The Question of the Third: A New Social Contract for the Networked Society of Information. Beyond Citizenship

Massimo Durante


The theme of “the social impact of social computing” is a central, complex and unavoidable theme of reflection and discussion for our age. The formulation of the theme in terms of “impact” is indeed prudential since it leaves open whether this impact is either governed by the values, interests and decisions of human beings or is deterministically brought about by the technological evolution. However, it seems, in both cases, to rely on the epistemological and political foundation of modernity: the relation between the subject and the object (Serres, 2009). In the modern epistemological and political perspective, the object is always the societal reality, i.e. the national or the international world at large, whereas the subject has been represented either as a free, rational and autonomous or as a determined, irrational and heteronomous “human being”, both of them dealing with the ongoing technological evolution.

The subjects have been always represented as human beings. In the modern epistemological and political tradition of contractualism, these subjects have been represented as human beings enough irrational and heteronomous to be determined by their passions (i.e. by their want to possess everything and by their fear to be killed) and, at the same time, enough free, rational and autonomous, to decide to get out from the natural state and to stipulate a social contract. So represented, these subjects share three fundamental characteristics: 1) they are human beings; 2) they are subject to conflicts; 3) they are citizens, that is to say the only figures entitled with rights.

The hypothesis of the present paper is that the social impact of social computing is much deeper than expected and it concerns all these characteristics but in a very different manner, since it puts into discussion, according to us, the first and the third characteristic but it still maintains that the actors on the global scene of the networked Society of Information are essentially subject to conflicts.

Our main point is that the current technological evolution not only generates new conflicts but, first and foremost, it alters the distribution of powers that have been governing, up to now, the national and international conflicts and obliges people to rethink the assumptions on which the epistemological and political modernity has been based on. To take just one example, no longer holds the adage that all political sciences schools first teach: “l’Etat fait la guerre et la guerre fait l’Etat” (The State makes war and war makes the State). In our Society of Information, however counterintuitive it may appear, there is a crisis of the (military) puissance (Serres, 2009). The conflict is no longer or not only an armed conflict. Or, to put it differently, the armed conflict is no longer capable to govern by itself the networked space of the Society of Information. This goes along with a more general crisis of the whole vocabulary of the political modernity based on sovereignty, force, representation, citizenship and so forth.

The other side of the coin is that the most controversial and debated aspect of the networked Society of Information consists in the fact that its space is therefore perceived as an anomic space, i.e. a non-democratic space devoid of norms, a space requiring a new social contract. Is it still possible to speak of a social contract? And if so, who are the parties of this agreement and what should be its content? In the present paper, we try to defend three main points: 1) the relations between the actors of the global and networked Society of Information are still likely to be subject to conflicts (i.e. to be understood in terms of social conflicts); 2) however, the subjects of those conflicts (and of the interests and the rights thereof) are not only human beings; 3) a different political and legal sensibility should arise, in order to culturally account for the decentralization of human beings from the role of the exclusive beneficiaries of the social contract.

The paper will be divided in three parts. In the first part of the paper, we will expound an idea we have already presented elsewhere (Durante, 2007). The idea is that the social impact of social compu-ting does not obey to nor it can be explained in terms of any technological determinism. The global and networked Society of Information is made out of a plurality of different agents (be human or artificial), whose complex relations are not subjected to deterministic laws (Taylor, 2001). Rather, a key to understand the social impact of the ongoing technological evolution is in interpreting this impact throughout the social conflicts that this evolution is capable of generating or renewing. Needless to say that, in our opinion, those conflicts or competitions are inherent to the social character of agents but are not necessarily negative. On the contrary, they can spread out new energies and produce innovations (Benasayag M. – del Rey A. 2007).

Technology creates new possibilities. Not all of those possibilities are turned into real and imbedded in the society. When this occurs, those possibilities are likely to be turned into real powers which agents are provided with. In this perspective, the primary and general social impact of the technological evolution consists in modifying the distribution of powers that exists in the society (in our opinion, it is thus more a question of redistribution than of expansion of powers). From that redistribution of powers a number of conflicts is likely to arise. However, the role of conflict cannot be confined at the bottom of the technological process. The reason way some possibilities are turned into real powers and some other possibilities are not depends often on preexisting conflicts or competitions between interests, values or ideas already circulating across the society.

