There was a time when religion provided immediate answers that seemed to satisfy the major questions that individuals could have.
There was a time when ideologies took over, providing a coherent universe for coping with the expectations of the collective.
Then came the time of doubt. The time when dogmatism was confronted by the thirst for freedom. The time when political ideals clashed with wars, epidemics, and poverty. The time when, finally, science and technology didn’t seem to be keeping their promises of progress.
The real was saturated. There was no movement without a border being put in our way. No progress was made without the precautionary principle being applied to temper it. No exchange was made without the laws of market insinuating themselves. There was not even any interaction, without our origins, our age, or our gender being used to represent us.
So we thought of an ‘elsewhere’. In reality, we have always thought about escaping. Inwardly? No, introspection has not proven itself. We therefore looked afar and we conquered Lands. Then we looked up at the heavens and we tamed space. But without finding our new Eldorado there. Perhaps the solution was to invent a utopian city, where the world would be entirely rethought, where our limits would once more be exceeded?
Since we were dreaming of utopia, the virtual world of the net appeared naturally as the place in which our prophecies could potentially be fulfilled.
But because we were talking of the virtual, certain observers have only seen mirages and illusions within. And with good reason: is utopia itself not imaginary by definition?
However, all the doubters have had to come to terms with it: the Internet, in its collective imagination, possesses all the characteristics of Thomas More’s utopia. Characteristics that may be universal yet nonetheless compatible with our Republican motto: in the face of regulation, it is liberty; in the face of social hierarchy, it is equality; and in the face of power struggles, it is fraternity(1).
And above all, it radically modifies our vision of utopia. For if, in the face of the human condition, the myth of the Golden Age has always existed, it has always been situated either in a distant past or in a faraway future. And here, for the first time, thanks to the virtual sphere, the utopian city is being built before our eyes. Its architects are working away today, now, ceaselessly. Even better: we know them because we, too, form part of them. Is this not also utopia, when each person takes their destiny in hand once more, indifferent to the whims of Providence? It’s true that, rather than being mere passive consumers, the users of the Internet have turned it into a place of creation and collaboration.
And there are many examples: the wikisphere’s reputation amongst some observers as a place to avoid hardly distracts from its popularity. Although we said that they would contribute to breaking human bonds, social networks have, on the contrary, demonstrated their power for mobilisation. We feared confusion between the learned and the laymen, but when thousands of anonymous volunteers were able to find in a couple of weeks what experts have sought in vain for years, the scientific discovery games were celebrated.
In the face of such accomplishment, then why not consider the Internet as a regained utopia? Because of excessive caution or because of pessimism? Neither of these in fact: quite simply because of realism. So as not to fall into self-satisfaction either. Above all, so as not to forget that, despite its ubiquity, this supposedly utopian city is not yet open to all.
What, then, is necessary to ensure that every one can benefit from it? To ponder on what some call its “universality”; to deal with what others call the “digital divide”. A simple expression behind which hides a multiple reality.
Repairing this divide is not merely redressing the inequalities, which are still glaring, in physical access to a computer and to an Internet connection. Access to technology is certainly a passport, essential for approaching the dream city. But the visa necessary to move freely within would still be missing. An immaterial laissez-passer, just like the doors to which this visa would be the key.
There’s only one way to obtain this: learn to use these technologies. Learn to use the resulting data with a critical eye and learn to distinguish the information from the knowledge within. This learning is nothing less than civic education, as it conditions the exercise of responsible and free citizenship, respectful of others and of oneself, in both physical and virtual territories. Consequently, this learning must be considered as a right for all and as a duty for each and every one.
Translator’s Note: (1)Refers to « Liberté, égalité, fraternité », French for « Liberty, equality, fraternity (brotherhood) », the national motto of France. It’s a typical example of a tripartite motto which finds its origins in the French Revolution.