I would have liked to name this text 'the interface of Aristotle' but there is something, it seems to me, more global than the interface, was it of communication, and it is simply a matter of the notion of communication itself. The question is becoming more and more severe as we, individually and collectively, aspire mass digital communications through the siphon. It is not about raising the rock that hides the design practices of social networks, news sites and the miles and services that abound in the wet recesses of the digital environment. The point is to avoid the reefs of the technological question, the divination of the future to face a question that torments me, because it seems to me quite impossible to find a convincing answer: why do we communicate us as we do on the main digital communication platforms?
I. A typology of digital communication
This question torments me, because it translates first of all the banality of use of a tool: it is because I use a platform leader of the video diffusion daily that I am witness of the uses of communication of the other users. Secondly, the intensity of use, both in the pace of publication and in the 'emotional' variation of publications, seems to me generally exaggerated and almost decorated with a traditional pattern of communication, implying the capacity for public debate among many actors with variable rationality and emotionality. It seems to me that communication, in the section for commenting on a video for example, does not connect any actor in a debate process. Everyone says what he or she means and at the same time aims to negate the comment to which the user responds. This practice of negation generally uses the force of insult, the ignorance of the other or the authority of a knowledge supposedly inaccessible or unintelligible by others. This same practice also has a more joyous counterpart: the exuberant recognition of a common interest, the deployment of a 'benevolent authority' validating the opinion expressed by others, the expression of an origin, the expression of the source initial information. This typology is a very strange mechanical that excludes actually the source that produces the reaction: when I communicate in response to a video or a comment I do not address the person who produced the content or wrote a comment, I address me to a whole, a mass, because I am always aware that I am seen by all. Thus, any method of digital communication via the main platforms excludes the sender that generates the communication in the first place and in-defines the receiver of the communication, proposing a receiving mass in place of an individuality or defined receiving community. One could also speculate that the principle of in-definition of the receiver in this context at the same time disrupts the moral links which binds to others: because I do not address myself ultimately to anybody but rather to an indefinite mass and fantasized then the ethical safeguards and moral structures that bind me to others no longer have effect.
This in-definition of the receiver is well known however its effects are more complex to follow from end to end. We have often used the metaphor of the bottle to the sea to talk about the strange mechanics of digital communication however the poetry and sweetness that evokes this image seems deceptive, because it defines any message of the same nature, that is to say say a bottle. However, some send submarine mines in the expectation that they strike a few ships of opinion and structures of ideas. Some do not concretely send anything, the bottle is empty, but they feel pushing by the desire to use the medium, was it without message.
It seems to me that the absence of a singular and defined receptor in the digital environment disrupts every principle of communication, but it does not destroy its components, it disperses them. We thus find parts of the communication structure in unconventional places, deprived of their usual dynamics. For example, there is a part of the communication that is prominent and clearly visible today: confirmation of receipt or acknowledgment of receipt. This component of the communication sometimes occurs with a nod, a confirmation sound (a grunt for example) in a communication involving a physical face-to-face. In a digital environment the deal is different and we have very few options. Numerous developments in digital communication interfaces have focused on this subject, as they are also motivated by powerful economic motivations. A certain social platform proposes to react to the contents in different ways (a pallet of simulacra of emotions), in fact we choose only the modality of the acknowledgment of receipt. It often happens that we 'like' content uploaded by a person who is close to us, not because the content itself affects us (and requires a reaction) but because we want to confirm to the person in question we saw it. We thus offer this person the capacity to single the mass and thus renew the social bond that binds us more or less strongly. In short, the mechanics of the confirmation of reception, because it has been separated from its usual structure, out of its continuum, seeks to reconstruct this same structure around itself. It rebuilds a proto-communication structure in a way. It seemed important to me to clarify this vision of the disjointed structure of communication as it appears on the major digital communication platforms in order to give an overview of the analysis that will follow.