Conflicts or competitions play thus a crucial role in creating technological innovations and in selecting among the possibilities displayed by such technologies. They play hence a crucial role also in order to understand the social impact of the technological evolution and to understand the society as such. In this perspective, it is important to move from the analysis of the conflict that characterizes the Society of Information. The second part of the paper is devoted to this analysis: to this aim a special attention will be paid to the recent reflections that Michel Serres has consecrated to the stratified crisis that marks our own times (Serres 2009). The philosopher correctly remarks that, in the modern political tradition, the conflict is always a game between two players: “[…] the Master and the Servant, the Left against the Right, the Republicans against the Democrats, an ideology against another one, the green against the blue” (Serres 2009). This game is always played by human beings and in favor of human beings. There is not a real “third” in this fixed two-players game (“jeux à deux”), even though it is exactly the modern political tradition (of contractualism) that has given rise to the notion of the third (Hobbes [1651] 2008; in the social perspective: Simmel 1964).

However, in the tradition of contractualism, this third is always a projection of human interests (i.e. the legitimization of the Sovereign or of the civil society, etc.). The thirdness of the third should be thus rethought of in relation to a new concrete third, i.e. the world at large, which can be interpreted either in ecological terms (as in the case of Michel Serres who adds an epistemological and political dimension to the ecological stance) or in informational terms (as in the case of Luciano Floridi’s notion of infosphere [2003]). This requires people to establish a new and different social contract that challenges the “human narcissism” (Serres 2009) and defeats the political vocabulary of modernity centered upon the idea of citizenship. How this social contract should be structured is a work that has been initiated by different authors as those above mentioned (Serres 1995, 2009; Floridi 2007). What is of our interest is to understand what conceptual move we should accomplish, in order to account for the transformation of our conventional and enduring beliefs, practices and institutions, which are no longer expected to govern the cyberspace in the same way they have governed the (analogical) political space of modernity.

In the third and last part of the paper, we should try to sketch out what is this required conceptual move. Our hypothesis is that we should develop a political and legal sensibility capable to challenge the durable and accepted philosophical premises of the modern idea of the legal subject. This idea seems to us to be founded on three main assumptions: 1) the legal subjectivity is an exclusive property of human beings; 2) human beings are the only sources producing the politically and legally relevant information for the recognition and granting of rights and duties; 3) the legal subjectivity is, mostly, strictly based on the symmetry between rights and duties. All these assumptions need to be discussed and revised. And the grounds for this discussion and revision should be found, according to our understanding of the issue, in a theory of information, for the very simple reason that human beings are subjects that conti-nuously and relentlessly transmit, exchange and share information with non-human beings.

This also means that, continuously and relentlessly, human beings deal with information they receive from non-human beings. This simply overturns the epistemological division between subject and ob-ject since what is commonly meant to be “an object” is susceptible to produce, store and transmit information. This point is well stressed by Michel Serres: “[…] the things of Land and of Life, codified like us, are capable of receiving, producing, storing and treating information. […] This quadruple attitude does not design us as subjects nor designs them [i.e. the things of world] as objects. In the same way that we communicate, we understand and speak, we write and read, both non-living and living things produce and receive information, store and treat it. Asymmetric and parasitic, the old division subject-object no longer holds; every subject becomes object; every object becomes subject” (Serres 2009).

This philosophical consideration can provide us with the basis for a new understanding of the rela-tion between law and information, since human beings are no longer conceived, in this perspective, as the exclusive sources of the relevant political and legal information. There is no longer a pure and per-fect epistemological and political correlation between the subject and the object but only a relation of mutual implication (Durante 2011), according to which we depend from what depends from us since we are both codifying and codified things (Serres 2009) or, to put it in Floridi’s terms, since we are, qua informational objects, structuring structures (Floridi 2010).


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