Technology stretches definition of ‘human’ 

By Barbara Black

Not many Concordia professors have been interviewed by the august Paris daily Le Monde, but Ollivier Dyens was in January on the publication of his latest book, La Condition inhumaine : Essai sur l’effroi technologique (Flammarion).

Dyens is un philosophe in the tradition of Sartre and Derrida, at home in the abstract. His book, whose title translates as The Inhuman Condition, looks at nothing less than the future of life as we know it.

Ollivier Dyens advises readers to get a grasp on technological issues. Magnifying glass

Ollivier Dyens advises readers to get a grasp on technological issues.

“Technology precedes homo sapiens,” he explained in an interview. “We know of tools as far back as one million years BCE. But since the Industrial Revolution and Charles Darwin, over the last couple hundred years, technology has greatly opened up what we can see.

“We used to think we knew that we are human and this table, say, is inanimate. But increasingly, our universals don’t stand up any more. Through technology, we can see into different levels of reality. At an atomic level, for example, there are no differences between you, me, and the table.

“Look at our uncertainty about abortion, to take another example. Because technology makes us wonder when life starts, the debate about abortion is endless. The barriers are moving.”

The result may be a new kind of intelligence that is “inhuman,” in the sense that it is not harsh and cruel, but strikingly “un-human.” We find evidence of intelligence externally, in bacteria and robots, and collectively, in “smart mobs” that make group decisions. We’re dependent on digital networks, and we’re beginning to create hybrid life forms through advanced medical techniques.

If we don’t get a grasp on the way technology is redefining intelligence, Dyens says we run the risk of a Manichean world of knows and know-nots, of a knowledgeable elite versus the disenfranchised masses. If we handle matters right, we can minimize conflict, spread knowledge, and deepen our appreciation of life, art, and one another.

Reception to these ideas breaks down along the continental fault line. North Americans have a positive, optimistic outlook on technological change. Europeans tend to be gloomy. Dyens tries to be neutral, but he admits he has become cautious, quoting Bertrand Russell: “Change is scientific, while progress is ethical.”

Dyens was born un français in Rome, where his Tunisian father and German mother were enjoying a scholarship from the Ecole des beaux-arts. The family arrived here when he was three. Fluently bilingual, he’s not only a dyed-in-the-wool Montrealer, but most of his family members have passed through Concordia at one time or another.

He took his first degree in film production at Concordia and his MA at the Université de Montréal, but digital confusion in the media made the early 1990s a bad time to launch a career as a filmmaker. By chance, he attended a seminar talk on virtual reality that opened a world of possibilities.

“I wanted to plunge right in,” he recalled. He did his Master’s on digital image in film and his doctorate on the impact of technology on representation. Several subsequent years spent teaching in the French departments of universities in Nova Scotia and Baton Rouge, La., gave him the eclectic profile Concordia was looking for in the great faculty renewal of the late ’90s.

French studies departments are usually seen as looking back to the great literary and historical canon, but Concordia’s Departement d’Études françaises is different. “Students in this department are doing theses on manga [Japanese comics] and video games,” Dyens said.

Involvement in technology and speculation about its role cuts right across the academic disciplines and gives his generation of faculty members a lot in common.

“Concordia is a great place to be right now. The administration leaves a light footprint compared to other places. You can change things here if you want to.”


Concordia University