This chapter seeks to elaborate a general approach to ethics. In this approach ethical life is seen in tandem with technics, that we will define as technologies of organizing noetic life in the technosphere. We posit that the technosphere should be seen as a locality for hyper-industrial societies of the 21st century. The organization of noetic life is a technological issue and needs to be discussed in ethical terms, for it requires us to critically assess and reflect upon what we all experience in our daily lives: human behaviors, duties and characters are now being shaped by artificial systems. What is happening, in the most recent stage of exosomatic evolution, is that these artificial systems have become planetary organized and organizing organisms we are living in, through and by, both as individuals and political communities. This new organization of life, an unheard-of articulation of organic and inorganic matter, makes it necessary to thoroughly reconceptualize what we mean by ethical living in the technosphere.
Speaking of ethical life is not an easy task nowadays. Indeed the sense of ethical living has been distorted by green-washing strategies of global companies. Shamelessly—that is unethically, since what the Greeks defined as aidos (shame), along with dike (justice), constitutes the very condition of ethical life—these companies made use of growing environmental concerns in societies to keep unchanged their unsustainable business model. Therefore, when addressing what ethical living can and should actually mean in this condition, it seems necessary to shift the question of ethics from the sphere of personal choices to the sphere of the hyper-industrial organization of artificial systems. If these systems, as we argue, not only condition personal choices but also precede them by means of the algorithmic infrastructure of a new data economy that evades social and political control, the fundamental ethical issue has to relate to the hyper-industrial conditions within which an ethical life is possible. And that means addressing the question of ethics from within these hyper-industrial conditions is possible only through a firm rejection of the current macro-economic industrial model and the usages of technologies it imposes.
We must be clear: ethical living can be nothing but an illusion within the current macro-economic industrial model based on the tenet of irrational economic growth and GDP as a monetary measure of market value: in hyper-industrial societies living in the burning biosphere the question of ethics is first of all the question of the organization of the economic process, although ethics is clearly not limited to the economy. However, a different organization of this process is necessary in order to give ethics a new lease on life. We nonetheless firmly believe that living well in hyper-industrial societies of the 21st century is possible, provided that we carefully rethink (Stiegler 2018), that is take more seriously, the question of the relation between ethics, the economy and technology. This is what we aim to do in this chapter by reinterpreting the concept of ethos.
The chapter consists of six parts. The two first parts are introductory. In Part I, four conditions of possibility of ethics in the 21st century are determined. We argue that these conditions are technological, technospheric, hyper-industrial and exosomatic. In Part II, through a discussion of the problem of abstraction in the field of ethics, we show why our general approach to ethics should be seen as a critical extension of a normative/applied approach to ethics. Parts III and IV are devoted to the notion of ethos, reinterpreted in the context of algorithimization and automatization. In the Part V we discuss the vital link between ethos and locality in the context of technodiversity, arguing that the latter, as the very condition of technological sustainability, has, like biodiversity, been placed in jeopardy. Finally, Part VI is devoted to the ethical organization of life on Earth with respect to food production and the relation between the animal and the human in the Anthropocene.
Four Conditions of Possibility of Ethics in the 21st century
The first condition of possibility of ethics in the 21st century is technological. However, arguing that the question of ethics should be approached as a technological issue, it is first necessary to make a distinction between the term technics, denoted by technique in French and Technik in German, and what is commonly referred to as technologies. If the term ‘technology’ refers to technological equipment, ‘technics’ encompasses human actions based on knowledge. All human action has something to do with tekhnē,” which means that “delimiting the field of technics” is difficult (Stiegler 1998, 94). Unlike French, German, Italian, Finnish, Polish and other Slavic languages, the English language makes a distinction between technology, technique and technics (Lindberg 2010, 27). If the term ‘technology’ probably exist in all non-English languages, it commonly denotes technological equipment, rather than what Simondon described as a meta-theory of technics, which would pave the way to “the integration of technical reality into universal culture.”
