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Inventing the words of the day after

Etienne Grass
April 14, 2020

“FFP2 mask”, “reproducibility rate”, “barrier gesture”, “lockdown”, “relax lockdown”, “drug repositioning”, “herd immunity”: with coronavirus, our vocabulary has been reinvented in a few days. It brings up in our conversations words from the medical sciences and biology: epidemiology, virology, system modeling. In just a few days, the virus is stirring up our epistemological mud. We are entirely focused on a little “breeding ground” that is decidedly narrow, but also richer, than our usual thinking. It is impacting our lives to the extent that it has become a point of focus that attracts our collective thoughts. And, it is creating a rebooting effect. Our collective thinking has been set off towards new horizons.

We wanted to start a series of reflection, not on the words of the moment, but on those of the day after. Those that enable us to project ourselves, because they seem to belong to the future and they make the future look desirable.

“One of the lessons from recent work on the dynamics of progress[1] is the weight of our imagination.”

Because it determines our ability to tell the story of technological progress, it allows us to keep it under control and to steer it positively. Our rationality draws its lessons from it to project itself in the future. It also finds signals in that progress that keep questioning on how alert we are?

Since the post-war period, literature has had a very specific form to warn us against ideologies: dystopia. Brave New World (1932), by Aldous Huxley, Ravage (1943), by René Barjavel, 1984 (1949), by George Orwell or Fahrenheit 451 (1953), by Ray Bradbury, were the first examples of this. This literary genre, widely commented on[2], was invented to help us project ourselves. It is undoubtedly one of the most useful crutches in the current period for shaping our convictions.

The first-generation of dystopia fiction carried a warning of possible collusions, in the Cold War context, between technique and totalitarianism. Its purpose was for us to identify the fact that freedom is the “last bastion” of our humanity: of all the sacrifices we may have to make to increase our well-being or to build more egalitarian societies, freedom is the only one that is never acceptable. The dystopian genre uses the framework of utopia and corrupts it. Like utopias, these stories project us into an imaginary society, a society that doesn’t exist anywhere and that doesn’t claim to exist. Utopia projects us into an ideal society, such as we should build it.

“Dystopia projects us into the worst society, to allow us to anticipate our risks.”

This imaginary projection is key to determine the consequences of a dynamic world of which the complexity is beyond our grasp. The word “systems” is probably the first key word of the day after. The one we need to reclaim to restore our capacity for autonomy. It is illustrated by Moez and Noémie in our first chronic. The world is flat. We have known this for 20 years. But we are discovering that networks have formed on this flat land. And these networks have an extremely robust physical reality. Today, the management of COVID-19 is blowing up the notion of border. Work by the Imperial College has shown that re-establishing external borders does not have an impact on the spread of the virus. However, we are focusing our efforts on creating internal borders. They affect all our areas of socialization. Measuring the system that is being created around the virus has become the key challenge of the coming months. We have to control its natural entropy while sustainably protecting the autonomy of individuals in an organization that will put them to the test.

“We have to measure the borders and make them evolve in a systematic logic of balance between benefit and risk.”

Because we must realize now: the day after will not be a sudden awakening, it will be a succession of “lockdown – return to normal – pandemic – lockdown” cycles. We will need less “flat” models that integrate localized interaction data, combined with test data that reflects the actual evolution of the epidemic. In this way, we will be able to fight the epidemic effectively, without putting our social interactions and our economic activity on hold indiscriminately.

Other words describe the future we hope for: trust, resilience, sobriety. And the challenges we must meet to keep control of our choices. Futurology is back in fashion, after forty years of almost abandonment. It developed in California in the 1960s. In the grand “Future studies” period. Futurists organized their discipline with the main knowledge being that of grouping knowledge[3]. At Capgemini, not only are we passionate about technology, but we also have the ability to mix up perspectives and skills. Therefore, we wanted to play a role in the debate.

Our horizon has been considerably amputated and this does not date from COVID. Moore’s Law has been a steady and formidable driver for a “technological overflow” (J Ellul) since the mid-1960s. Part of our value resides in our ability to restore meaning to this overflow. Another part of our value is to continue to anticipate, despite the complexity.

We are entering the “post-Moore” or the “More than Moore” period to use the terms of the semiconductor industry. The shake-ups linked to 5G, to Edge computing, and to quantum computing are illustrations of this. The emergence of new artificial intelligence techniques resting on hybrid algorithms shows that we are continuing to drive the big data revolution forward.

“The social consequences of these new accelerations will continue to be considerable. They must remain positive”

Today, it is impossible to project ourselves into the world in which our grandchildren will grow up[4]. At best, we have some notions. We know that our demographic growth cannot continue without depleting the planet’s natural resources. The reserves of the epidemiological transition seem depleted. Independently of COVID-19, for the past three years, in many countries, life expectancy at birth has recorded its first decrease in 50 years. We are observing that the technical innovations emerging each year are, nearly always, loaded with ambivalence and paradoxes. Ambivalences with regard to their consequences on our identities. Paradoxes with regard to their effects on the economy and our well-being.

Using the words of the day after, we have tried to give you the means of interpretation to apprehend the world that is coming.

Etienne Grass, Manager of the Citizen services entity, Capgemini Invent

[1] See Steven Pinker, Enlightenment now: the case for reason, science, humanism and progress, Allen Lane, 2017
[2] See, for example, Jean-Paul Engélibert, Apocalypses sans royaume (politique des fictions de la fin du monde), Classiques Garnier, Paris, 2013.
[3] A few examples of these methods: Eleonora Masini, Why Futures Studies, James Dator, Advancing Futures Studies, Ziauddin Sardar, Rescuing all of our Futures, Sohail Inayatullah, Questioning the future, Richard A. Slaughter, The Knowledge Base of Futures Studies et Wendell Bell, The Foundations of Futures Studies. In France, we know that the journalist, Bertrand de Jouvenel, continued his complex trajectory with the creation, in 1974, of the review, Futuribles.
[4] See for example D. Acemoglu, The world our grandchildren will inherit, or P. Lindert.