II. Digital phoné and logos
It is now for me to address my main question about the terms of communication on major digital platforms. Some writings of Aristotle allowed me to get high on the subject and made me put words on observations that I could not qualify. That's why I want to quote an excerpt from "Politics" which will be the cornerstone of our analysis:
"Only of all animals, man has the word. No doubt the voice is the means of indicating pain and pleasure. So she gave it to the other animals. Their nature goes only so far: they possess the feeling of pain and pleasure and they can indicate it between them. But the word is there to manifest the useful and the harmful and, consequently, the just of the unjust. This is what is peculiar to men, with regard to other animals: man alone possesses the feeling of good and evil, of the just and the unjust. But it is the community of these things that makes the family and the city. ".1
The question may be asked: do interfaces and digital communication experiences give us a voice ('phoné') or do they allow us to articulate our word ('logos')? Before going further, it seems to me necessary to make clear the difference Aristotle makes between voice and speech. "The logos is the word that manifests, while the voice simply indicates", explains Jacques Rancière before continuing further: "It will be said that the difference is precisely in the logos that separates the discursive articulation a grievance of the phonic articulation of a groan".2
Knowing that when a social platform proposes to us to react to a content, our answer, whether written or pictured ('love', 'smileys', etc), is it the articulation of a speech allowing to formulate a moral sense or a sense of justice (just / unjust, useful / harmful) or is it the articulation of our contentment or dissatisfaction (pleasure / suffering)? Are we able to produce a speech, a logo, through the main digital communication platforms? Can this same discourse be articulated within the normative and technical limits of these platforms and finally, is a positive or negative reaction to a content the discursive articulation peculiar to our humanity?
To begin our reflection it seems to me necessary to frame our field of analysis well: all communication does not lead to the articulation of a discourse capable of transmitting our personal concepts of justice or morality, far from it. We communicate in an infinite number of contexts in which the mechanics of communication merge. Moreover, in this it is not a mechanics, closed and replaceable, but a flow with its dynamics, these cycles, its currents, its tributaries and its sources. It is therefore in the context of communication via the main digital communication platforms that our analysis is formed.
Having clarified this it is necessary to make a statement on the use of communication of these platforms: they constitute a space where assertions of 'debates' between actors emitting clear splits between what appears to be fair or unfair to them, well or bad, useful or harmful. It is by this observation that the excerpt from Aristotle's 'Politics' proves to be a good place for reflection. Obviously this same excerpt answers an underlying question: "What constitutes a speech?" Aristotle tells us that a discourse constitutes an articulation of values proper to man (justice, morality) and this is where our humanity is formed, where the animal can not establish a notion of good or bad and must to be satisfied with expressing pleasure or suffering. We have found that, on the face of it, communication on digital platforms constitutes a battlefield where personal values of morality and justice confront each other, so that, on the face of it, the use of communication on these platforms constitutes a discourse, a decision speech ('logos') which is of course coupled with a voice ('phoné').
Perhaps then the question must be asked differently: is there a minimum required to articulate a speech and in which case a minimum of what? It is obviously not a question of embarking on a mathematical inventory ruling on the minimum number of ideas, points of view, characters, reactions or quotations. It is rather a question of when speech emerges from the voice, from when the groan produces a discourse formulating the causes of the groan, the moral posture with respect to the source of the groan and its possible author and the implications on the 'city'? It is relevant to use the formula "from when" because it introduces a factor that seems to me to be preponderant: time. Extraordinary strength or preparation is needed to instantly convert the groan into speech or exultation into speech. This implies a transformation of what I personally felt (pain or pleasure) towards a discursive articulation transmitted to the collective. This transformation requires time and important personal resources, because a speech faster articulated, too close to my personal feelings is an incomplete speech given to the community.
For example if I receive a blow by surprise I will moan of pain ('phoné') but it will be necessary for me to open my eyes to understand where the blow came from and who hit me. However, if I only open my eyes for a few seconds, I would only be able to catch a glimpse of the fist that struck me, because I would still be struck by the blow. Later, I would warn the community to pay attention to the fists, because that's the only thing I would have seen in my brief observation. If I had waited longer, opened my eyes longer, as my dizziness disappeared, then I could have seen that the fist belonged to a body and therefore to an individual. In this way I could have warned the community of this individual. It remains to know if the move was justified, the context of the confrontation and so on, but because I am able to determine who hit me then I am able to expose the context to the community. This example allows me to illuminate the essential function of time in the production of speech from the voice.
