Review. Trans-organic forms of relationships (between human beings, technical devices, forms of plant and animal life), have unveiled a ‘Digital Gaia,’ within which humans are less and less the main actors and more and more parts of a whole that is ever more complex and multifaceted.

Digital devices are part of the new global ecology—but who controls it?

In the middle of his famous essay “The Question Concerning Technology” (1953), Martin Heidegger quotes a famous verse by the German poet Friedrich Hölderlin: “where the danger is, we find growing what protects us against it.” Put simply, the thesis of the controversial German philosopher, marked by a definite anti-humanism, is that technology is not so much—and not only—the destiny of Western man, but rather the device through which are revealed, in a radical way, those powers of nature and Being that humans contemplate, activate and manage, without ever being their masters or their makers.

This break with anthropocentrism results in an ambivalent vision of technology: on one hand, it has been reduced by the Western anthropocentric tradition to a mere instrument, in a vision that sees the world itself and human beings as mere objects, calculable and measurable, and thus passive subjects of a looming technocracy (the threat posed by technology). On the other hand, human beings can regain their freedom by becoming aware of the true essence of technology, and accepting and managing the forces that it reveals.

The book Net-attivismo by Massimo Di Felice (Edizioni Estemporanee, 228 pages, €20) provides an analysis on the impact of digital technologies within a framework of Heideggerian inspiration, colored both by an indigenous, non-Western and post-colonial point of view originating from Latin America, as well as by the advances of post-structuralist theory applied to the media and science, the best exponents of which are, respectively, Marshall McLuhan and Bruno Latour. For the author, digital technologies, just like other media, are more than just a tool to exchange messages and content. They are a whole new environment, which is redefining the ways in which human beings act and exist: these technologies are creating a whole new ecology of action.

From this perspective, “net-activism” is not only the use of digital technologies for political purposes, but ultimately comprise every social action and every thought of modern man, whose identity and whose place in the world are realized by means of being incorporated into the networks. This digital ecology makes short work of the whole anthropocentric Western tradition: of the idea of ​​society, with its local roots; of the social sciences, by means of the dissolution of their object; of politics itself with its hierarchies and its forms, shaped by the nation-state.

The most original achievement of Di Felice’s work lies in having employed within his analysis of digital technologies a perspective from the southern hemisphere, that of the indigenous peoples of Brazil, and, in general, one arising from the relationship that is being built in Latin America between nature and technology. Rejecting the notion of the Anthropocene as a reading of the man-nature relationship in the contemporary world, Di Felice takes the “Gaia theory” as his starting point, i.e. the notion that the Earth is to be understood as an organic, living entity, made up of a multiplicity of animate and inanimate beings that articulate and make possible its supra-organic form of existence.

The passage to the “Internet of Things” is determining a new direction for development, from the great forests of Brazil to the glaciers of Antarctica, involving not only the connection between man and machine which is defining the construction of these new networks in the West, but also the connection with, and the monitoring of, natural ecosystems. This results in trans-organic forms of relationships (between human beings, technical devices, forms of plant and animal life), and these technologies unveil a “Digital Gaia,” within which humans are less and less the main actors and more and more parts of a whole that is ever more complex and multifaceted. Heidegger’s thesis, which proved untimely in the industrial society of his time, is becoming a description of the near future in the new digital environment: human beings are ceasing to be the main actors, in a new global ecology marked by the power of devices, algorithms and non-human forms of life, today able to act directly in the world.

The author’s vision thus leads to the overcoming of politics as a mode of wholly human decision-making about society and nature, thus also providing an explanation for why the parties and the forms of participation that were born out of modernity no longer seem to be able to govern this hyper-complex world. But what, or who, is ultimately hiding behind this—undoubtedly realistic—framework for understanding social and technological structures? Who are the ones designing, developing, and determining the direction of the networks? Whose interests are being favored, and who are the disadvantaged? Taking this view, aren’t we merely resigning ourselves to the victory of the anarcho-liberal digital realm?

These questions remain unanswered in this valuable book by Massimo Di Felice. Technology is never neutral, but always socially, economically and politically conditioned. Net-activism, both in its specifically political form as well as in its social and ecological form—as the author notes—can also originate from the Zapatista movement, and the impulse that gave birth to the first phase of the anti-globalization movement at the end of the millennium.

It is true that these individuals and movements have lost many battles (though, perhaps, not the war) when it comes to writing and advancing the history of contemporary digital ecology. We are living today in an ambiguous relationship with both the global capitalism of the networks and its conflicts with neo-populist and nationalist forms of power—think, for example, of the US administration’s recent decision repealing net neutrality. It is a good idea to immerse oneself in today’s digital environments in order to understand and analyze them, but we must not forget that, beside them, there is always something “external,” a context of power relations that no “superior destiny of technology” will ever be able to fully neutralize.


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