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Constitutions of the human for the information age

31 may 2022 19:00 - 20:00

A new IAS's Carte Blanche series, with the participation of Margo Boenig-Liptsin, researcher in History, Philosophy and Sociology of science and 2021-2022 Paris IAS Fellow and with Nestor Herran, Sorbonne Université, Observatoire des sciences de l'univers Ecce Terra.

Picking up in the spring of 2022, the Cartes Blanches series will allow, twice a month, one of the IAS research fellows to talk on a topic of his or her choice related to contemporary societal issues and extra-academic environments.


A crucial concern today for citizens as well as political leaders of liberal democracies is how to maintain and strengthen democracy in light of the prevalence of computing in public life. Computing and data-based technologies and practices, like the platform economy, surveillance, and social media, are seen to transform, or worse, threaten, democratic institutions. In making sense of the relationship between democracy and computing today, it is important to recognize that the forms that democracies take today are not only a result of technological design (e.g. black box algorithms) and economic structures (e.g., that incentivize sensational content or attention-retention practices), but also of constitutions of the human: locally valued ways of knowing and being with computers. These constitutions have a history. 

To recover this history and see them in formation, I bring archival research and interviews to probe the meaning of "computer literacy" and "computer culture" in the United States, France, and Soviet Union. Computer literacy and culture programs in the 1970s and 1980s were the first means by which leaders of the computing revolution around the world introduced their publics to ways of thinking and being with computers. By looking at this origin of public computing, we get a glimpse of the kinds of constitutions of the human that engineers, social scientists, teachers, and politicians envisioned and sought to actively bring about for what they deemed to be the immanent information age. I show how in each cultural context, the computer was seen to constitute the human in a different way. Despite the differences, common features of constitutions of the human for the information age arise across the three cultures and include: 1) the aim to shift how publics know, 2) a shared sense of the importance of the future, and 3) the centrality of the individual person as the agent and site of computing. These features, set in motion at the dawn of public computing, can serve as entry points for analyzing contemporary democracies in the context of ubiquitous computing.     

Practical Information

Carte Blanche in English.
No registration needed. Join this Carte Blanche on May 31th at 7pm (Paris time) on the IAS YouTube channel.

Dignity at Risk: Discovering the Human in Algorithmic Risk Scores
01 September 2021 - 30 June 2022
31 May 2022 20:00
Margarita Boenig-Liptsin
Talks and lectures