The problem is that we see daily that digital communication platforms are subject to the regime of instantaneity. The number and high rate of publications is favored rather than the quality of reflexivity induced by publications. This regime could not therefore allow the concrete appearance of the speech, perhaps this is why most interfaces favor the 'phoné' to the logos, the instant expression of the voice rather than the speech which puts more time to formulate. Thus we 'love', we 'worship', we 'share', we 'publish' briefs of opinion and in this we are artificially condemned to the field of 'phoné' and therefore of animality. When I invoke the notion of animality, we must not associate it with the concept of animal. In this context, animality corresponds to how a human being perceives himself without his capacity for speech. In the context of the main digital communication platforms, the concept of 'digital animality' allows me to highlight phenomena that I will try to explain.
III. The regimes of digital animality
What I call "digital animality" observes several regimes that are established between the one who uses his voice to produce a speech, or not, the ability for everyone to consider what is speech or voice and ultimately the possible ability 'offered' by digital platforms to express their voice and articulate a speech.
It can be said that most existing digital communication platforms make it possible to express one's voice. I am able to express my contentment or my dissatisfaction on all these platforms so they allow me to make myself sure of my animality. I know that I can express my satisfaction or dissatisfaction in a very short time via these same platforms. It's not a process that engages me physically and does not engage me in time either. The time factor is artificially reduced at the moment.
Outside the digital environment the expression of my suffering or my joy may take longer to be passed on to the right person. For example, if I'm not happy with a product that I bought from a shopkeeper, I'll go to his shop to indicate my dissatisfaction and by the same I'll manifest my complaint (make a speech) to get the repair that I would have judged fair. Here the time required to express my discontent also allows the formulation of the speech. The voice and speech are expressed one after the other, because the word has time incompressible to get to the place of resolution (the shop) to formulate.
In a digital environment, the temporal dimension has 'no time' to build itself so the voice and speech should be expressed one after the other without previous time. Confronted with this regime the human can think that the formulation of his speech is intact in a digital environment, because the sequence is the same (voice then speech / 'phoné' then 'logos') but the necessary time for the formulation of one by the other no longer exists. Thus 'digital animality' expresses one of these first regimes: the illusion of the transformation of the voice into speech by default of time.
The illusion of speech, however, takes a second form when it is placed in a second regime, the latter being political in nature. In the first chapter of 'Disagreement' Jacques Rancière expresses with great talent the political report of 'phoné' and 'logos' in the excerpt of Aristotle and in the Athenian democracy3 and, as such, I highly recommend reading of this chapter. Rancière returns on the ambiguity of the constitution of the Athenian democracy and more precisely on the ambiguity of the distribution of the discourse ('logos') between the rich people and good virtue ('oligoï' and 'aristoï') and the people ( 'demos'). The speech is mostly owned by the first and subject to the second, to the indeterminate mass of the people. But for the people to understand the speech of rich people and good virtue it is necessary that the latter has some mastery. The slave must understand the language of the master in order to obey it, but if the slave understands the master, it is because they are both equal and the relation of domination must therefore fade away. On this ambiguity Rancière quotes Aristotle: "The slave is the one who participates in the community of language under the only form of understanding ('aisthesis'), not possession ('hexis')".4 This relationship of understanding and possession of discourse is therefore a millennial relationship that is still expressed today. It is indeed easy to say that this social group or opposition group does not have any capacity for discourse. This is actually the first attack that we find in the public debate, digital or not, and sometimes called 'legitimacy'. Those in a position of strength will sum up their opposition, that is to say, create an indistinct and fantasized set of individuals, and dispossess them of the possession of the discourse until exposing it as 'the natural order of things'.