(Simondon 2017, 159) Consider that what Michel Foucault described as techniques de soi in his language is translated as technologies of the self in English (1988, 16-49). However, using the term ‘technology’ may lead to some confusion. Since the development of cybernetics from the 1950s on, this term also refers to high-technology systems, that is, organized and organizing inorganic matter (Stiegler 1998, 17; Hui 2019, 28). High-technology systems have nothing to do with what Foucault meant by technologies of the self, practices aimed at caring for the self. We prefer the term technics not only in order to avoid terminological confusion, we also use this term in order to show that the very possibility of caring should be carefully rethought in relation to high technology. Since high-technology systems heavily (dis)organize the possibility of ethical life and do so with dazzling speed, leaving societies in a state of disorientation, the distinction between technics and technology makes it possible to argue that (1) technics should be approached as local and localized forms of knowledge of how to do [savoir-faire], live [savoir-vivre], conceptualize, and theorize—and, in this respect, technics go beyond what is commonly described as techniques; (2) that technics as forms of knowledge need to be reinvented from within technological systems, these new artificial organisms which both deform and transform technics as human modes of making “life worth living.” (Stiegler 2013)
The second condition of possibility of ethics in the 21st century is technospheric. The technosphere is not only a digital milieu which is real, rather than virtual, as one might have thought two or three decades ago (Hui 2016, 47-48). It is also a new system which needs humans to function but itself works autonomously and is therefore outside of human control (Haff, 2014, 127)—it can appear then as inhuman. But the technosphere is first of all and still a space of human activity, characterized by the intervention of technology systems and technoscience into nature. In the wake of Bonneuil and Fressoz (2016), Latour (2017), Bińczyk (2018, 2019), and many others, it is possible to define the technosphere as what is responsible for anthropogenic changes in the biosphere (Vernadsky 1945, 1997) and the reorganization of all life structures—social and biological alike. In this respect, any ethical action should be taken or judged from within “technonature,” (Lindberg 2020a) that is, a new space of living on Earth, where, on the one hand, the modern distinction between nature and technics appears as porous and, on the other hand, the metabolic system of the biosphere, which makes life on Earth biologically possible, is about to fail due to our use of industrial technologies. Here, the ethical task is to determine a new technospheric metabolism in which life-sustaining processes can still flourish in the technical organization of organic and inorganic matter/energy.
The third condition of possibility of ethics in the 21st century is hyper-industrial. Despite what sociologists such as Alain Touraine (1971) and Daniel Bell (1973) told us, the so-called post-industrial society has never come to pass, because industry cannot be reduced to the presence of factory chimneys, coal mines and steel production. We are living in hyper-industrial— rather than post-industrial—societies in which everything “has become subject to modelling and industrial activity—distribution, health, leisure, education, and so on.” (Stiegler 2015, 228). For the want of a politics of technics in relation to high technologies, this technology-based hyper-industry has finally led us to the age of a more and more unsettling surveillance, where the subject of modelling is “human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioral data.” (Zuboff 2019, 8) In this new situation every discourse on ethics has to take into account this hyper-industrial fact: our data, as new raw material for old, outdated and unsustainable economic models that remain structurally unchanged, are extracted from our daily activities. In general, capitalism in the industrial era is based on the exploitation of energy resources. However, unlike 19th century capitalist model, which depends on the extraction of fossil fuel and which has certainly not disappeared in the 21st century, digital platform-based economic model rather exploits libidinal energy reserves the extracted data come from. It is necessary to acknowledge to what extent these two variants of the systemically organized extraction have the same destructive impact on forms of live: human milieu—which can be developed through noetic activities and the exchange of new forms of knowledge, rather than through the algorithmized and controlled exchange of information—is destroyed as much as the environment. This hyper-industrial requires for us to develop a more comprehensive account of the technosphere. Just as the biosphere appears within the solar system as a locality for all living organisms, the technosphere should be understood as a locality for hyper-industrial societies and approached as no less critical an object of care. The future of the biosphere is techno-logical. Therefore, the technosphere has to be preserved as our techno-biological condition of life on Earth. Which means that our relation to technology has to change as much as the current economic model based on the unlimited exploitation of mineral and noetic resources.
The fourth condition of possibility of ethics in the 21st century is exorganological and relates to what Alfred Lotka described as exosomatic evolution, that is, an “increased adaptation [of the human species] […] achieved by the incomparably more rapid development of ‘artificial’ aids to our native receptor-effector apparatus.” (1945, 188). These artificial aids are exosomatic organs—from knives, arrows, wheels to carts, cars and self-driving cars; from abacus to calculator, computers and clusters—which are developed outside of the body and have greater and greater impact on the organization of life on Earth. To put it simply, the exosomatic evolution is an extension of biological evolution, and the economic process is a continuation of exosomatic evolution. Drawing on Lotka’s observation, Nicolas Georgescu-Roegen argued that “with the exosomatic evolution, the human species became addicted to the comfort provided by detachable limbs, which, in turn, compelled man to become a geological agent who continuously speeds up the entropic degradation of the finite stock of mineral resources.” (1976, xiv) From the exorganological perspective, ethics may be defined as a multiplicity of new technics of composing life with artificial organs, organs which we have depended on in the process of biological-exosomatic-economic evolution but which can be destroyed by current modes of production (and their use of these organs) that will make life on Earth biologically unsustainable. No one can either make ethical claims without taking into account these four conditions, which are systemically inter-connected.
