CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1Between information and communication, nothing is simple. In the past, there was a sort of continuum between the two: to inform was to communicate. Now, a discontinuity has arisen. To inform is not sufficient to communicate; information remains more simple than communication, but there is a continuous exchange between the two, and normative and functional dimensions coexist in both. The normative aspect relates to ideals. For information, the ideal is that of truth; for communication, it is that of exchange and sharing. The functional aspects are becoming increasingly prevalent, especially given the service information and institutional information that society requires. This functional side of communication can be found in the “PR” dimension of control, influence, or even manipulation. The difficulty lies in the fact that these two dimensions, the functional and the normative, are always intertwined. I have referred to this before as the double helix of the normative and the functional (Wolton 2014).

2In reality, there is usually a combination of the normative and the functional at the same time, for information as well as communication, albeit in varying proportions. It is this complexity in the relationships between the two concepts that explains why they are the subject of both fascination and distrust. Information, from the ideal of the press to the prestige of the internet, has gained legitimacy over the past century. At the same time, the complexity that lies between values and interests has continued to generate distrust when it comes to communication. And yet the ideals of communication—sharing and exchange—are never entirely removed from the seduction and desire of influence. For half a century, we have witnessed a paradoxical development whereby communication, in the sense of exchange, is becoming increasingly prevalent while being accompanied by growing distrust. Conversely, there is a preference for information—for the simple message. It is also for this reason that, faced with the complexities of human communication, people have a growing preference for the efficacy of technological communication, with the same dream that is inherent to the very idea of communication: that the technology of communication will facilitate human communication.

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4Thirty years on after Hermès was set up, where do we now stand in the face of this upheaval in the relationships between information and communication?

5We note, as a partial response to this point, that internet use has now become widespread, and with immeasurable success. Everyone spends hours on their smartphones or other devices. A digital society—or even a digital civilization—is now establishing itself, creating a pre- and a post-internet. Everything seems to have changed for good. While young people cannot even conceive of what the world might have been like before, their elders are happy if they can pass the test of modern living. This is indeed the height of technology.

6Looking to our future knowledge, neuroscience and the cognitive sciences are showing unbridled promise, most notably in artificial intelligence, human enhancement, and big data. Anything is possible as we push knowledge to the limit (whatever developments take place with robotics) simply because of the agility of technical applications that can solve “all” of our problems relating to knowledge and communication, even to the extent that many people see no conflict between technological and human communication. Digital civilization provides globalization with a political and cultural ideal. While it is true that demands for political regulation of the internet are now tentatively being made, especially in relation to financial transactions, privacy, confidentiality, and traffic of whatever nature, this is without any proper critical challenge to the power of GAFA—Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon. The financial question is of primary interest: how can the Big Four of GAFA be taxed? Might the discovery in spring, 2018 that 87 million personal accounts have been used by Cambridge Analytica shift the boundaries somewhat? Even the Europeans, the supposed guardians of democracy, who could potentially have been at the forefront of change and action on these political issues, do not seem to be worried in the slightest. Moreover, there appears to be no truly critical interrogation in academic, political, or technological circles either. Such is consensus.

7The speed of technological change is such that “analysis” now most often refers to any simple study of innovations and use. This appears to be such a universal phenomenon that there seems to be a global consensus about it—if about nothing else. Anyone for turning the clock back? Were things really better before? Should we all work by candlelight and travel by stagecoach again? The evidence points to a revolution.

8Despite this, everyone acknowledges that one day there ought to be some form of political regulation, which will be the proof that democracy will have “directed” the digital revolution—and there is no alternative prospect. There is an absence of anthropological reflection on this so-called new society.

9In fact, the main issue lies with the four-cornered relationship between information, communication, culture, and knowledge. When it comes to information and communication, these indeed represent areas of knowledge, but also representation and relationships with others. The key point about digital involves having an anthropological vision of humankind—much more than technology, services, applications, or industries. With these tools, it is our relationships with time, with space, and with the other that have been revolutionized. That is where the “treason of the intellectuals” comes in. They, at least, have a role in raising these anthropological questions—never mind the wonders of technology. This is not to criticize digital technology per se; rather, it is simply to establish the debate at the appropriate level instead of just talking about apps, devices, technology, and how they are used.

10But that terrible distrust. One day, of course, the internet will be subject to democratic regulation, probably after some fundamental conflict—but this is not the main issue. The essential point lies in how people represent their own identities, their relationships with others, their knowledge, their activities in the world, and so on. Put briefly, it is about the whole mismatch between the speed, logic, performance, and interaction of technology and knowledge in relation to the slowness, complexity, and irrationality of people in their relationships with themselves, with others, and with the world.

