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How can digital technology be used to transform society and build knowledge?

Olga Kokshagina , Associate Professor

In this article, Olga Kokshagina, EDHEC Associate Professor and member of the CNNum since 2021 (1), analyses the central role played by digital technologies and suggests ways of putting (back) digital technology at the service of people.

Reading time :
12 Mar 2024
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Since the 1990s, the digital revolution has kept on intensifying (2). The latest stage, and not the least, is the democratisation of artificial intelligence (AI). An eloquent figure: in 2023, 40% of companies said they were increasing their investment in this technology (3)! The digital revolution is now permeating all areas of society, to the point where we can now speak of a genuine societal transformation. But does this only have its virtues? Is it not, as the philosopher Bernard Stiegler has pointed out, both a remedy and a poison?

Fortunately, in a society of continuous technological intermediation in our professional and personal lives, there are safeguards that can be put in place to put (back) digital technology at the service of human beings. Here are a few avenues to explore.

 

The digital revolution: a total social fact

Digital technology must be seen as a total social fact, meaning that its influence is not limited to a handful of sectors: the scope of this revolution and the associated technologies actually encompasses our work, our daily lives, our interactions, right up to our public policies and the way we live together. This is why we can speak of a total social fact (4). This expression, coined by the sociologist Marcel Mauss in 1925 to characterise the exchange of compulsory gifts, refers to events whose scope is collective, i.e. "those in which all institutions are expressed at once".

 

We use digital tools in our professional lives, but also in our personal lives (to communicate, to carry out procedures, to entertain ourselves, etc.). At work, the digital revolution is gradually turning into a societal transformation with the development of artificial intelligence. This technology makes it possible to automate processes that previously required human reasoning. For example, 72% of companies are now using AI in their recruitment process. This percentage is rising steadily, and should reach 80% by next year (5).

At the same time, only 10% of employees have been trained in this new technology, and many organisations are finding it difficult to integrate AI into their day-to-day operations (6).

 

These examples show that digital tools offer opportunities for businesses and individuals alike, but that they also give rise to fears and resistance (7).

 

When new technologies are both cure and poison

Philosopher Bernard Stiegler has described technology as pharmakon, the ancient Greek word for remedy and poison (8). Digital technology would therefore enhance us, just as much as it would diminish us.

 

Let's take a few examples. In the workplace, technical advances have certainly reduced risks and increased productivity. However, these gains do not compensate for the feeling of dispossession felt by employees, due in particular to their loss of autonomy. Thus, 65% of respondents to the Usine Nouvelle and Sopra RH 2023 barometer (9) cite the potential risks associated with the dehumanisation of work processes as a disadvantage.

Overall, digital technology is tending to alter the work group by automating and/or dividing up tasks to an ever greater extent. With digital tools becoming ubiquitous (who hasn't taken their work computer home with them?), the boundary between private and professional life is shrinking, and sometimes disappearing altogether. This observation was shared by 67% of the employees surveyed in the same barometer (9).

 

As for artificial intelligence, while it can perform tasks quickly and efficiently, the algorithms on which it is based are trained using massive quantities of data that can reinforce majority opinions and prejudices. This brings with it the risk of standardising our ability to think, standardising the content we produce and, ultimately, impoverishing our thinking across the board.

 

New technologies, including AI, are not just a tool for digital transition. While their benefits no longer need to be demonstrated, the question of their harmful effects still needs to be addressed. As a mirror reflecting our values, our choices and our future, they play a structuring role in our society. Often to the point of conditioning our lifestyles.

This raises an important question: how can we use technology not only to shape a more efficient future, but also a more humane one?

 

Putting digital tools at the service of people and knowledge

The upheavals caused by the digital revolution in our lives are plural. Both our private and professional lives are affected, to the point of blurring the boundaries between the two. That's why it's important to think about the different ways in which digital technology can be used to benefit people and build knowledge.

 

In conjunction with the Conseil National du Numérique, I have identified two major convictions on which we can base our proposals (10).