The Uses, Misuses and Abuses of Abstraction
Under these conditions, a general approach to ethics may be seen as a critical extension of the normative/applied approach to ethics used by experts on ethics and committees whose role is to determine whether a new technological product is good or bad for individual users, society, freedom, democracy, and so on. In 1991, observing how genetic engineering was used to increase the power of the economic model, the French social philosopher André Gorz pointed out: “Faire de l’’éthique’ la spécialité d’experts revient à l’abstraire du vécu et de la culture du quotidien, à constater son extinction.” (1991, 109) However, considering the rapidly increasing impact of AI-based technologies (brain-machine interfaces, hands-free control of computers and, more generally, the use of algorithms) on hyper-industrial societies, we do need experts on ethics, provided they have the courage to firmly oppose the interests of global companies, paving the way to a new understanding of public policy in the technosphere. Recommendations from experts on ethics and ethics committees cannot go hand-in-hand with business as usual nor end up becoming pious dreams that avoid naming the problem, and remain silent about how to implement these recommendations in order to turn them into effective ethical principles. This is what courage means—the courage to dare to know (sapere aude) that Kant established as the spiritual principle of the Enlightenment. We have to learn how to demand knowledge from the experts in order to become capable of rebuilding and reinventing public power as a milieu of ethical actions in the era of algorithms.
However, at the same time, we also need, in the wake of Gorz, to carefully rethink the dynamics of abstraction in relation to ethics in order to see why establishing general ethical rules abstracts them from the local circumstances in which authentic ethical actions, both collective and individual, take place. Jacques Derrida identified such “forces of abstraction” as “deracination, delocalization, disincarnation, formalization, universalizing schematization, objectification, telecommunication etc.” If these forces can be also defined as the forces of evil or illness [le mal d’abstraction], it is because abstraction, when it forgets the local circumstances of its origination, becomes ineffective.
There is actually nothing abstract about the fact that Derrida defines the machine and technics as “the sites of abstraction.” (Derrida 2002, 43) On the contrary, what he tries to tell us by his specific use of the term abstraction has a very concrete meaning and relates to what we are experiencing in absolute terms: (1) technology tends to shape a universal and homogenous system; (2) the system tends to totalization—which means that the more the system is developed, the more it is abstracted from the local realities it transforms according to its own disruptive logic and the more it exceeds the control of these concrete and heterogeneous localities. Moreover, and counterintuitively, this universalizing tendency of the technical system makes the latter more and more specialized (Hui 2019, 21). Anywhere we live according to the customs of our singular plural places, we are organized by the same totalizing system and are condemned to let a small group of specialists design this system and decide how it works. This inner logic of the technical system, which is inherent in the very ‘nature’ of technics, has been subsumed by equally totalizing economic processes since the second half of the 20th century while Economic, an originary social science, has been left in the hands of an equally small group of specialists. “This is all wrong,” Greta Thunberg said at the Climate Action Summit in New York in September 2019.
A substantial part of this hyper-industrial evil—as an old-new evil spirit [genius malignus] devoting all his efforts [omni sua industria] to deceiving us, to put it in classical Cartesian terms [Descartes 2008, 16]1 —is due to the use which is made of abstraction in economic and technological processes. In this respect, the irrevocably critical task of ethics is to take account of the dynamics of abstraction. If abstraction is still what we need for ethics in order to have the power to define the ethical rules of the technosphere and for the technological macro-systems it consists of, abstraction is also what can make us blind to micro- and meso-levels from which an ethically organized technosphere, as a complex ensemble of reticulated open ethical systems more or less local but always localized in their histories, remains to be thought. A systemic change must be made in our common approach to ethics, as well as to its use and abuse by experts in ethics and ethics committees working in hyper-industrial conditions, shaped by technoscience in tandem with capital. Determining whether a new technological product or service is good or bad for societies from within the technoeconomic/technoscientific global system which itself is moving in the wrong direction remains far too abstract to be effective as far as local lives are concerned. Therefore, this irrevocably critical task of ethics is also a meta-task in the sense that it is aimed at determining the right place(s) for ethics and upsetting the balance between the universal and the local, the totalized and the singular, the specialized and the common—in other words, to rethink ethics in the technospere from accustomed places that Greeks called ethe (plural form of ethos).
