Grey Ecology as an Ecology of Agency and Alterity

The term “grey ecology” was introduced by P. Virilio in 2010, as a way of reflecting on the effects that the by-products of the digital revolution have on the human mind. In his work on the dromosphere (the space of technological acceleration), Virilio argued that just as accidents are intrinsic to technological innovation, pollution is the side effect of progress and, to some extent, its 'normal' but unacceptable companion. While many of the risks of the digital era are well known—the encroachment on privacy, extreme state surveillance, viral attacks, network meltdowns, data theft, etc.—and there is an active engagement on the part of experts, institutions and the public to find technical and political solutions to limit their impact, there is far less concern about digital pollution. In fact, pollution in the computational era evokes images of e-waste, old desktop computers strewn in open-air dumps, overheated data farms and silicon mines. But ecology does not simply refer to overconsumption, toxicity and waste; it also refers to equilibrium and diversity. What we want to suggest here is that one of the social prices being paid for the exponential increase of information is a reduction in the diversity of perspectives. The pervasive and obscure tracking of our digital life, and its real-time transformation into a myriad of fragmented and contextualized profiles, creates a sort of epistemic membrane, which makes social identity and social belonging less understandable and more complex.

In a very similar vein, D. Quessada (2007) argues that the hegemony of dynamic differences makes the figure of the Other slowly disappear: “It seems that we now live in a proliferation of differences. It is not at all the same as the otherness (l'altérité). The all-round contemporary exaltation of difference is perhaps the clearest sign of the disappearance of otherness. When humans prevent themselves to be crossed by a founding division, […] the setting necessary for the existence of the Other disappears and all figures vanish one after the other—whether in the form theological, political or ontological.” (p. 5) The brutality or the violence of this process could be related to the progressive disappearance of the social habitus (Bourdieu 1979), due to the extreme individualization and opacity of profiling and attention channeling mechanisms. The habitus was both a guarantee of a socially shared (class) episteme of the world and a collective protection against the world's complexity and uncertainty. To say this in Goffmanian terms: we are losing the rituals and the codes that, when interacting with others who are different from us, help us to preserve our face while preserving the face of the other—a skill and process which is at the very root of social ties.

Without going as far as A. Touraine (1993), for whom the rationalization of life has progressively destroyed the traditional correspondence between social organization and personal life, leading to a massive de-socialization, we do believe that there is a tension around agency in the digital environments.

According to Virilio (1995), the transformation in the sense of agency leads to a dramatic loss of orientation, a significant disturbance in one's relationship with oneself, the others and the world, which in turn has tremendous consequences for the sense of alterity and for democracy: “The specific negative aspect of information superhighways is precisely the loss of orientation regarding alterity (the other), a disturbance in the relationship with the other and with the world. It is obvious that this loss of orientation, this non-situation, is going to usher a deep crisis which will affect society and hence, democracy” (p. 1).

In the previous industrial age of “solid modernity” (Bauman 2001), exploitation, poverty and class conflicts both triggered and sustained the establishment of collective movements, making possible an industrial democracy. In the age of digital postmodernity, any collective movement (ex pluribus unum) is difficult to operate due to the opacity of the 'digital assemblage' and to the extreme individualization of our digital lives. And this, as already pointed out, leads to the loss of a clear figure of otherness. For A. Gorz (1993), “Classical class analysis cannot provide an answer to the question of which social forces would be capable of achieving these transformations. There is no central front where decisive battles can be won through class confrontation. In other words, the front is everywhere, because the power of capital is exercised in a diffuse fashion in every area of life” (p. 62) We suggest that Virilio's concept of grey ecology can help us to reflect on how to protect our attention, and how to restore our sense of self, agency and social orientation. Grey ecology can be considered as an invitation to politicize our concerns about our human and mental resources, just as green ecology is doing with the natural resources. A Grey ecology could open the door to new forms of solidarity by establishing a new front of collective engagement and general interest. To understand what this front would be defending, we could draw a parallel with what happened to the 'artisans' at the end of the nineteenth century. Over a hundred years ago the skills and gestures of craftsmen and women were incorporated into a scientific organizational regime and then automated. More recently it is our personal data, history and digital traces that are being captured. So now, as in the past, we are witnessing the process of expropriation of human prerogatives. The defence of attention can thus be situated in a long tradition of humanistic movements and conceptualized as a political and collective concern, and a new front for solidarity and resistance.

Two main observations legitimate this reference to 'ecology'. First, as A. Gorz states (1993), ecology represents the tension between the “life-world” and the “quantification and monetary valuation of life”. It opposes the substitution of individuals' autonomy and capacity for self-determination by mercantile, dependent, client relations. And second, ecology as a social and cultural movement is possibly the most relevant means of 'resistance' to digital fragmentation and its opaqueness. As S. Rodota (1999) asserts, ecology is a promising cultural and political path because it concerns people's attitudes and lifestyles, and so allows a shared reflexivity on digital technologies and the pollution they engender, thus avoiding sterile pro and con debates. Ecology is also a means of spreading forms of cultural vigilance which can be promoted in schools and the media. And finally, it can direct political and industrial authorities towards actions and research which promote “clean technologies”—that is, technologies which are sustainable in respect to our attention and our capacity of self-determination and accountable regarding the processes they perform to fabricate identities and differences. To some extent, a step in this direction has already been taken by the European Regulator when it decided to introduce the concept of 'Data Minimization' into the project of personal data regulation in order to protect European citizens from the uncontrolled processing of their personal data.

Hannah Arendt warned us long ago that “miracles and catastrophies are two sides of the same coin”. In line with her concept of natality, could the grey ecology be the possibility of a new beginning?

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