Neil Jordan: ‘Homo Numericus: The Coming ‘Civilization” by Daniel Cohen

Homo Numericus, is the last book by Daniel Cohen, who was Professor of Economics at the Paris School of Economics. A relatively short work of about 150 pages in translation, it is concerned with what the author calls ‘the digital revolution’. While this is not clearly defined, it appears to refer to the growing use of artificial intelligence and automation, together with the growth of the ‘digital society’, which seems to denote online social networks and social media. Divided into two parts, the first offers a critique of the tendency towards digitisation and our trust in algorithmic intelligence, while the second seeks to make an argument about the reality of human societies and that which is of fundamental importance in them.

The broad argument begins by distinguishing between machine intelligence and human intelligence, noting that in spite of its advantages in terms of processing speed and the ability to handle volumes of data, artificial intelligence lacks much that is characteristic of human intelligence, such as meaning, concepts and what we might call ‘common sense’ or wisdom. The author then charts the harmful effects of digital culture on human relationships in a range of areas, pointing in particular to the trend towards ever greater extremism and self-revelation on social media in the quest for attention and recognition: ‘The compulsion that moves everyone to exhibit his or her private life leads to a profoundly deformed image of oneself. In the case of young children, overexposure to screens perturbs their ability to enter into relationships with others. Virtual reality distances them from a sensible perception of the physical world and the social environment: the real becomes dull and flat’ (page 32). It thus becomes clear that whatever the promise of digitisation in terms of productivity and cost-efficiency, in its reconfiguring of social life, it involves a ‘major risk of losing social links that is already turning our societies upside down, bringing with it an incalculable batch of psychological and social harms’ (page 54). Cohen acknowledges that the digital revolution is not the cause of all of our social ills. The individualism, fragmentation, social anomie and identitarianism that characterise society are actually the results of processes by which working class social bonds have eroded by the tendency of firms to externalise certain types of work, but these phenomena find in digital society an ideal sounding board. Instead of producing a new agora in which ideas can be exchanged and everyone is heard, what we have from the digital sphere is fracture, resentment and distrust of democracy and political parties. This is in part due to the fact that beliefs are not always informed by information and fact; rather, they are protected from information that challenges them and are reinforced where possible – and in the digital world, it is easy to reinforce existing beliefs: ‘… social networks are in reality not at all interested in information in the ordinary sense of the term. What they produce online are beliefs that flatter the sensitivities of their members’ (page 76).

To counter this, we must recognise the fact that for all its efficiencies, artificial intelligence cannot replace human interaction. Indeed, ‘productivity’ is a poor measure of well-being when applied to relationships between human beings, and factors other than wealth and GDP are far more decisive determinants of happiness. Of fundamental importance is the recognition of the value of institutions. What our experience of digital society demonstrates is that the mere aggregation of people through communication does not produce societies: ‘… the whole history of societies is, on the contrary, moulded by the life of institutions, churches or parties, sects or enterprises, that permeate the consciousness of individuals and offer them the means to rise above the few networks that their interactions are likely to produce’ (page 83).

What is not clear is how the divided state of our societies is to be addressed. Institutions may be central – and the author suggests that academic life, with its weak hierarchies and the right to be questioned and heard is perhaps indicative of an atmosphere that we might hope to see in society more widely – but wile ‘… we can never emphasize enough the fact that the enterprise is a place of shared lives, that labour unions are essential for their regulation, that the “gig economy” must be subject to social welfare law, that democratic life needs political parties, and that truth needs scientists!’ (page 114), the means by which we might restore respect for institutions is largely unexplained. Cohen acknowledges that we cannot simply turn back the clock: ‘The days when the Church or the Communist Party could aggregate the faith of large fractions of society will never return. We need to be more modest’ (page 150). The institutions are therefore likely to differ, but they should be inclusive and fight social disparities: ‘… universities, hospitals, post-industrial unions, and a post-“fake news” press can help to reinvent institutions that people can trust. The idea that we can do without them, that individuals only need to communicate with one another, is the illusion that the digital revolution entertains – the trap that has to be avoided’ (page 150). Digital society has furnished us with tools that can contribute to this goal, Cohen claims, giving as one example the possibility of countering the spread of disinformation by having press regulators monitor information providers based on various criteria, ranking them accordingly. The idea is that this should begin to restore trust in the press.

Few would question the conclusion’s broad principles. Faced with the ‘systematic digitalization of human relations’ (page 144), most would agree that institutions are important, that those things that truly matter are not reducible to matters of productivity, and that the digital sphere is not conducive to meaningful, civilised relationships and interaction. It might be that the digital revolution provides us with some means to address our situation, but the author’s solutions are questionable. Is there not a risk that they would entrench rather than mitigate division, given the fact that their implementation would involve decisions of a political nature? The criteria by which the press is to be judged ‘reliable’, for instance, would surely be contentious and likely to reflect the outlook of a particular group. Moreover, regardless of their importance as a form of ‘social glue’, some might well argue that our institutions are themselves guilty of stoking division, engaging in censorship, participating in combative discourse and destroying trust. If they are to play a role in restoring social relations, therefore, a fuller account of how institutions are to be restored is needed.

Overall, the book is quite readable but it is not always easy to see what some of the chapters contribute to the overall argument. Throughout the work, the author makes use of a wealth of evidence and illustrative examples drawn from research across disciplines, thus building the argument cumulatively. This is highly commendable but it is not always clear what role the evidence is to play in the argument, or what the author’s point is. This usually emerges later, but it tends to result in the sense that the author’s approach is somewhat ‘impressionistic’, as though he is circling his argument without necessarily articulating it. Perhaps the expectation is that the reader will draw (broadly correct) conclusions, but one is left wondering until the final chapter what the central argument of the book actually is. Rather than pursuing a clear line of thought, the book appears to contain several arguments – to the point of resembling a series of connected but disjointed essays at times – while some might find the overall conclusion disappointing. It might therefore be fair to say that the work is strong in its varied critique of the digital revolution and its effect on social relations, but that the solutions proposed, even in outline, are somewhat thin. Nevertheless, for those seeking an analysis of the faults of the ‘digital illusion’, the book is worth reading.

 

‘Homo Numericus: The Coming “Civilization”’ by Daniel Cohen was published in 2024 by Polity (ISBN: 978-1-5095-6021-9). 175pp.


Neil Jordan is Senior Editor at the Centre for Enterprise, Markets and Ethics. For more information about Neil please click here.