In a digital environment, especially within the main social platforms, the dominating group and dominated group relationship among users is much less clear, although it is quite clear that the dominant group is still the one designing the platform. On the whole, that the users represent, the relations of domination are less obvious. Each user, regardless of their real social status, is confronted with the limits of communication of the chosen platform, that is to say confronted with the indication by the voice and the illusion of speech. Of course groups from society are constituted and reconstituted in the digital environment important with them their relationship of domination but these reports are however modified by the limits of the platform. However for active users without group or affiliation defined a regime seems to appear: in the absence of clarity on the reports of domination, on those who own the speech and those who must understand it only, we move to an individual / user 'total' because dominant, master of the discourse, and regrouping the others in a mass totalized, thus indeterminate, whose capacities of speeches are also refused by this same individual / user. However the largesse of the 'total' user, in search of a group, can be applied under conditions to those who share his speech elements. This would be more of a political 'parrêsia'5 where the user grants freedom of speech to the bearer of bad news: "I am almighty; you come with a truth that may be disagreeable to me and against which I could be irritated, but in my clemency, I give you permission to speak." This regime expresses itself under a certain number of oppositions: 'phoné' / 'logos'; voice / speech; mass / individual; total / singling; understanding of speech / possession of speech. This regime is based on an ambiguity that comes from the fact that the discourse, in the numerical environment stated, is mainly an illusion. Can we then have a speech that is not one in the first place, and if we have nothing but understand the other? This regime thus exposes four functions: the possession of speech by a 'total' individual; the 'totalization' of others in an undifferentiated mass capable only of understanding speech; the illusion of possession of the speech leading to the incomprehension of it by the 'total of others'; the fact that each user applies the three previous functions.
With regard to oppositions and functions mentioned, it seems to me that the 'total' individual cited above builds his totality on two illusions: the illusion of speech and the illusion of being master. The individual forced to digital animality is both master and slave; master for totalizing others in a relationship of domination; master owner of the speech; slave because totalized by each of the others; slave because subject to the speech of each other.
Faced with this report is it still possible to manifest his word, to create a speech in the digital environment that interests us? This is the last regime that remains to explode, because this environment submits us to a real dilemma of conception: if the animal and the human have a common voice, it is because they have a similar organ : a respiratory system activating a vibratory system (diaphragm, lungs, vocal cords, mouth, lips). But each platform recreates the whole through its choice of interfaces and communication experiences. If the frame of expression of the voice is specific to each digital space of communication, is the speech specific to each of these spaces or is it endowed with a certain universality, because constituted outside the digital environment ? We can see as well as a choice of interface entails in this context a philosophical reflection consequent that it is necessary to undertake.
First of all, we have to observe the modalities of appearance of the 'voice' in the current communication interfaces. The written language is the means of majority expression, because the most obvious technically. The written language is already a mediation of the voice through writing and by extension a possibility of speech. Faced with a practice of communication with double play, the writing as semblant of voice and possibility of speech, the modalities of expression of the 'voice' is always the first work site of the designers of the digital spaces of communication and their interfaces. This project is first, because it is much more obvious to conceive the 'digital' body of the voice, closed and controlled, than to tackle the complexity of the discourse. Thus, the main interface design work is always focused on the expression of the voice: reaction palettes, emotional simulacrum, instant reaction, increasing integration of the orality (voice control and hearing the other) and the video (see the other). In a way it seems that the designers of interfaces have resolved to the impossibility of the creation of a digital organ of the 'voice' to finally reflect on the use of the original organ, human and organic.
In asserting this I presume that the designers have a conscious or unconscious knowledge of Aristotle and his work.6 If designers do not know this difference or, at least, have not thought about it then do they subconsciously consider that voice is speech and vice versa? Basically what would be the consequences? I think that the consequences of this lack of reflection are what motivated my writing in the first place: if the modes of communication of the large digital platforms were 'operative' then my initial question would not have been asked. It seems reasonable to me to say that these platforms create a faulty communication, is the lack of reflection the only cause? I do not think so, however it is necessary to open this way to better enlighten others.
