Portrait of the cyborg student

1In our given context, I will use my experience as a starting point to try to think about the difficulties that a philosophy teacher may encounter today. This will therefore be, first and foremost, a testimony that would like to pave the way for a debate without claiming to bring the “truth” on what would constitute the “essence” of the senior year student in philosophy class in the years 2010-2020. If the title of my talk, “Portrait of the Cyborg Student”, might have suggested, the goal of this conference paper is certainly not to produce a theoretical reflection on the challenges of new technologies for the teaching of philosophy today or on the impact of new technologies on this teaching. Rather, I wish to give an account of the undoubtedly unprecedented phenomena that emerge on a daily basis, starting from my own ground, that is to say, from the classroom of a general or technological public high school within the Académie de Créteil where philosophy is taught. I would also like to specify that my angle of view deliberately excludes all the aspects that escape the problems posed by the use of new technologies by our students. It goes without saying that the reasons for the difficulties faced by a philosophy teacher in a high school classroom in the Académie de Créteil greatly exceed this single dimension, and that it would undoubtedly be necessary to gather other testimonies adopting other angles of attack, in order to begin to have a slightly better representation of the complexity of the situation, and a portrait of a student with a slightly more precise outline. The recent events that took place at the Edouard Branly high school in Val de Marne (a teacher was threatened by a student who held a fake gun to her head so that she could mark him “present” [1]), for example, cannot be explained by the sole need of the students to “create a buzz” by posting a video on YouTube, even if this need for celebrity via new technologies is undoubtedly at play in this act [2].

2To begin with, I will take as my point of departure these two postulates: first, I will argue that the cognitive capacities and psychic representations of young people who have grown up immersed in new technologies are significantly different from those of their elders. Secondly, I suppose that the cousin-like teaching of philosophy, which is still in force in the national education system in the senior year of high school, is each year a little more inadequate to these new intelligences partly built by new technologies. My feedback is not intended to propose avenues of reflection for an eventual reform of philosophy syllabi and exercises, although this is undoubtedly urgent and necessary – I have neither the means nor the skills to do so [3] – but rather to engage in a reflection of an “anthropological-philosophical” nature on the behavior and the way of thinking of the average student in a classroom (as you will have understood, I am not talking about the model student of a good Parisian or provincial high school destined for the preparatory class [4]). The construction of the “portrait of the cyborg student” has therefore no other objective than to lay some foundations or some milestones to which we may possibly refer in order to develop a reflection on the possible reasons for the gap, which is widening a little more every year, between the teaching of philosophy, as it is always taught in school, and the capacities of the students to receive it.

3First of all, what about the students’ relationship to new technologies and more precisely to the cell phone that has invaded classrooms? As a teacher, this fusional relationship of the student with the telephone has forced me to establish a rule that the students – not without some prior protest – have come to accept. At the beginning of each class, I remind them that cell phones must be put in their bags, which, themselves, must be placed under the tables. Any visible cell phone will be immediately confiscated until the end of class. I inform them that it is not a question of reading the messages or even looking at the home screen, which for all of the students constitutes a violation of their privacy and sometimes very violent reactions: the cell phone will simply be placed face down on the desk for the duration of the class. It is on this condition that they agree to give me their phone when I catch them playing with it, without any immediate conflict or power struggle erupting. My expectations are in fact those of the school and of the exercise they will have to face as early as possible in the year in order to be ready on the day of the final exam (i.e. the essay [dissertation] and the text commentary [explication de texte]): globally, I expect the students’ attention to be focused first on a course that unfolds in an ideally linear way (I say “ideally” because a course is never linear, in that it must constantly adapt to the students’ reactions and questions, which are sometimes unexpected). I teach them the notions on the syllabus, the essay and the text commentary, which require them to have a certain extremely conformist way of thinking and a standard bodily attitude: all movement in the classroom is forbidden, chatter is forbidden, the student’s body must be turned towards the board. Saying things like this may seem extremely conservative, but one must realize that on the one hand, it is impossible to teach a class in the midst of a hubbub, and that on the other hand, it is indeed the general framework of the philosophical exercise (or more globally of the high school as a structure) that imposes such class management. Nevertheless, don’t imagine that my classroom resembles a mass, because the students obviously do not respect this protocol and resist – apart from a few – learning not only the lessons but above all the exercises for the baccalaureate, which the majority of them will not be able to acquire in one year anyway, since they lack mastery of the French language, whether from the point of view of spellings or syntax. Thus, papers full of grammatical and spelling errors and sometimes bordering on the incomprehensible from beginning to end, but showing the student’s effort to produce a structured reflection or to reproduce philosophical knowledge, obtain a grade of around 8, whereas a clear paper written in correct French, but devoid of any philosophical or other reference, will immediately receive a grade equivalent to at least 10. In any case, the majority of students will obtain their baccalaureate and the Ministry of National Education will certainly be able to congratulate itself again this year on an increase in the percentage of baccalaureate holders. From this observation, which may seem extremely shocking to someone who is removed from teaching or who is part of it but who is so afraid of feeding into reactionary comments about school that he or they prefer to mute them (even if some of them are really optimistic, it should be noted), the students are not fooled. They know that the baccalaureate will not bring them anything and that they can obtain it with little to no work, by skipping school, or by behaving badly all year long (which is indeed true every year). This lucidity obviously does not encourage students to get to work and accentuates the difficulties of teachers, but that is another debate…

