“We have reached the limits of the Fordist model”

This article is an excerpt of the book Open models published in French in 2014 and translated in 2016.

Bernard Stiegler is a philosopher and evolution of technical systems theorist. He discovered open models almost by accident when he was Director of France’s National Audiovisual Institute (INA). Initiator and president of the philosophical think tank Ars industrialis since 2005, Bernard also leads the Research and Innovation Institute (IRI) which is a part of the Centre Georges Pompidou.

Open, contributory and collaborative models are more and more frequent, contribution is spreading to new territories. How do you interpret this evolution? 

Before answering, there is a prerequisite: one must first understand that all models are not equivalent. Facebook is contributory but in some regards, it is a worse model than its non- contributory equivalent, I almost prefer TF1 (French first private TV channel). These mechanisms of data capture and distortion lead to extreme depersonalization. This phenomenon will worsen with the rise of Big Data. It is at the same time exciting, because data will open up new opportunities, and also very dangerous. This is why I refer to a “pharmakon”.

What is a “pharmakon”?

In every technology or system, two opposing forces exist simultaneously. One is good, positive, emancipatory and the other negative, predatory. We need to analyze the toxicity of these phenomena because the better they are, the more toxic they are as well. A “pharmakon” always requires therapeutic activity. It has to be transformed into a body to be cared for which, like any medication or absence of such treatment, can kill the patient. Therefore, we have to be able to do this analysis honestly and sincerely, as a chartered accountant does with any company’s accounts.  The problem is that we do not have the hindsight, training and know-how to be able to deal with contributory models wisely. Today, we need a typology of contributory models. I work a lot with communities of hackers and until the “Snowden crisis”, they did not really see the pharmacological order of the net. Things have changed over the past years, there is a kind of “blues of the net”.

How would you define the contributory economy and how do you differentiate it from the market economy for example?

The contributory economy is founded on “re-capacitation”: it increases people’s ability rather than decreasing it. This term re-capacitation is inspired by the capability approach formulated by Indian economist Amartya Sen. Capability is knowledge – a “savoir-vivre”, a know-how or a formal knowledge – shared with others and which constitutes a community of knowledge. Sen showed that consumerism decreases capabilities. A contributory economy therefore relies on the development of the knowledge of individuals and this knowledge-sharing is facilitated by common ownership which does not prevent its dissemination.

“I am not against the notion of ownership, but ownership must not prevent enhancing the collective value of knowledge.”

I am not against the notion of ownership, but ownership must not prevent enhancing the collective value of knowledge. Unlike capacitation, consumer society relies on universalization – even design is universally available nowadays. The contributory economy is an economy based on parity, peer-to-peer. In this economy, we often talk about emerging initiatives or bottom-up. But bottom-up doesn’t exist on its own, somewhere there is a top-down, that is, an organization which unites and promotes bottom-up dynamics. When we believe that only bottom-up exists, it is because a hidden top-down is governing what emerges. The real peer is the one able to explain the top-down within the bottom-up.

Why is the role played by peers more important today than 20 years ago or than it will be in 20 years? 

Because it’s the beginning of a new era of automation, different in its essence from the previous one. It’s the continuation of what started two hundred years ago, but automation is currently going through a change of regime. In many sectors, a workforce is no longer necessary, or will be redundant in the short term. Amazon recently announced that they are working on the elimination of all jobs and their replacement by machines. Currently, all conditions are present for automation to pass the next stage. It is only the costs to develop these new robots which is slowing this inevitable evolution. We can assume that when companies as large as Amazon are making such announcements, then the whole industrial ecosystem will commit to produce enough economies of scale to make robots more cost-effective than humans. When this happens, the Fordist model will be dead. Because with the depletion of employment, purchasing power can only drop. When we reach this point, we will be in a major, violent and systemic crisis. If we do not change the rules now, we will have enormous difficulties in dealing with the situation.

These models are developing, but we often have the feeling they struggle to endure and develop. For what reasons?

It is true that contributory models’ insecurity and high failure rate does raise questions. The explanation lies in the ecosystem, the macro economy. At a micro scale (individuals and organizations) initiatives emerge and spread. It shows that without a macro policy, they cannot fully flourish. When I talk about macro economy, I refer to labor law, taxation, minimum social benefits, and regional infrastructures. All these elements are not conducive to the contributory economy. As long as we do not cause them evolve, there is no chance for contributory models to develop. Otherwise it will be a particular kind of contributory model that will prevail, Facebook is an example. So it is the whole contemporary economic and political project which must be reviewed.

Debates on a minimum “basic” income are interesting in this regard…

I prefer to talk about contributory income. For me, contributory income must be based on minimum subsistence income, but it should not stop there. Contributory income should be designed to favor individuals’ commitment to contributory projects. We have to encourage contributions in order to create businesses that I call social ones – they can be profit-making but don’t necessarily have to be.

Beyond systems and macro-economy, what tools are available to develop contributory logics?

We have to develop a contributory culture and educational system, ensuring that individuals somehow commit to contributory projects, and we are seeing more and more of them. By developing this culture, we will favor individual ability to detect the part of toxicity in this pharmakon that constitutes the contributory economy. On another level, designers have a major role to play. They are to become the developers and guides of these future contributory systems. A fablab is not only working because there is a space and some machines, it works because there is a social architecture of contribution. It is the function of a designer. Research will itself improve if and when it becomes more contributory. The speed of development has increased and the level of complexity has increased so much that we need to cooperate to gain better understanding and analysis.

Opening research to other people who produce it today will allow us to better understand and keep up with events, to be more connected with what is happening on the ground.

You often talk about a “libidinal economy” to refer to contributory models. What is Freud doing here?

Yes, I have a Freudian vision of the economy. The Libido is explained as the social link, the ability to divert our drives towards what Freud describes as a social investment of desire. Drive operates positively when we manage to postpone our satisfaction. Postponing the reaction is about causing action. Libidinal economy is about idealization (in a Freudian sense) and sublimation of drives. We can say that free software thrives on this redirection, this notion of going beyond.

Translation by Anne-Sophie Payen with the help of Antoine Martin-Regniault


Bernard Stiegler

About Bernard Stiegler

Bernard Stiegler is a philosopher and evolution of technical systems theorist. He leads the Research and Innovation Institute (IRI) he founded in 2006 which is a part of the Centre Georges Pompidou.

Louis-David Benyayer

About Louis-David Benyayer

Louis-David is a strategy researcher and co-founded Without Model ESCP Europe graduate with a doctorate in Management Sciences, Louis-David carved two professional tracks: both entrepreneurial and academic. He started in organization consulting, then rapidly branched off to an entrepreneurial trajectory: he developed an activity in Strategy Consulting and was involved in several start-up projects, and in the turnaround of a nearly bankrupt company. He co-founded Without Model in 2012. He is now a researcher in strategy at the ICD Business School and ESCP Europe, and a contributor to many projects, associations and communities. In 2015, he co-authored with Simon Chignard of “Datanomics, les nouveaux business models des données” (Fyp Editions, 2015)

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