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Conversation with Jacques Attali

Economist and Member of the Council of State

by Caroline Gaudriault

«The dictatorship of freedom is the dictatorship of transparency»

Interview Jacques Attali pour par zigzag-blog

Caroline Gaudriault - The internet has changed our relationship with the world and with time. Is the process of dematerialisation represented by the web causing us to lose our grip on reality ?

Jacques Attali - Do we really know what reality is? Isn’t reality a dream? Are you real? Am I real? Aren’t you just a dream in my sleep or aren’t I a dream in yours. So, I’m not really sure what reality is. Is reality what we see: the infinitely small beneath us, the infinitely large above? I’m not really convinced by this distinction.
On the other hand, when you get up in the morning, you’ve spent the night dreaming. Dreams are sometimes more real than reality. So, we already have an alternative life, in the time we spend sleeping. And we also have alternative lives based on our fantasies, our projects, our imaginations … And also because we think. Thinking is an immense virtual activity: creating ideas inside our heads, writing novels, making up stories, telling others, making works of art … Is all of that real?
It’s clearly more real than reality, since it’s going to last a lot longer. Forever, in fact.
So the distinction between the real and the virtual doesn’t have any meaning for me. I would even say that if you look at human history, the virtual is a good deal more real than reality. The real dies, disappears, dissolves; whereas the virtual – thought, works of art – is eternal. In any case, it can become so.
However, what’s emerging with the internet is a clumsy transposition – still extraordinarily rudimentary – of the world of thought into the world of the real. The internet is extremely real: it’s made up of objects, electronics, wiring … It’s about transforming the world of thought into reality. And it’s only just beginning.
And this transformation will accelerate substantially when we start saving all this data by means of cloud computing, intelligent dialogue with machines, the semantic web, 3D production techniques which will turn ideas into 3D objects (and not just into 2D objects like internet messages), and lots more …
When you see how the relationship between the human brain and machines is developing, you realise that machines already have the capacity to think. The groundwork was done with patients suffering from tetraplegia, developing technology enabling patients to send commands to computers by means of eye movements. There have been many very important scientific breakthroughs. That’s why I think that tomorrow’s science will be neuroscience. That’s where the complete fusion between mind and body will come from, a fusion in which the mind will take control and the body will become anecdotal.

Caroline Gaudriault - Will Mankind become obsolete ?

Jacques Attali - No, because Mankind is spirit, not matter. Mankind is much more than just matter.

Caroline Gaudriault - But isn’t all this technology gradually eating away at our memory; isn’t our memory being replaced by a kind of hard drive ?

Jacques Attali - People posed this question in a different way in the 15th century, when printing was invented. Before printing, people didn’t have access to books, because, since they were all manuscripts, they were rare and expensive. Due to this situation, a technique known as “Ars Memoria” – “The art of learning by heart” – played a vital role. But when printing was introduced, “Ars Memoria” disappeared, and people started to rely on libraries. But in a somewhat illusory manner. For when we see a pile of books on the bedside table, it’s like a way of warding off death, because we say to ourselves: “I won’t die before I’ve read them all.” Which is an illusion, but it’s also the main function of the library, namely to ward off fear and death.
But today, we have more storage capacity. Instead of storing information, the brain will have to store means of accessing information. Guides and interpretative frameworks, in other words. What will emerge won’t be ignorance, but the ability to find one’s way around a library.

Caroline Gaudriault - Here, we’re on Planet Finance, in the heart of the development of micro-credit. Confronted with the dematerialisation of finance, a situation that has developed thanks to the internet, won’t people react by focusing on local projects?

Jacques Attali - Finance is virtual by nature. Because it is composed of numbers. I would even say that there are two fields that are virtual by nature, namely finance and music. It’s not by chance if both are immediately global. The reason that both of them are capable of exploring potentialities much more rapidly than other disciplines is because they are immaterial.
It’s true that the internet has dramatically expanded the scope of this kind of virtuality. This has allowed a certain number of fields to evolve much more rapidly than they otherwise would have. Speculative finance has developed thanks to this virtuality, which is consubstantial to finance itself. Paradoxically, this function, which was designed to manage rarity – the function of money is to manage rarity – has made it possible to break free of rarity, multiplying it to infinity.
For Planet Finance, the virtuality of the internet makes it possible to reduce the costs of access to finance to a dramatic degree. For example, in just a couple of clicks, a site like will lend €20 to a person that you yourself have nominated and who will tell you what they have done with your money. And this more or less anywhere in the world.
So, for us, the function of the internet is to transform the world into a village, to reduce transport and transaction costs. And these reductions in costs are a real bonus for people who need resources.