In this respect, a formal distinction between ethics and morality should be reintroduced in order to go beyond the restrictions of moral philosophy. In a nutshell, ethical life, as long as it means to act well, is always conflictual. Acting well does not necessarily amount to following what is defined as acceptable, right or just as defined by moral philosophy. Morality is an abstraction as long as it is detached from mores, which means “customs,” that is ethos or Sittlichkeit. The redefinition of ethics is to observe how we all can and have to speak of ethics through the multiplicity of European philosophies and languages2 (Cassin 2010, 691-699), but also to discover anew how this multiplicity can align with a non-European ethe and work on a planetary level through multilinguistic techno-logical organs. It is no accident that the reduction of technology to mere functionality goes hand-in-hand with the advent of a monolinguistic culture which affects local ethe to the same extent as food monoculture affects biodiversity. To give ethics a new lease on life means to recognize that linguistic diversity is much more than a thing to be preserved within the logic of cultural exception and should rather be approached as the material condition of what Adam Smith described as the wealth of nations. And to rethink this wealth from a general ethical perspective, beyond abstracted/abstracting notions of growth, requires a deeper understanding of how ethical living is exorganically related to “technical inventions as behaviors of the living” (Canguilhem 2008, 95) and how this universal exorganological relation differentiates through local levels.
Ethos and Algorithms. Ancient and Modern Meaning of Ethos3
Ethics as moral philosophy is derived from the ancient Greek word ethos, which originally meant accustomed place and only derivatively custom and habit. Ethos is a particular character, that belongs both to the community (customs) and to the individual (moral character) who displays her character in her actions and discourses.
The ethos as the particular character of a community manifests itself in its customs, habits and traditions: it is a non-conscious and non-rational articulation of how things should be on the grounds that they have “always” been so. In ordinary life, the individuals’ ethical character reflects the ethos of their community: people grow into the customs and beliefs of their community. As Martin Heidegger has shown in his Humanismusbrief, ethos as the destined place of dwelling appears as a historical destination that orients people’s action immemorially. The force of ethos can be so great that a person defending it is ready to stand against the public law, like Antigone, the heroine of Sophocles’s tragedy Antigone, who is caught in a contradiction between the ethos as tradition that commands her to act in a certain way and the public law that forbids it. As G.W.F. Hegel shows in his interpretation of the ethical world in Phenomenology of Spirit, Antigone’s singular way of dealing with this contradiction makes her an ethical individual– displayed by the dramatic character (Hegel 1807, GW 241-277). The force of the ethos does not mean that any inherited ethos would be just but only that it imposes itself as if in the name of divine justice. This is why ethical life does not necessarily consist in simply following local traditions. On the contrary, sometimes the ethical duty calls to contest narrow-minded habitudes, repressive traditions and unjust laws, even though this can lead to heartbreaking tragedies. Ethos is inseparable from conflict, guilt and crime, and this is why ethical reflection often takes place in tragedy. In the contemporary world, people’s place of dwelling is determined in a radically different way. Of course, custom and habit still play a role. But the ethos of the contemporary world is increasingly marked by “algorithmic life” (Sadin 2015) and by “algorithmic governmentality” (Rouvroy & Berns 2010) that conditions ethical life itself. This does not mean that algorithms would dictate ethical rules but that the social space in which ethical action can be undertaken in the first place is increasingly managed by algorithms. They are the means of what Rouvroy and Berns call a “statistical governance”: it does not control what is real but it structures what appears as possible and at the same time tends to suppress alternative virtualities (Rouvroy & Berns 2009, Neyrat 2010). Some areas of statistical governance are designed by public powers (Alston 2019), but much larger domains, as well as its essential technological architecture, are created by big global companies that ultimately serve the needs of capitalism only (Zuboff 2015, Zuboff 2019). The world is not run by a huge self-conscious mega-AI, like in science fiction dystopias, but it is managed by innumerable algorithmic systems that innervate the social bodies impersonally and automatically. Why would algorithmic governance effect and even over-determine ethos in a more general sense of the world? Firstly, like classical ethos, little by little social algorithms configure the social space because they are given the role of framing what can be done by whom. Ancient ethos attributed different tasks for different types of people, e.g. men were expected to go to war, women were expected to lament the dead. Also contemporary social algorithms indicate what different people can do, and in principle they can do it in a more sophisticated way than the ancient ethos, because they can attribute tasks to people in function of their personal competences instead of crude particular features like sex or race. For example, they can be used to select the persons who can obtain a bank loan, better health care, a job or a place in an institution of higher education. However, it has been shown that instead of diminishing discrimination they can actually increase it, because they tend to keep people in the same places as they were previously (O’Neil 2016).