4To return more directly to my subject, I would like to start again from this fusional relationship of the student to their cell phone and beyond that to the social networks which magnetize them totally and absolutely. The reactions of students, when their cell phone is confiscated, can thus be particularly strong and border on a reaction of terror or anguish that greatly exceeds the simple fear that the teacher is using or looking at the information contained in the cell phone. It is more profoundly a feeling of amputation or castration, which may have led students to threaten their teacher physically or verbally. How can we explain this fusional link that the student has, but perhaps as do the adults that we are, with the cell phone? I suppose that in order to attempt a very first and very superficial explanation, we could start out from Derrida’s philosophy which, I believe, can give us some elements of answer. According to Derrida, the technical object is not an external element that we manipulate, but it is constitutive of the singularity. In other words, the technical object is not an extension of the body or the hand that facilitates our action on the world, but a true – although non living – member of the living. The latter indeed invent their singularity out of a technical object possessing the capacity to detach itself from its progenitor in order to allow it to survive after their biological death (this is how Derrida conceives of writing in his first texts based especially on the analyses of Husserl and Plato). What Derrida raises by this means, is the fact that no living being can construct itself without an object which is at the same time internal and external, and which will necessarily be the site of a multitude of affective or intellectual projections. The ingenuity of the designers of the cell phone lies perhaps in this deep understanding (and non Derridian of course) of this need for a living being to appropriate such an object to the point of not being able to separate from it. Thus they have designed an object capable of simultaneously meeting our vital needs and the constraints of the consumer society. Insidiously, it is a question of ensuring that individuals, by appropriating their object, always conform and integrate themselves a little more into a consumerist system. This initially “empty” object has enough plasticity to allow each person to make it their own, until we are finally no longer able to distinguish it from ourselves. This plastic capacity specific to the cell phone, without which it would be much more difficult for us to enter into an addictive relationship with it, has a “computer jargon name” which initially designates the fact of putting into image or giving figure: configuration. The imaginary universe of the student is thus indistinguishable from the universe contained in their phone and to cut them off from the relation to their object is to cut them off from themself. But, as we know, while the student – as well as any other individual – may have had the opportunity to configure their cell phone to suit their tastes, their interests, or their friendships, they are not its inventor. The object as well as all its applications were conceived by companies in a specific economic context whose purpose is certainly not education or the training of minds. Likewise, the ways of using them are certainly not the fruit of the student’s personal imagination or creativity – except perhaps for some of them, more expert in new technologies or already sufficiently constructed to be able to put these new technologies at the service of an already very singular mental life. But for most of the students, largely influenced by the liberal ideology centered on the heroization of the individual, in this case confused with the enjoyment that the admiration of one’s social network or the expression of one’s “power” in a game can arouse, it is above all a question of using them to stage themselves in all possible ways. In other words, the student only has the illusion of being the master of the construction of their universe, because they only respond to the stimuli of society, using the applications that are made available to them in the least innovative way possible. How does the young cyborg teenager construct themself, who then become, by ministerial choice, the improbable student of the philosophy teacher