riches (or mere survival).

(2) Yet another pharaonic 'presidential project' commandeered by Francois
Mitterand, lest his legacy would not match that of his predecessors (esp.
General de Gaulle).

(3) The subtle, but very real differences between the French socio-political
discourse, which is indeed much more *political*, and the Anglo-Saxon one,
renders the term 'insertion' or (re)inclusion--and its antonym, 'exclusion'--
which Michel Serres used in the original interview, next to untranslatable.
As far as I know, 'empowerment' is its English proxy. Makes sense: in a
society whose paramount value is vested in the larger group (in France: 'la
Nation'), the deprived person is excluded, in one based on the individual,
she is merely powerless.

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