Secondly, like classical ethos, social algorithms govern social reality in a nonconscious yet incontestable way. The antique ethos was not questioned by people but simply obeyed by them because it was “ordered by gods.” A social algorithm is obviously not dictated by gods but programmed by engineers following the commands of their clients. But the people who are submitted to it cannot know or question it. From their point of view the algorithms are impenetrable “black boxes” (actually with advanced machine learning they develop into black boxes for the engineers, too). If ethos commands life with the force of the unconscious, social algorithms govern it with the force of the unthought, as N. Katherine Hayles (2017) puts it. For example, when algorithms of selection to higher education pick out some candidates and leave others out, the candidates cannot know why they were selected or not (either because the algorithm is a business secret or because its functioning is based on untraceable data-mining processes) – even while it being argued that justice demands that an individual should know and be able to challenge the data sets and processes used in the evaluation of her case (Villani 2018, 113-130, Madiega 2019).
Still, social algorithms are not exactly the same thing as ethos, because they have different temporalities. Firstly, they have different relations to the past. The ethos has no definite origin but it is just a habit that has “always” been there and that stays valid as long as people repeat it. The algorithm has an origin, because a society or a company has set its aims, a team of programmers has built it, and then it simply realizes its program. The ethos is different from the social algorithm insofar as it is open to reinterpretations, reforms and rebellions: it is valid only as long as people accept it. The social algorithm, on the contrary, can be updated by its programmers but not by the people who are governed by it. One cannot say no to an algorithm. Secondly and in consequence, ethos and social algorithms have a different relation to the future. A machine’s temporality is fundamentally different from human existential time. By necessity, technical systems function within a causal logic where past events determine future ones. In a traditional computer program this means realizing the same program. Modern machine-learning technologies are different since they rewrite their rules as a function of the regularities found in available data, so that they are based on recursivity rather than repetition (Hui 2019). However, the AI still functions on past possibilities (program or data) and in this sense it is fundamentally different from existential time, which develops by encountering impossibilities. Existential time is capable of openness to chance that is the very basis of human liberty, and this the social algorithm cannot see.
A social algorithm does not admit of critique and is not open to genuine chance. In this sense it does not leave place for existential choices, including demands of justice, tragic action, and finally ethical action itself. This is why it would be dangerous to let social space be overtly saturated and overdetermined by social algorithms.
Ethos and Automatization. Ethos As a “Mode of Relating to Contemporary Reality”
In 1984, Michel Foucault approached the classical notion of ethos in a contemporary setting. Commenting on the famous text of Kant, Answering the Question: What Is Enlightenment?, published 200 years earlier at the threshold of what we commonly call modernity, Foucault argued that modernity should be defined as an attitude, rather than a period of history (1984, 39). Ethos as accustomed place underwent a transformation with the advent of modernity, which keeps updating its classical sense. An ethical attitude then becomes “a mode of relating to contemporary reality [actualité]”—to what is happening now. Foucault traces this modern ethical attitude back to the ancient ethos because the former continuously appears as a task, even though this task is different from that of Antigone, for example. Arguing that ethos is always a voluntary choice that has to be made in order to be as a task, Foucault describes a modern ethical attitude as “a way of thinking and feeling; a way, too, of acting and behaving that at one and the same time marks a relation of belonging and presents itself as a task.” (39)
This is how an ethical transformation works: the immemorial, always given as a law, has to change in order to persevere. However, we who transform this law, if not transgress it in a continuous task of reinterpreting its principles [archai], are obliged to respect its immemorial, archaic character. This ob-ligation (binding toward) is the irreducible condition of ethical life. Indeed Bergson shows that not only is it one of the two sources of morality but also a social link: it “binds us to the other members of society, is a link of the same nature as that which unites the ants in the ant-hill or the cells of an organism.” (1977, 83) But this obligation also requires us to rethink what ethos, as “a mode of relating to contemporary reality,” actually is in the second decade of the 21st century, given the fact that our reality is no longer that of Foucault.
In the age of the great acceleration, time runs much faster than ever. Although only 35 years have passed since the publication of Foucault’s text on ethos, the fundamental difference between his contemporary reality and ours is technological. Thus, in order to redefine what an ethical attitude can or should be, we have to bear in mind that our “mode of relating to contemporary reality” is conditioned techno-logically: on the one hand, it is governed by social algorithms from which it is impossible to escape since they already reshape the very possibility of a social link, and on the other, an ethical attitude has to recognize its own vulnerability to an automatization that makes an ethical act impossible as long as ethical life is about making choices (the classical sense of ethos) and thereby maintaining an attitude that is a result of making choices and as such remains voluntary (the modern sense of ethos). It then becomes necessary to rethink the ethos from within “the automatic society” (Stiegler 2016) in order to transform the immemorial (the archaic) and give ethics new possibilities after automatization. Therefore, what Foucault described as “a philosophical ethos,” that consists in a “critique of what we are saying thinking and doing through a historical ontology of ourselves” (1984, 50) will undergo a new transformation, becoming now a technological ethos. Foucault’s approach to critique is still valid in the second half of the 21st century, but technology comes before ontology. An ethos as a philosophical life—that Foucault theorizes along with Pierre Hadot and what he describes as mode de vie in relation to ancient philosophical lives—should now be thought of as an experiment in technological life.