in the senior year of high school? I imagine, a bit like Rousseau imagines his man in the state of nature in Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men (1755), this young man devoured by the desire for recognition and who desperately seeks the means of his individualization. I imagine that all the applications he can download on his computer or his phone are as many ways to achieve this. Two types of applications are of particular interest to my cyborg: applications for surfing on social networks and games. In both cases, he enters a derealizing world where he distances himself more and more from his real abilities to enter the skin of a phantasmal self. I imagine this student in total immersion in this other world which provides him with the all of his sensory and psychic stimuli. In this world, he illusorily occupies a central place from which he manages his networks and the actions he decides to accomplish. He lives his life through the prism of others’ eyes, which emanate from invisible and sometimes equally phantasmal eyes. How many views are there of my video, my photos, my comments? Life is only worth living if it is captured and mirrored by thousands, or even ideally, millions of eyes. More exactly, life is only real if, paradoxically, it is integrated into social networks or projected inside a game. In this world, the modes of connection (since I won’t dare to speak of modes of thought) are non-linear, the reactions are immediate and perhaps closer to reflex. Verbal language is almost useless since most of the exchanges take place through images. The life lived is first of all a captured life, broadcast on social networks preferably in an instantaneous way. You no longer memorize your life, any more than you tell it. There is no need to have a memory and to manipulate language to put one’s memories into words and order. One’s life is disseminated through images; it is immediately displayed on applications such as Snapchat or Periscope. The imaginary body, the image body or the body projected in social networks is also a fragmented body that paradoxically recovers in the fantasy of a unified individual. Through these applications, one does not build the story of one’s life, one throws the most intense moment of one’s life to the eyes of the other. The individual is this eroticized or rejoicing [jouissant] hero whose existence has suddenly become more intense than that of all the others. He embodies the absolute presence, the sovereignty of the phallic subject. The same goes for comments, whether it be via Twitter, which invites one to react on the spot to any type of information, or Facebook, which mixes commentary and the broadcasting of one’s life through images. For the Facebook commentator, articulate language is just as useless: it is a matter of reacting by using smileys expressing the whole gamut of emotions, or by writing a short message that does not need to be written in correct French. The writing should be as fast and intense as the way one broadcasts one’s life: it is about writing to make one’s reaction and emotion heard. Spelling is of no use since it is a matter of writing the word as you hear it. The message must be short because it invites neither reflection nor repartee: it is written in the mode of the punchline. The punchline is this striking sentence which could be the descendant of the moral maxim if it had not become essentially marketing. Its aim is to shock, to mark the minds that are supposed to return to it obsessively. If it can be elegant and can invite reflection, the punchline of my cyborg is first of all an impulse which responds to an emotion and which modulates itself or expresses itself in an almost inarticulate cry. Once again, it is a question of jouissance which seems to be the only possible mode of expression and existence. A jouissance put to the benefit of an exacerbated narcissism where the individual must appear in his glory and his omnipotence, when in fact he is in absolute solitude and completely disarmed by his lack of mastery of the French language (or of any other language). The disjunction between the individual staged in the phantasmal world created by new technologies and their misery in their real life, pushes them to remain more and more in what I would call a “hallucinogenic world”, which functions like a “virtual reality” whereas it is not one.

