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A Digital Renaissance

alexandre cadain / Codounder of Anima, ambassador for XPRIZE Foundation, codirector of the Postdigital seminar, ENS – PSL / 2018-04-24

Art in the 20th century has cultivated the concept of avant-garde. But would it not be overcome today by technology, whose creativity seems inexhaustible and shapes our future? The digital acceleration can make our era a Renaissance, one of those times when humanity reinvents itself. The resources of artistic creation are needed more than ever.

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Paris Innovation Review – In the last decades, creators have become increasingly involved with digital technologies. The theme of “post-digital” even popped out. Is it for artists a way to catch up?

Alexandre Cadain – What has happened in recent years is the fact that creation, especially digital creation, is being mobilized by other disciplines. I first witnessed this phenomenon as a student: I started my graduate studies in 2010 and completed them in 2015. This could be summarized as follows: digital and its associated technologies were originally a discipline, a vertical, a trade; then we understood that it is transversal, bringing together all disciplines, and that transversal has become a formidable link between departments that until then were only politely neighbors. The relationship was long overdue, but it had not really occurred, or sporadically. It was invisible.

What is remarkable is that this need for links was suddenly all over the place. The seminar on “post digital” I co-organize at ENS is a good illustration: it responded to a wish expressed by both pupils and the School to link the scientific and literary departments.

The subject of this seminar is the impact of digital on creation. The point of view we have adopted is to look developments in current science from the future. We stand between science and fiction. All our conferences associate great scientific experts – especially on artificial intelligence that is one of our favorite areas – and an artistic dimension, in order to feel and analyze yet latent elements. On these topics no one has gone beyond the stage of exploration, and indeed we do not know exactly what we are looking for!

The central question is simple: with this new palette offered by digital, what do we do? How do we manage to, far from just linearly extending our world, think of other worlds, worlds to develop inside and outside ours? Just asking the question allows to understand the stakes and helps influencing the direction of the answer. An answer that will eventually be given. It is interesting to raise the question before the answer comes, in order to design a desirable future, or at least one that can make us dream!


Is this a way out of the impossible debate between the naive technophiles and the latent technophobia of critical speech?

Certainly. In France and Europe the mainstream picture is a dystopia, with dark projections of a future without jobs, dictatorships of algorithms, or a transparency associated with surveillance. In California, conversely, the «exponentialists» you meet at the Xprize Foundation or at Hyperloop Transportation Technologies see technological utopia without any nuance. These two worlds refer both to curiosity, to fascination for a future shaped by artificial intelligence and which we know only one thing: it will be very different from what we know.

Linking utopia with dystopia, ecstasy with anxiety, seems just as essential today as bringing together scientific disciplines.

But we must not delude ourselves: our lot, nowadays, is concern. Here is an anecdote. The first session of our 2016 seminar involved Yann Lecun and Jean Ponce, two stars in the field of artificial intelligence. The title of the session was “Love Machine”, the theme was the future of artificial intelligence – how far will we go? With 2700 registrants for 200 seats, we had to make a sorting. So I asked each registrant to write a little fiction about the future of artificial intelligence. The many answers were very often on the side of the dystopia more than utopia. It seemed very difficult to tell something very engaging, imagining a technology that, without even bringing happiness, would at least aim for the common good. It’s an empirical experience that says a lot about our collective mindset and our apprehension of “the afterworld.” But that’s not all. A few months earlier, I had led the same experience in Los Angeles with Xprize. I got an overwhelming majority of utopias! And sometimes the same story, like the love of a human and a machine, was a utopia in California and a dystopia in Paris.

Indeed, on an issue such as transhumanism, one can only measure the large gap between the «believers» and the concerned, the doubtful, the interrogative, those who see mainly ethical issues, possible abuses, unnoticed implications.

This gap is fascinating. It can be analyzed by sociology or history, pointing out differences in representation, economic dynamism, a diversity of historical experiences. But it can also be seen as a space for dialog, a necessary and impossible dialog between two visions that both miss the point. Between utopia and dystopia there is a space – let us call it the future – that should be explored. Hence the need for a discussion, a call for representations, an intellectual activation by fiction of the possibilities offered by technology.

We are at the dawn of something very, very different. Let us think about what happened hundreds of thousands of years ago with fire: you were able to feed differently, to be warm at night. And after ten years the first village burned. And towers still burn today. But between the utopia of fire and the dystopia of fire, there is our world.

Technology is amoral. With artificial intelligence we can do whatever we want. The challenge is not to refuse or accede to it, it is

developing anyway and it already shapes large part of our lives. The challenge is to understand its power. “With great power comfy great responsibility “, as stated – after saint Luke, Voltaire and  the mayor of New York in 1892  Spiderman’s uncle! Today, as we enjoy a technological power that is infinitely higher than that of past generations, we have a historic responsibility. It obliges us, indeed, to do more than the good: to make wonder.


This idea of collective responsibility is rising.