One’s actions can be performned and judged as ethical as long as the one who acts is responsible for what they do and are capable of anticipating the consequences of their actions. Therefore an ethical act cannot be automatized, because it is always singular and calls for a decision which always already disautomatizes the individual who makes it. Derrida often insisted on the impossible nature of this decision which emerges from the very sense of ethics or “the ethicity of ethics.” (Derrida 2003, 40) However, when we take the ethos for an attitude or a mode—of being, acting and relating to the self and the others—ethical life becomes a question of technics and should be approached through “the evolution of the technologies of the self.” (Foucault 2001, 1605)
Foucault identifies these technologies as modes of acting which make us capable of taking care of ourselves and, as a result, capable of interacting with others as if this interaction were a sine qua non condition of how to take care of the self in order to live an ethical life. Drawing on Greco-Roman philosophy and the monastic principles typical of Christian spirituality of the late Roman empire, Foucault distinguishes three techniques of the self: (1) writing letters to friends, in which the writer discloses herself or himself; (2) examining the self and conscience, and reviewing what was done; (3) remembering [askesis]. Let us consider a simple example: imagine that you’re a monk living in the fourth century. Your monastery is situated somewhere in the Roman Empire. You speak Latin, which was the lingua franca as English is today, and Rome meant—urbi et orbi—the whole world, just as what we call globalization has meant, since the 20th century. You write a letter to a friend and you disclose yourself. Reviewing what you’ve done, you bring it back to mind in an act of remembrance, which requires an effort on your part. What is the purpose of the effort you put in when writing your letter? Why do you need a friend to know and take care of yourself through this self-knowledge that you acquire techno-logically? Relying on Stoic letters reinterpreted during a seminar given at the University of Vermont in 1982, Foucault would reply that by means of this set of techniques you practice ethical life: not only does technics let you acquire the truth of yourself but it also can “transform truth into a permanent principle of action.” (1984a, 35) Thus this self-disclosure you made becomes the ethos you were prepared by [paraskeuazo]. Now you live your monk’s life as an authentically philosophical life. The overwhelming majority of us are not monks, however. An attempt to transform a philosophical ethos into a technological ethos also means to make it vulgar, that is, possible to be practiced— rather than to be simply used—by the people in their ordinary lives and through the organizations and institutions they create. If it is true, as Foucault says, that the technologies of the self which help us live an ethical life are subject to evolution, the same must be true for ethical life so long as the perseverance of the ethos requires of us the careful transformation of immemorial ethical principles. Then, the question is how to live an ethical life while practicing new technologies, rather than just using them4? Which of these new technologies—platforms, devices, apparatuses—might be useful for taking care of oneself and which ones make it utterly impossible? And, more importantly, how to reinvent ethical life when so many actions we used to do on our own have become increasingly automatized for the two last decades? How can we still be monks and get prepared by this automatization in order to make of it a blessing, rather than a curse?
No serious answer to these questions is possible without interrogating the hyper-industrial organization of these new technologies, an organization based on a shameful extraction and trading of personal data that is spinning out of control. So long as this extraction continues for the want of a politics of technology—which is not to be confused with the “policy” of tech-giants, but rather is a call to national governments and international institutions to take action—dealing with ethics will appear as an occupation for academic philosophers. However, through his reinterpretation of Stoic letters, Foucault shows that ethos does not have to appear as an old-fashioned ancient term, provided that we remain ethically capable of transforming it and making it persevere: to practice an ethical life through remembering means “the progressive consideration of self or mastery over oneself.” (1984a, 35) No one can hold mastery over themselves without having control over the data they share in their everyday lives and the shameful (ab)uses of these data made by Facebook, Google and other big-tech giants. To take back control over our data, which now disorganizes social life, appears as vital necessity and an opening to the technological ethos.
Ethos, Locality and Technodiversity
“It is one of my targets to show people that a lot of things that are a part of their landscape—that people think are universal—are the result of some very precise historical changes,” Foucault said when discussing the technologies of the self and recalling what he did in his earlier works (1984a, 11). But how to consider this statement in 2019, given the fact that (1) our landscape is shaped by a quasi-universal technological system; (2) this landscape consists of more and more standardized “things” under the totalizing and unifying tendency of new technologies? How can we organize an ethical technospheric landscape, and why is the relation between this landscape and a technological ethos of fundamental importance for this organization?