If interface designers do not think about speech and voice then how can they build their concept of freedom of expression for example? This seems to be the current thorn of digital space when it comes to communication. The question had been put aside by claiming the neutrality of technology, but it seems that today the question can hardly be left out. The debate is currently not moving forward, because in order to define a notion of freedom of expression, it is still necessary to advance on the notion of expression. Is expressing the possibility of using one's voice and constructing one's word? is it fair to use one's voice to express oneself; does a device that does not actively link voice and speech interfere with freedom of expression? These questions should not be the only burden of the designers but it should be necessary that they ask themselves to ensure the limits of their knowledge and thus bring in the bodies conducive to this reflection.
There is an ignorance or an indifference of the concepts of expression and communication among the designers of the main digital communication platforms. When the leader of a large digital platform announces that he wants to 'give everyone a voice', what does he mean by the word 'voice'? From an Aristotelian perspective this would consist in giving the possibility of animality, thus to indicate its contentment and discontent. Seen thus this task with the gargantuesque aspect turns out to be very thin and does not engage at last not much. It is also ironic to note that another great platform has taken a bird as its emblem and has created its own word inspired by the 'voice' of the bird. In this we are not betrayed on the actual communication capabilities of this platform.
The last regime of digital animality is thus formed in a hollow: the inability of the designer to produce a reflection on the concepts he manipulates, either by ignorance or indifference, condemns his conceptions to an in-definition of the discourse and to a default limitation to voice. The goal of the designer, unconscious or not, will be to hide this in-definition by offering the voice the virtues of speech. It is in this camouflage that the economic mechanisms of the platforms mentioned above reside.
IV. Designing limits
To conclude this writing I would like to open a door on my own interpretation of this situation as a designer. Aristotle asserts that it is the community in the discourse of justice and morality that makes the family and the city. The discourse only fits in a community or collective. After all what is the use of the word if it's just to talk to oneself. The speech would consist not only in hearing one another speak but in honestly speaking to others, recognized as a community of individualities. This is the problem of the main digital communication platforms, they can not or do not want to change the perception of the mass of users, perhaps because these users are too numerous and heterogeneous. If they are unable to do this then the interfaces they offer are only devices for maintaining digital animality, thus allowing very rarely to turn the voice into speech. If these same interfaces do not promote the articulation of a discourse, then they reduce the manifestation of the values of justice and morality that constitute the community according to Aristotle. Since the digital community can not be created by these devices of communication then it is in-differentiated in this same environment. It then becomes the mass in which digital animality is constituted.
The main digital communication platforms seem to act as washing machines that generate their own 'mass' of users and condemn it to restricted modalities of communication, as artificially limited in their ability to articulate a speech. Why not do better: perhaps the huge number of users using these platforms produces 'naturally' this effect; more simply, the economic mechanics of these platforms make it possible to maximize their economic return by maximizing their number of users.
If we go out of the main boulevards of the main digital communication platforms we can observe sites and devices in which the speech is recreated. On the one hand because the number of users is limited (due to the access modalities or the specificity of the subjects) and on the other hand because they favor times when the punctual discussion is reintegrated in a communication continuum .
It seems to me that the work of the designers of digital communication interfaces should then focus not on the modalities of expression of the speech but on the honesty of the interfaces created and their limits. The question would then be: how can we make users understand the limits to their expression imposed by the communication device and how to decide if this or that digital space requires a communication interface. This would ultimately go towards a conception of limits rather than a current conception of illusions.
Aristotle, Politics, (Cambridge: Classics) I, 1253a 9-18. ↩
Rancière, La Mésentente (Paris: Galilée, 1995) 20. ↩
Rancière, La Mésentente (Paris: Galilée, 1995) 35. ↩
Aristotle, Politics, (Cambridge: Classics) I, 1254b 22. ↩
Foucault, La Parrêsia (Paris: Vrin, 2016) 54 (personal translation). ↩
Ancient philosophy is obviously not the only way to situate this reflection but it remains the framework that we have set ourselves for this analysis, so we will continue on this path while recognizing that there are others ↩