11Where does the momentum of this technological ideology lie? In finally allowing politicized regulation as a future prospect—recognizing that those imperial industries of information, knowledge, culture, and communication need to be regulated, and that once the regulations are in place, there should be no more problems. This inevitable politicization aside, there is still silence where there should be an anthropological debate, and there is no less an indifference regarding that which is debatable—in other words, there is a return to scientism.

12The political utopia we have now—linked with our technological ideology—may produce either a return of society or a new scientism. It is the latter phenomenon that we are witnessing more, given how digital already seems to have acquired the force of political thought. This is not just to do with the promise of augmented humans or so-called intelligent objects; neuroscience and the cognitive sciences are being used to explore new territories of knowledge about artificial intelligence and its applications. We are stepping from technology to science while leaving to one side not just the anthropological issue, but also the potential political socialization of people’s relationships with technology, with others, and with the world.

13Put another way, technology’s current success could leave the door open for a new “science” of humankind just as easily as it could for a new “vision” of society. For the time being, however, there is little happening by way of examination of the social dimensions, let alone the specifically anthropological angle—certainly in the face of scientism’s temptations. Quite simply, this is because we assume that political regulation will solve all our problems. It is the social and anthropological questions facing us that could force us to pay the price for this technological ideology and its adjunct of a new scientism. The fundamental feature of an ideology, whether technological, scientific, or even political, is always to mitigate otherness and to maintain continuities.

14To reiterate, it is not technology that is in question but, as has always been the case in the history of science and technology, it is its anthropomorphization. Having said that, this is the first time that a technological ideology has seized the human mind and spirit as a central part of our utopia. No longer is the challenge one of taming nature, the material world and space; now, it is about a leap in cognitive capacity.

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16For as long as we remain within this paradigm, with a sort of fusion between human communication and technology (in future it will be between people, technology, and science), it will not be possible to reclaim this otherness that we actually need in order to think. In reflecting on communication, the theoretical challenge posed by otherness and the absence of communication, or incommunication, is as much about technology as it is about the cultural relationship between people, their environment, and society. The point is that otherness cannot be avoided. Otherness is clearly part of today’s daily human experience, which emphasizes the point that infinitely complex questions of human communication still lie before us. However, otherness does not yet exist at the level of theoretical consideration of the new balance to be struck between technology, people, and society. The danger of ideology, whatever its field of application, always lies in its establishing or unifying continuities. The process of thinking is as much about establishing connections as it is about highlighting discontinuities. Continuity provides reassurance where it mainly simplifies; where continuums need to be avoided, it is a unifying force.

17It is in order to maintain the position of social otherness that the square of knowledge (Le carré des connaissances, 2007) features a nexus of relationships between science, technology, and society. There is epistemology and interdisciplinarity; expertise and controversy; the knowledge-based industries; science, technology, and society; and a mediator comprising societies, cultural diversity, and globalization.

18It is through a sort of historical irony that one of the responses to this quartet of knowledge is provided by that other quartet, the Big Four of GAFA: Google for knowledge, Apple for information, Facebook for communication, and Amazon for culture.

19It seems such a perfect square: surely it can answer all our questions, especially that of otherness. This is the advantage of having a systemic vision of the world. No need to leave things to events, the unexpected, or otherness. Or rather, these things can still have their place—but only if scheduled in advance. As for what remains, with the irrational and the subjective, these things do have a place—they have their place.

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21What is the main problem today? Finding room for maneuver. Rethinking the relationships between science, technology, society, and the place of human beings in a society where the science & technology pairing seems so perfect that it surpasses people’s own capabilities, while still of course being at people’s service. When it comes to the information technology revolution, this is a closed world of reasoning, which simply must be thrown open. It is a matter of moving beyond what we need to identify as a new determinism.

22What about having some proof of this being an ideology? Whenever questions are raised, whenever there is criticism or challenge, this is considered an expression of technophobia, conservatism, or a rejection of modernity. As long as this moral judgment is dominant, with its disdain towards any critical view of digital technology, it will serve as proof of the very technological ideology that needs to be challenged.

23To reinvigorate these reflections, to construct theoretical tools, to conduct empirical study, and to make comparisons: these have been the aims of Hermès for the past 30 years.

24In the end, there are three core options:

  • not to separate communication, incommunication, and acommunication;
  • to make a clear distinction between the logic of information and the logic of communication;
  • to maintain the discontinuity between human communication and technological communication.