The unifying and totalizing character of technologies require us to rethink the irreducibly local character of ethos and reconsider the relation between the universal and the particular. The universal and the particular need to be approached in terms of composition, rather than in terms of opposition, and constitutes what one has to define as an ethical ecosystem. An ethos is local because it is a character and is localized in an accustomed place. It would be erroneous, however, to reduce the local appearance of ethos to a small and cozy place. Locality appears on different scales and continuously varies from one specific locality to another. What is universal is precisely this variation which binds localities and keep them working together as distinguished local singularities, always localized in something bigger than themselves. Israeli kibbutzim, Polish cooperativism, the Plaine Commune in Saint-Denis, indigenous communities in Ecuador, Berlin, Scotland, Hong Kong, the Amazon tribes, nations, civilizations, the biosphere are all different, variable and incredibly singular-plural scales of the same locality. This locality can be defined as universal, provided that we are smart enough to understand that the one consists in the many which keeps the one alive. What is ethical locally is universalisable so long as it appears in multiple variants in different places and upholds an ethical ecosystem, composed of localities which are physically opened because they are delimited by porous borders. In this perspective, locality is the linchpin of ethical life as the practice of local and localized ethe on a universal scale: an ethos can be conserved only in a local open system.
Therefore there is no such a thing as a universal or global ethos, which clearly implies that there are no universal values since they always belong to a particular local landscape and are proclaimed as universal by a privileged group of organized people—be it “white middle-class males, Western states, or international corporations” (Lindberg et al. 2014, 1)—who have a political interest in these deceptive claims to universalism. The so-called universal values are too often a seditious pretext to silence, despise or even extinguish those who are supposed to not uphold them. In this respect, calling upon values that are deemed timeless and that appeal to all of us is always a suspicious move, no matter who— and in the name of whom—makes this call. Ethics is not only about values. It is first about principles and the organization in which these principles can be upheld in order to make people capable of forming and transforming values on their own through daily ethical practices on variable scales of locality.
The global, unifying and totalizing technical system is a deadly threat for ethical life precisely because it systematically tends to destroy localities by means of their standardization and keeps degrading the complexity of immemorial ties as the conditions of possibility of ethical life within and between localities. However, a deeper insight into the very nature of technology and its evolution—from technical objects to the complex techno-logical mega-organism we live in—shows that this unifying and totalizing tendency of technology stems from the very logic of its development: technology exists as a unifying and totalizing system long before people who think that they just use technical devices can see that they are actually governed by what they use. This gap between what we think of and through technologies and how technical systems effectively work stems from the fact that the more technologies are developed, the more they become specialized and diversified (Ellul 1980, 200, Hui 2019, 21).
Precisely because the technical system we live in is global, we need global ethical regulations for designing, producing and commercializing the elements of the technical system, most notably AI-based technologies. However, as long as these regulations derive from universal ethical values, the ethics of technology will defend the interests of tech-companies and technology, reduced to mere functionality, and will only be at the service of an economic model that is ethically unsustainable since it systemically destroys localities as places for practicing ethos.
It is obvious that technologies have functions that make economic life possible. However, a different perspective on technology, one that goes beyond its functionality, is needed in order to escape the global techno-economic trap of unification and totalization, and see what technological ethos, as a mode of relation to technological reality, might look like. In its current tendency to unification and totalization on the one hand and specialization and diversification on the other, technology appears as a quasi-universality: human animals are specifically human because they use technics in an incomparably more developed way than non-human animals. Anthropology is technology and from this perspective the technological condition of the human existence can be defined as universal. However, this technological/anthropological fact appears within “particular cosmologies” (Hui 2019, 265) and multiple localities of which the former are composed. The task here is to reconsider technics through the category of diversity we so often reclaim when defending culture (cultural diversity vs. homogenization of cultures to globalization) and environment (biodiversity vs. monoculture).
Ethical life is unsustainable without technodiversity. This is the reason why technodiversity has to be protected in order to save localities by making their habitants capable of transforming their places technologically and, as a result, keep their ethos alive. We do not need to fight against the totalizing and unifying power of technologies for they are what makes us human, all too human – if not inhuman. What we need is to carefully think this inhuman aspect of ourselves and of our technologies in order to fight with them for a more diversified distribution of the technological power, respectful of local open systems as places of practicing ethical life.