5To move closer to my conclusion, and so that I am not immediately accused of “technophobia”, I would like to question this expression, already obsolete in the philosophy of technology, but nevertheless useful for thinking about my object: “virtual reality”. Virtual reality is classically defined as the result of the construction of a world entirely shaped by new technologies and as such fictional or non-existent. It is said to be “real” because the subject who evolves in it in a state of complete immersion, receives all their sensations (haptic, visual and sound) from this world with which they can interact. It was apparently of this world that I was speaking when I constructed my representation of a cyborg student. This expression, “virtual reality”, does not seem to me to correspond to the world that we sell to our young people.

6In philosophy, since Aristotle, the virtual is opposed to the actual. The virtual is existence in potential, while the actual is the process by which the virtual expresses itself and tears itself away from its being in potential. In other words, actualization is a becoming: it is that process by which an object comes into existence. The tree is thus virtually, but well and truly, contained in the seed. This is what made Deleuze say in Différence et répétition (Presses Universitaires de France, 1968), that the virtual is not opposed to the real but to the actual. The virtual is real, full of its becoming, while the actual is the accidental but also real expression of this virtual object. The relation between the virtual and the actual is not, according to Deleuze, determined by a teleology. The process of actualization is not simply the process of advent of a final cause that precedes the efficient cause in Aristotelian terms, but it is a process of singularization without a predetermined finality. Actualization is, in other words, a process of creation: if the virtual data can be identical, their actualization always takes place in a unique and potentially changing context. By implication, the actual object is not the embodiment of the end of a process. The actual does not thus exclude the virtual but the one is always contaminated by the other. This contamination makes possible the repetition of the process of actualization. Within the framework of new technologies, the expression “virtual reality” does not refer to the idea that the new technologies produce a fiction capable of producing a feeling of reality in the user, as hallucination could, for example. Rather, it means that virtual digital data is waiting to be actualized by a user who can totally reinvent their world according to the way they use it. Virtual reality is thus ideally a space of invention actualized by a singularity that is itself a force in the making or a process of actualization. The process of singularization is not different from the process of actualization, which itself is not different from confronting reality.

7This virtual reality is certainly not the one in which our cyborg students live. The new technologies at their disposal do not invite them to invent or create. I suppose that they immerse them in a world that is fictitious, but which also has the capacity to provide them with a large part of their sensory stimuli and which can have an impact on reality. The applications they use do not invite them to enter into a process of actualization that supposes the confrontation of reality or the experience of patience that any creative process requires. They project them in a world where they are invited to enjoy [jouir] immediately, as I described earlier. Their purpose, which is not separable from the purpose of the capitalist society in which we evolve, is above all to use available brain time, to use this well-found expression of Patrick Le Lay, and to integrate the individual into the consumer society, that is to say, to make them a “super individual”.

8In conclusion, I would maintain that the teaching of philosophy as it is practiced to these cyborg students is completely inadequate and inappropriate. However, it cannot be a question of wanting to adapt to this type of intelligence or to use the new technologies without thinking about them at length and deeply beforehand. I believe, on the contrary, that teaching of philosophy starting with and using new technologies is possible, as my embryonic reflection on virtual reality has been able to suggest…


  • [1]
  • [2]
    I would like to point out right away that this text was written before talk about banning cell phones in high school started—an idea that coincided with the news story I just reported.
  • [3]
    I am writing this text at a time when the reforms of syllabi and tests have been announced but not yet fully known, which puts me in a very uncomfortable situation. It must be said that the modification of the tests can certainly lead to a change in the form of the classes and in the behavior of the students without, however, leading to a modification of their psychology. This change, however necessary it may be, is not necessarily desirable, because one has the right to fear that the tendency is rather towards demagogy and oversimplification of the syllabi. On the other hand, it can be worrying, because it must be admitted that this reduction of requirements is in line with the new capacities of “cyborg students”, which the National Education system probably does not yet know how to leverage…
  • [4]
    This is another problem that should obviously be discussed at length and that could perhaps be the subject of another article: the educational inequality between students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds who no longer expect anything from school and dream of easy money; and students from privileged backgrounds who still see the possibility of accessing rewarding jobs thanks to their studies. To this, we should add the collapse of the authority of the teacher who has lost all credit in a society that privileges individual success, in this case confused with access to fame and/or wealth, over the construction of singularity in all its dimensions (physical, psychological, intellectual), which is nonetheless (or rather was?) the official objective of the school.