25More than half of Hermès’s offer deals with the construction of concepts; the other half addresses empirical research.

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27There are ten key concepts that describe the lines taken by this journal, and at the same time its field of research:

  • the difference between information and communication;
  • the intelligence of the receiver;
  • the roles of otherness and discontinuity;
  • the importance of incommunication, acommunication, and negotiation;
  • the damage caused by omnipresent information and its complex relationships with knowledge and culture;
  • the discontinuity between neuroscience, the cognitive sciences, and communication; the increasing role of the concepts of information and communication in renewing the theory of knowledge; and the urgent need for interdisciplinarity;
  • the essential role of political communication in democracies;
  • the importance of identity and cultural diversity in globalization;
  • the conflict between the internet as a symbol of freedom and the reality of the immense power of GAFA;
  • the superiority of human communication over technological communication.

28* * *

29The works that appeared in the review’s earliest editions concerned the public space and public opinion, political communication, the functioning of democracy, and multicultural societies. Later, an interest developed in Europe and globalization, with issues around cultural diversity, cultural identity, and the difficulties of cultural cohabitation at the center. Throughout these past thirty years, consideration has been given to lending some structure to this whole area of knowledge, comprising comparative epistemology, interdisciplinarity, the cognitive sciences, knowledge-based industries and engineering, issues around digital technology, expertise and controversy, the critique of digital reason, and communication sciences.

30The Essentiels d’Hermès collection, comprising 50 publications over the past ten years, complements this work, as do the books that make up the “CNRS Communication” collection.

31This corpus of work has endeavored to bring together three dimensions: the critical, the theoretical, and the empirical.

32* * *

33The three notions of incommunication, the importance of otherness, and the need for negotiation clearly provide the principal hypotheses of these various different works.

34The words that sum up our work are indiscipline, non-conformism, and interdisciplinarity; intersubjectivity rather than interactivity; controversy and debate; curiosity; a rejection of dogma; the importance of experience, history, and comparatism. We have a certain epistemological modesty—and there is no need for shrines. Antireductionism and curiosity are in the journal’s DNA.

35To construct the tools to split information off from communication, to resist the seduction of technology, to tackle the idea of otherness, and above all to prepare the conditions for cultural and social cohabitation—this, paradoxically, is the most difficult thing to do in a world of transparency where everyone sees everything without coming any closer together—and even engendering hostility and fear of the other.

36True, the concepts of information and communication are essential for knowledge theory if we are to understand our changing, interactive, yet also violent, world. That is why the third word in the journal’s sub-heading is so essential. And that word is “politics.”

37Only democratic politics can establish a cohabitation-based solution to this double split in the order of knowledge and in the way in which the world is represented.

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39Over time, this essential field of action, that of research, has not always gained in intellectual and scientific legitimacy. Over these past two generations, how many “great authors” have placed the theoretical question of a critical reflection on the status of information and communication at the heart of their consideration? Very few indeed. Where are the critical, non-apologetic books with theories about information and communication and their relationships with our changing knowledge and the opening up of the world? There is now more university education on the topic, and demand from students is strong, but the approach taken has been intellectually exploited. Over the past half-century, universities and the elites in general have learned very well how to make use of communication—while simultaneously devaluing it—but they have failed to understand that, in a more open world, saturated with interaction and mutual distrust, it forms part of a far more complex question than that of the Other. Moreover, the silent absence of criticism from these same intellectual and cultural milieux towards GAFA and the so-called digital revolution speaks volumes about the influence of conformism among the elites. They know it, but they always forget.

40Thirty years on, there is the same disconnect between, on the one hand, the radical, theoretical, cultural, and political importance of issues around information, communication, and the so-called digital revolution, as well as a paucity of critical reflection and the devaluing of everything associated with the word “communication”; and, on the other hand, the fascination for technology and a modernist unthinking conformity. Indeed, the disconnect is always the same: admiring silence in the face of information; indifference or criticism towards communication, which is viewed as a mere secondary concept connected with marketing, influence, or indeed manipulation. Most of the time, in fact, communication and PR simply get taken for the same thing. Note, however, that the public relations aspect of communications, which implies a desire to influence others, is ever present in our lives, even though it is difficult to make it work. How many of us can say that they have actually succeeded in influencing someone else? People do not allow themselves to be as easily manipulated as the stereotypes might suggest. It is the frequent devaluing of PR, indeed, that leads people to devalue communication as a whole. Put briefly, everyone is trying to do their own PR, but without easily managing it—and at the same time they tend to just lump PR and communication together.