Caroline Gaudriault - In view of the fact that the internet transforms our relationship with the world and with time, do you think that the behaviours and mentalities of future generations will change ?

Jacques Attali - Of course. Anyway, from generation to generation, change happens very rapidly…

Caroline Gaudriault - … more and more rapidly…

Jacques Attali - Yes, but I read recently that in the 16th century, a notary replied to his son, who asked him the identity of the young woman who was being proposed to him in marriage, “Young man, mind your own business!”. Things have changed a lot since then…
Today, what the internet makes possible is the dictatorship or tyranny of individual freedom. We are in a world in which the supreme value is individual freedom, with a right to change your mind on a permanent basis, and, therefore, the right to be disloyal. The internet is one of the tools born of this demand for narcissistic freedom: “Me first, on my own”.
There is a real dynamic at work that is transforming all of us into nomads. I came up with the phrase “nomadic objects” a few years ago. The internet is helping to bring to an end the sedentary parenthesis of human history (which was, prior to that, nomadic and which is becoming nomadic once more). This development depends on the existence of objects that accompany us all the time, linking us to the world on a permanent basis. This process began with the notion that an individual’s [mobile] telephone number is more important than his or her address. This shows that we exist independently from a specific place. If we exist independently from a specific place, we exist independently from a family, a country, from any roots. There’s probably a kind of masturbatory narcissism in all of us, which means that we only finds pleasure in ourselves.

Caroline Gaudriault - Aren’t these tools holding us hostage. Don’t they offer the illusion of a form of untrammelled freedom that may, in fact, blow up in our faces? We think about Freedom and what we get instead is Surveillance.

Jacques Attali - In my book, A Brief History of the Future, I explain that we are entering a world of hyper-surveillance and that we will end up living in a world of self-surveillance. Not only will we be monitored by society – in fact, we already are – but we will find pleasure in monitoring ourselves. For example, we already monitor our weight, our state of health … We will monitor ourselves in many ways while still believing that we are free; but, in reality, norms will be imposed upon us from the outside. These technologies are encouraging this evolution.

Caroline Gaudriault - To use a slightly barbarous word, aren’t we experiencing a kind of generalised pornography that marks the end of modesty ?

Jacques Attali - The dictatorship of freedom is also the dictatorship of transparency. In other words, “I want to be free to know everything about everyone else”. The juxtaposition of freedom and transparency creates a society in which, in effect, modesty disappears. And it goes further: if a kind of transparency is accepted, it means that all multiple, loving relationships should be transparent. Today, there are a lot of people who have several love lives, but they are juxtaposed, partitioned, or succeed one another. If a dictatorship of transparency is imposed, it means that, eventually, we will have simultaneous, transparent love lives. That is a very profound transformation. And it’s not just true of sentimental relations; it also means that you could be a citizen of several countries at once …
In effect, modesty disappears, even if, at the same time, everything rare is expensive; everything rare is precious. Yes, I’m mixed up in the world, but being able to cut myself from the world is a very precious thing. So, the most precious things will be disconnected. Today, being powerful is being connected; tomorrow it will be being disconnected. Today, being powerful is exposing yourself to the world; tomorrow being powerful will be surrounding yourself with secrecy. Today, being modern is telling your life story to everyone; tomorrow, being modern will be living your life with the most extreme discretion.

Caroline Gaudriault - Today, this new shameless, complex-free generation films itself live. As you can see in the photography of Gérard Rancinan.

Jacques Attali - Yes, this is absolutely the way things are going, and it’s only the beginning. Since we will be capable of experiencing virtual sensations, we will be able to have sexual relations with clones, with holograms, or simply by thinking. Making love with someone through the power of thought … Today, a monkey can operate a robot 10,000km away just by thinking. A human being could trigger an amorous relationship with another person or several other people remotely.

 My Life on the web My Life on the web    © Gérard Rancinan

Caroline Gaudriault - That was the idea behind the Second Life website, which perhaps arrived on the scene a little too early…

Jacques Attali - Yes, it was too early because the technology wasn’t advanced enough… But these ideas can be found in novels; science fiction speaks of all potential futures.

Planète Finances, Paris, 2013

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