Yes, there is both a general awareness and a willingness, within some institutions, to invest these subjects, the regulation of which is, at the moment, in the form of charters between the large technological companies. Nations are somewhat overwhelmed by the magnitude of the issues. But at international level things are moving. In June 2017, the United Nations set up a summit on «AI for Good», which I actively participated in, particularly for the Future of Work working group. The challenge was to draw strategies for resolutions of Sustainable Development Goals using AI. This year we are renewing the project by focusing in particular on confidence in artificial intelligence and the new economy that it can bring about.

Can a real «digital Renaissance», basically, go without a critical slope?

Probably not. It is not just an ethical issue, or a regulatory point, but a challenge for technological development. The places that will bring the most relevant, smart and intelligent solutions will be those where people are able to question the impact, the use, the acceptability. In other words, it will be places where critical thinking and technical power have been able to dialog to refine and improve technological developments. The Italian Renaissance, and in its aftermath the European Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution, saw both a rise in techniques and an extremely intense reflection on a world put on motion by history – a concept that emerged precisely from the encounter between technological push (printing, rudder, compass, and then steam machine, weaving), its economic and geographical consequences, and the effort to think about these changes.

Hence the interest of connecting, balancing, articulating technophile optimism (rather Californian) and concerns (rather European); not so much to find a balance point as to refine and enrich representations and reflections, starting from the idea that these technologies are amoral and that it is hence crucial to direct their developments and explore their implications.

Europe’s metropoles are interesting places, because they are meeting points between a well-rooted critical tradition and growing digital ecosystems, supported – think of AI for instance – by world-class research.

We can also think of the institutions that are emerging now, such as PSL, or more broadly to everything at the crossroads of art and science. Again, the term «digital Renaissance» can point to phenomena that may be discreet, but which may be of major importance, beginning with the resourcing of technological thinking in artistic creation.


Let us go back to this idea of exploring the future, which gives fiction and the arts a major role.

Questioning the future has long been the subject of planning and foresight. But these exercises are purely intellectual, and they miss something. To know what, we can think of something that was brought by space exploration. I had the opportunity to participate in a design group for the martian architectures, a group that brought together prominent personalities from space, including Buzz Aldrin. The astronauts all talked about the revelation of the overview effect, a common experience for the approximately 600 people who went into space and even more to the 12 who went to the Moon: seeing the earth as an island lost in an ocean of vacuum. And to get an almost physical awareness of the absurdity of the imaginary barriers built between nations, between species, of the constant wars. Seen from the outer space, above all we share this extreme fragility, this very small world.

Aldrin’s trip is not Earth-moon and Moon-Earth; It’s Earth Moon and then Moon-Earth’. He came back with another view of the earth, a shaky consciousness. This is exactly the program that a project to explore the future can take: to return to a present’, which we want to improve from the future that we explored, utopies that one wants to build, the dystopies that we seek to conjure up.

It’s the whole issue of fiction design: working on a possible reality, and to come back by wondering how to build the first pieces. Nicolas Nova, for example, created the Near Future Laboratory, where the print Ikea catalogs of the year 2050. They work with designers, anthropologists, and at the end you find yourself with an object of the future in your hands.

The categories mobilized to describe this future reality are the probable, the predictable, the possible, the best; we are working on future told by by artists – what can the year 3000 look like? – and we’re trying to trace paths. Here the role of art is essential, because it is the privilege of fiction that it is not deceitful: fiction is neither false nor true, it is just possible, and this is enough to question everything.

It is somehow the opposite of an equation, the object of which is to find x, to reduce the possibilities up to one possible value. Take a white leaf: the freedom of hand is absolute, everything can happen when you start drawing.

And in the era where we live today, this new era that goes back to the unknown, where everything becomes possible, artists can better than anyone explore the vertiginous space of possibilities and confront us with contingency paths. Take an event like the 2015 Venice Biennale, the theme of which was All the World’s Future. Each national stand presented a version of this future, often underlying climate change. We were talking about responsibility: while visiting the Biennale, I was struck by the way artists took the subject seriously. Their creativity, their imagination was inhabited by this seriousness. This recommitment of art in realness – an unknown, but deployable, explorable realness – is remarkable.

A few years ago, we celebrated the 100 years of Marinetti’s Futurism Manifesto. The vocabulary and intellectual categories of this text are now incorporated in large technology companies, and they don’t necessarily realize where their motto comes from. Their vocabulary is that of prediction, which is a confusing naiveté. Contemporary artists, on the other hand, work with representations, they try to free themselves from the mainstream images and explore faults, to suggest other possible future, to experience the unpredictable.

This work of contingency is necessary. We are here at the heart of the digital Renaissance: an breathtaking technological acceleration, which gives art an essential function in exploring the worlds to which we rush at the fast pace of Moore’s Law – worlds that promise nothing but surprises.


(Images from internet and copyrights belong to the original authors.)


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