Philippe Breton: a brief introduction
…by David Bade, the translator of Breton’s book Le culte de l’Internet: Une menace pour le lien social?, which Litwin Books has published under the English title: The Culture of the Internet and the Internet as Cult: Social Fears and Religious Fantasies…
I discovered the work of Philippe Breton when Le cult de l’Internet: une menace pour le lien social? arrived in the library in 2000. I read it and immediately ordered everything he had published. I regularly check to see if he has published anything new, and I have his latest book on order at the Seminary Coop Bookstore now: Le silence et la parole: contre les excès de la communication (written in collaboration with David Le Breton). Breton’s first book, for which he received the Prix de jury from the Association française des informaticiens in 1988, was Une histoire de l’informatique, published in 1987. That book was reviewed (along with two other titles on the topic) by I. Bernard Cohen in the journal Technology and Culture in 1990 ; Cohen had little to say about it and nothing good. His complaint? Breton’s history was not the history he had expected, as it dealt not with the details of technical innovations but with the social, political and ideological views of the men who made the field and the ethical aspects of their worldview. Cohen recognized that Breton was writing as a philosopher rather than an historian of engineering and he wanted nothing to do with philosophy.
Since his history of informatics Breton has written a series of remarkable books on communication and information technologies, language, rhetoric, argumentation and the interplay among language, technology and ideology in our time. His thinking from the beginning has joined together the philosophy of information science, the anthropology of language, technologies of communication, and the practices of rhetoric, argumentation and political communication. His books have been translated into Arabic, Greek, Hungarian, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Spanish and Vietnamese, but until now, not into English. In 1991 his anthropological study of the early users of computers, La tribu informatique, received the grand prize for literature in information science, and in 1998 La parole manipulée was awarded the prize for moral and political philosophy of the Académie française des sciences morale et politiques. I will never forget reading his À l’image de l’Homme: du golem aux créatures virtuelles (1996): his concluding analysis of the history of projects for making artificial life and the ideas about what a human being is that has informed them left me in a state of shock. His monographs on rhetoric and argumentation made me realize the enormous significance of the absence of argument and debate in a technical system based on rules, algorithms and instructions, for here we enter directly into the political realm. Within information science language is understood to be nothing but information, bits, packets, stuff to send and receive, while the human reality is that language is argument and debate, understanding and misunderstanding, desire and domination. These contrasting visions of communication and language in human social life constitute a crucially important area for research that has hardly been investigated.
In Le cult de l’Internet: une menace pour le lien social? Breton looks at the Internet not as a technical system but as a human project, born of social fears and utopian dreams, of mystical desires, religious fantasies, political demands and economic ideologies. How this Internet of the imagination has altered the social reality in which we now live Breton examines through the lens of his earlier works: his analysis of the history of ideas in information science, his anthropological description of computer users and their relationship to their computers, and his remarkable insights into our species’ imagination of what it is to be human.
It has puzzled me for a decade now that no notice was taken of this book in the anglo-american world of library and information science; only one English language periodical published a review. The only other reviews of his books in an English language periodical were the above mentioned review of Une histoire de l’informatique and a review of L’explosion de la communication in Canadian Journal of Communication. Even though a decade old, Le culte de l’Internet has lost none of its relevance and I am delighted that Litwin Books is publishing this translation. I hope there will be more to come.
– David Bade
Books by Philippe Breton (arranged chronologically)
Une histoire de l’informatique. Paris: La Découverte, 1987. (reprinted : Seuil, coll. « Points sciences », Paris, 1990)
Les technosciences en question: éléments pour une archéologie du XXe siècle (with Frank Tinland and Alain-Marc Rieu). Paris: Champ Vallon, Seyssel, 1989.
L’explosion de la communication. La naissance d’une nouvelle idéologie (with Serge Proulx). Paris & Montréal: La Découverte & Boréal, 1989. (reprinted: La Découverte/poche, Paris, 1996. Revised edition published in 2002 as: L’explosion de la communication à l’aube du XXIe siècle)
La Tribu informatique. Paris : Métaillié, 1990.
L’utopie de la communication. Paris : La Découverte, 1990. (reprinted: La Découverte/poche, Paris, 1997, 2004).
L’option informatique au lycée (with Éric Heilmann and Guislaine Dufour). Paris: Hachette, 1990 (reprinted 1991 and 1998).
Pour comprendre l’informatique (with Ghislaine Dufourd, Eric Heilmann). Paris: Hachette, 1992.
À l’image de l’homme. Du Golem aux créatures virtuelles. Paris: Seuil, 1995 (coll. « Science ouverte »).
L’argumentation dans la communication. Paris: La Découverte, 1996 (coll. « Repères »).
La parole manipulée. Paris : La Découverte, 1998 (reprinted: La Découverte/Poches, Paris, 1999, 2004).
Histoire des théories de l’argumentation (en collaboration avec Gilles Gauthier). Paris : La Découverte, 2000 (coll. « Repères »).
Le culte de l’Internet: une menace pour le lien social? Paris: La Découverte, 2000.
Éloge de la parole. Paris: La Découverte, 2003.
Argumenter en situation difficile. Paris: La Découverte, 2004.
L’incompétence démocratique: la crise de la parole au cœur du malaise (dans la) politique. Paris: La Découverte, 2006.
Convaincre sans manipuler – Apprendre à argumenter. Paris: La Découverte, 2008.
Les refusants: comment refuse-t-on de devenir exécuteur. Paris: La Découverte, 2009.
Le silence et la parole contre les excès de la communication (with David Le Breton). Toulouse: Érès, 2009.
Breton’s blog on Le Monde: http://argumentation.blog.lemonde.fr