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42In the end, communication means shifting by a few millimeters and seeing the world differently. It means getting away from the ubiquity of technology. It also means realizing the importance of incommunication, and the time spent trying to negotiate. Indeed, “To communicate is to negotiate”; it is also about confronting otherness, and discovering the receiver’s intelligence as well as the limits of technological progress. Everything gets complicated with communication—and especially with globalization.

43Here are a few elements of the “communicational moment,” and some of the questions that arise from it.

44– With the renewed focus on scientism, how can we avoid the heralded continuum between neuroscience on the one hand and the cognitive sciences and communication on the other? How can we maintain a discontinuity between these heterogeneous approaches? The most complex situation always starts when someone breaks out of themselves to speak to someone else, in interaction with society.

45– How can the performance and speed of communication technologies be reconciled with the complexity and slowness of exchanges between people and communities—especially in educational contexts?

46– What universalities can exist in a model featuring artificial intelligence and digitally enhanced humans? What place is there for cultural diversity and anthropology? Where will scientism, known as universalism, stop?

47– Whereas technologies and messaging are global, cultures never are. Is that the explanation for today’s paradox: that there has never been so much information and exchange—and never so much suspicion? In principle, everybody sees everything and knows everything, yet at the same time everyone believes that, with more and more information, there are more and more lies, fake news, and manipulation. The triumph of information has not increased confidence; rumors and secrets have never been doing so well.

48– How can we resolve the contradiction between our interactive world and a historical reality where it is incommunication that is making such progress, especially thanks to cultural and anthropological identity?

49Put succinctly, how can we protect our transparent world from all these incommunications and impenetrable walls? Our globalized world, with all its trading and financial exchange, is becoming increasingly enclosed by political, religious, and cultural incommunications.

50Interactivity, transparency, free expression: none of these are enough to ensure respect, to eliminate hatred, to bring about respect for religions. None of the means that so prodigiously facilitate links with others and with the world do anything to engender a vision of the world where otherness is respected. In fact, it is the status of otherness that is at issue in this world where everything supposedly has its place.

I have sought to set out the field of research on communication in the following publications:
Wolton, Dominique. 2004. “Le moment de la communication.” Hermès 38: 9-11.
Wolton, Dominique. 2004. “Information et communication: dix chantiers scientifiques, culturels et politiques.” Hermès 38: 175-182.
Wolton, Dominique. 2007. “De l’information aux sciences de la communication.” Hermès 48: 189-202.
Wolton, Dominique. 2014. “Communication, l’impensé du XXe siècle.” Hermès 70: 13-20.
Wolton, Dominique. 2015. “Défense et illustration des sciences de la communication.” Hermès 71: 13-21.
Wolton, Dominique. 2013. “L’incommunication: horizon de la communication.” [interview with Samuel Lepastier and Éric Letonturier]. In L’Incommunication, edited by Samuel Lepastier, 161-181. Paris: CNRS Éditions, “Les Essentiels d’Hermès” collection.
Wolton, Dominique. 2010. “Les enjeux de la mondialisation de la communication.” [interview with Paul Rasse]. In La Mondialisation de la communication, edited by Paul Rasse, 139-149. Paris: CNRS Éditions, “Les Essentiels d’Hermès” collection.
Wolton, Dominique. 2003. L’autre mondialisation. Paris: Flammarion.
Wolton, Dominique. 2009. Informer n’est pas communiquer. Paris: CNRS éditions.
Wolton, Dominique. 2015. La communication, les hommes et la politique. Paris: CNRS éditions, “Biblis” collection.

Today, it is not enough simply to inform in order to communicate. Normative and functional aspects coexist in information and communication. The normative aspect relates to ideals—the ideal of truth for information, and the ideal of exchange and sharing for communication. However, with the rise of both these dimensions in how societies operate today, the functional aspects are becoming increasingly prevalent, especially given the service information and institutional information that society requires. This functional side of communication can be found in the “PR” dimension of control, influence, or even manipulation. The difficulty lies in the fact that these two dimensions, the functional and the normative, are always intertwined.

Dominique Wolton
Dominique Wolton has been the lead editor of Hermès since 1988 (80 issues) and has edited the book series “Les Essentiels d’Hermès” since 2008 (50 volumes). He has published around thirty works, which have been translated into over twenty languages. His recent works include Communiquer c’est vivre. Entretien avec Arnaud Benedetti (Paris: Cherche-midi, 2016) and Pape François. Politique et société, rencontres avec Dominique Wolton (Paris: Éditions de l’Observatoire, 2017).
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