How to Live Together With Animals when Ten Billion People have to Be Fed By 2050?
The development of human technologies in industrial capitalism, notably since the beginning of the age of the great acceleration, has led to incredible suffering by animals. Even though findings in ethology and zoology offer us more and more proof of near human-like levels of consciousness in vertebrates and of cognitive processes of animals within their habitats, the animal condition has never been so tragic as it appears in our times. This is a fact which is more and more difficult to bear from an ethical perspective: whether we like it or not, the process of meat production in intensive animal farming might inspire what Primo Levi described as “a shame at being human.” (quoted after Deleuze 1995, 172). In the context of the farmed animal industry, the inhuman power of human technologies—these human industrial machines exploiting animals in the name of cost minimization as a basic production rule which excludes the very possibility of animal ethics—strikes us here more than anywhere else.
“The relations between humans and animals must change,” Derrida said, arguing that this change has to be both ethical and ontological (Derrida, Roudinesco 2004: 64). However, human-animal relations have to change not only with regards to the moral consideration of animals, even though considering non-human species must transform our ethe, that is our modes of life, standardized by what we eat (Pelluchon 2018). Our relationships with animals have to change also because the industrial degradation of animal lives heavily affects the human condition in the two first decades of the 21st century and constitutes an imminent threat for humankind. It is common knowledge (yet still denied by many) that human consumption and eating meat in particular have a great impact on climate change, the 6th mass extinction, and the health of people living in industrial societies. The current system of food production and distribution is largely anthropogenic for it constitutes one of the important factors of the growth of thermodynamic entropy (the atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations) and biological entropy (food monoculture which destroys biodiversity: forests, animal habitats and local modes of life). The question is whether industrial food production and distribution can be anti-anthropic. Can industry in general and the food industry in particular lead to anti-anthropic eating habits and behaviors, given the fact that the latter radically changed in industrial capitalism, notably in the era of the great acceleration?5
According to recent United Nations projections6, the world’s population will reach the 10 billion mark in 2050. Feeding 10 billion people, 70 percent of whom will be living in urban spaces7, will be possible only if we can invent new industrial methods of producing food. The urbanization of the planet, responsible for the shrinking of rural regions8 and the emergence of megacities, notably in developing regions, is one of the most striking features of the Anhropocene. A systemic transformation of food production and distribution emerges now as the very condition of sustainable urbanization. The historically unprecedented context of planetary urbanization requires us to address food issues beyond dietary preferences, which must remain individual choices. However, in order to mitigate the environmental impact of intensive animal farming, a concerted political effort must be made to make effective adjustments between population health, local economies, environmental protection, and producers’ interests.
In an effort to anticipate the future consequences of the planet’s urbanization, we argue that the transformation of cultural urban food practices should be approached as an opportunity and a potent tool for making a change in the Anthropocene, rather than a sad renunciation or acceptance of displeasure. Plant-based cuisine has a great urban potential to transform immemorial local food practices and thereby keep them alive, while contributing to the development of new forms of knowledge concerning how to live and how to act. Food is not just food. Food must be just and therefore the food industry has to become the object of an ethical, social, and politico-economic critique. With the planetary expansion of a capitalist free-market economy, food-giants did not only swallow small farms and destroy rural ways of life. Through their marketing strategies and the programming of consumer choice, they also radically changed dietary habits in Western societies and worked to generalize this new Western lifestyle in countries where meat was not the basic element of traditional cuisines (Burgat 2017, 9). In this respect, the food issue in hyper-industrial societies needs to be addressed not only in relation to global meat production and consumption, a threat for organisms, including humans, living in the Biosphere. In addition, a sustainable system of food production and consumption has to be reinvented from the perspective of localities and their cuisines in order to contest an insipid monoculture and re-open the vital link between food and diversity on an urbanized planet.
Facing the Anthropocene also means to ask how to live together with animals and why their well-being should stop being treated as a secondary ethical problem. Global meat consumption will rise proportionally in relation to the world’s population growth over the coming decades. This irrevocable fact makes industrial livestock production unsustainable from a planetary perspective. Hyper-industrial societies capable of considering the interests of animals are in fact those which will be capable of taking care of themselves.
By the middle of the second half of the 21st century, the question of ethics should be addressed as the question of the organization of life in hyper-industrial societies in which ethical practices are possible, rather than that of values. In the new state of things, a planetary disorientation that challenges national and international legal orders, ethical thinking has to be first a critical thinking. What is at stake in the era of algorithms and generalized automatization is the conditions in which ethical acts can be performed, rather than the question of justice. In this context, the notion of ethos is crucially important and needs to be rethought in tandem with the notion of locality.