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Bernard Stiegler (1952-2020)

For his family, friends, and colleagues, the death of Bernard Stiegler has been devastating. Multiple possibilities are now closed, and part of the anticipated future has been brutally amputated. But for you, the reader, the meaning of this death is probably unclear. I will strive to share some of our sense of loss, not to communicate the sorrow, but because Bernard's work is intensely contemporary and contains keys for our collective future.

When I met Bernard, various shared concerns brought us together very quickly. I was particularly worried about the decline of theorizing in sciences, and he was interested in what I was doing with the concept of entropy in theoretical biology. Bernard's drive led me to questions and interactions I would have never anticipated - all with the intellectual coherence brought about by his ability to weave questions together. As it often happens, our intellectual relationship quickly birthed a raising friendship.

Here, the man is not separate from the work. Since his death, an image haunts me, the benevolent distress of his gaze on those suffering from what he was perhaps struggling most fundamentally against. This happened when he witnessed that someone's desire or ability to work genuinely is lost or repressed. Let me explain.

Whether it is raising a child, working in the industry, or scientific research, we are more and more deeply embedded in technological and institutional arrangements that hinder our capacity to use our knowledge and insight. Even worse, knowledge is necessary to genuinely work, that is, to go beyond these routines and meet our purposes, and this knowledge is mostly transferred to technological devices. As a result, as both Adam Smith and Karl Marx underlined, we tend to lose it; Marx called this process proletarianization. Bernard added that today, this process is no longer limited to factories, and proletarianization impacts everything, from raising children to dealing in finances and even conducting scientific research.

However, we have a great need for knowledge. For Bernard, techniques, from flint tools to writing and then to computers, are conceptually considered pharmaka (in Greek, both poisons and remedies). There is no escaping from this ambivalence. To adopt a pharmakon, we need to prescribe and adjust its use to limit its toxicity – and this requires us to disengage from the automatisms associated with it.

The toxicity of pharmaka is exemplified by the thermal machines stemming from the first industrial revolution, with their greenhouse gas emissions and the resulting climate change, as well as the toxicity of digital technologies and the political decomposition that it originates. Sadly, we have to admit our collective inability to adopt both pharmaka, that is, to restrict their toxicities. Facing this situation, Bernard regularly emphasized that we should not give in to regressive thinking, like denial and finding scapegoats, be it a minority, a political figure, or the technical objects themselves.

In recent years, Bernard has resolutely tried to open a path to overcome this deadlock, tirelessly seeking openings through which he could contribute to the emergence of a desirable future. In doggedly pursuing these goals, he initiated local social experiments, weaved them together, addressed the UN directly, all while producing conceptual work. Bernard performed all this in transdisciplinary collectives, at the Institute for Research and Innovation or with the Internation group whose work led to the book "Bifurquer". He practiced philosophy among academics as well as with major corporations, public institutions, young activists, and inhabitants, particularly those of Seine-Saint-Denis, an underprivileged Parisian suburb.

A project was particularly dear to him, namely, the work on the disruption of infants' neurological and psychological development by screens, primarily those of digital media. This work took place in a preventive healthcare institution of Saint-Denis (a french PMI). There, it is not a question of imposing protocols but of nourishing a collective's thinking by taking seriously the inhabitants, their experience, their capacity to assimilate knowledge, and finally to collectively generate new knowledge, fighting against the toxicity of the pharmaka. One of his rational dreams was for engineers and designers to be compelled to consult the group's knowledge for future technological designs. Bernard's unbound energy was multiplied by the vitality and intelligence of the group, and he always left our meetings with a renewed belief that we can "bifurcate."

The latter work, like so many other projects he has initiated, will resume in September.