Firstly, it is essential to develop a shared digital culture, to make new technologies the subject of research and questioning. In this respect, teaching the history of science and technology is fundamental to understanding the transformations of contemporary societies.

Secondly, digital technology must be the subject of democratic debate, as it raises major political issues. Sharing experiences and open discussions are, in this respect, a way for the public to reappropriate technological tools.

 

As far as work is concerned, it seems necessary to involve the employees concerned in the design and deployment of digital tools, so that the latter are not experienced as a constraint, but as an opportunity (11). The deployment of hybrid working, which is increasingly being adopted by organisations (in 2023, according to INSEE, 47% of French companies used teleworking) (12), also needs to be carried out with good understanding. The aim is not to impose this way of organising work, but to make it a source of opportunities and improved quality of life. Since digital tools make it possible to work remotely with complete efficiency, it's time to turn them into vectors of autonomy and freedom, rather than increased control over employees.

 

In conclusion, new technologies are not just tools for digital transition: they are part of a genuine anthropological revolution, a total social fact, with multiple consequences for private and professional lives. But neither are they self-sufficient. In reality, the technologies we surround ourselves with are simply a reflection of our choices and values.

As we move into an unprecedented digital age, marked in particular by the incredible rise of artificial intelligence, it is worth remembering that every innovation must be guided by the following question: How can we use technology to shape a future that is more efficient, but also and above all more human, more ethical and more inclusive? How can we go beyond the pragmatism of technology to engage in genuine reflection that commits us as a society? These are the questions we need to answer in the years to come, so that digital technology does not escape our responsibilities, and does not become anything other than an opportunity to be seized.

 

References

(1) Olga Kokshagina, EDHEC Associate Professor, member of the Conseil National du Numérique since 2021

(2) Schneider S, Kokshagina O. Digital transformation: What we have learned (thus far) and what is next. Creat Innov Manag. 2021; 30: 384–411. https://doi.org/10.1111/caim.12414

(3) The state of AI in 2023: Generative AI’s breakout year - August 1, 2023 | Mc Kinsey Survey

(4) CNNum, fév. 2022 - Civilisation numérique. Ouvrons le débat ! https://cnnumerique.fr/nos-travaux/civilisation-numerique-ouvrons-le-debat

(5) Intelligence artificielle : ce qu'en pensent les collaborateurs- Les Echos, janv. 2024. https://www.lesechos.fr/idees-debats/leadership-management/intelligence-artificielle-ce-quen-pensent-les-collaborateurs-2044505

(6) Intelligence artificielle : les salariés inquiets et méfiants. Étude IFOP pour LearnThings (21 décembre 2023 - 3 janvier 2024). https://www.learnthings.fr/sondage-ifop-intelligence-artificielle-statistique/

(7) Kokshagina, O., & Schneider, S. (2023). The Digital Workplace: Navigating in a Jungle of Paradoxical Tensions. California Management Review, 65(2), 129-155. https://doi.org/10.1177/00081256221137720

(8) Psychopouvoir et guerre métapsychologique : la question du pharmakon (2018). Bernard Stiegler. https://www.cairn.info/enfants-turbulents-l-enfer-est-il-pave-de-bonnes--9782749208800-page-119.htm

(9) [Baromètre] Digital RH : Le télétravail rentre dans les mœurs, mais les freins à l'adoption persistent. L'Usine Digitale et Sopra HR, janvier 2023. https://www.usine-digitale.fr/editorial/barometre-digital-rh-le-teletravail-rentre-dans-les-m-urs-mais-les-freins-a-l-adoption-persistent.N2094301

(10) Pour un numérique au service des savoirs, mai 2021. CNNum - https://cnnumerique.fr/nos-travaux/pour-un-numerique-au-service-des-savoirs

(11) Humains et machines, quelles interactions au travail ? CNNum, déc. 2022.

(12) Les deux tiers des entreprises françaises fournissent un accès à distance aux outils de travail - oct. 2022. Nicolas Boudrot (Insee). https://www.insee.fr/fr/statistiques/7674969

 

Photo by Andy Kelly via Unsplash

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