Thumbelina: The Culture and Technology of Millennials

Thumbelina: The Culture and Technology of Millennials


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This book is an English-language translation of a bestselling book in France that explores the relationship between humans and new technologies.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783480708
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Publication date: 10/20/2014
Pages: 96
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Michel Serres is a professor in the history of science at Stanford University and a member of the Academie Francaise. A renowned and popular philosopher and one of France's leading intellectuals, he is the author of a number of works already translated into English, including Variations on the Body, The Parasite, The Five Senses and Malfeasance: Appropriation Through Pollution?

Daniel W. Smith is associate professor of philosophy at Purdue University. He is the author of Essays on Deleuze and translator of several works, including Deleuze's Francis Bacon.

Read an Excerpt


The Culture and Technology of Millennials

By Michel Serres, Daniel W. Smith

Rowman & Littlefield International, Ltd.

Copyright © 2012 Editions Le Pommier
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78348-072-2



Before teaching anything to anyone, we should at least know who our students are. Who, today, is enrolling in our schools, colleges and universities?


This young schoolgirl and new schoolboy have never seen a calf, a cow, a pig, or a brood of chicks. In 1900, most human beings on the planet worked the land; by 2011, in France and in similar countries, the number of people working the land had been reduced to one percent of the population. This has been one of the greatest revolutions in history since the Neolithic period. Our cultures, which used to be tied to pastoral practices, have suddenly changed. Of course, what we eat, on the planet, still comes from the earth.

The children I am introducing here no longer live in the company of animals; they no longer inhabit the same earth; they no longer have the same relation to the world. The nature they admire is merely an Arcadian nature, the nature of vacations and tourism.

They live in the city. More than half of their immediate predecessors haunted the fields. Yet, having become aware of the environment, these prudent and respectful students pollute less than we unconscious and narcissistic adults.

They no longer endure the same physical life, nor are they living in the same numerical world. The world's population, during the span of a single human life, has leapt from two to almost seven billion human beings. They are living in a world that is packed full.

Their life expectancy is now close to eighty years. Their great-grandparents, on their wedding day, had promised to be faithful to each other for perhaps a decade. If he and she decide to live together, will they swear to the same fidelity for sixty-five years? Their parents received their inheritance around age thirty, while they will have to wait until old age to receive their legacy. They no longer have the same life-span, nor the same marriage, nor the same transmission of patrimony.

Their parents, heading off to war with a flower in their gun, often sacrificed their short life spans to their motherland. Will these children honor themselves in the same way when they have the promise of six more decades ahead of them?

For the past sixty years, an atypical period in the history of the West, none of these children has ever known war first-hand, nor have their leaders or teachers.

Statistically speaking, they have suffered much less than their predecessors, having reaped the benefits of a medicine that has finally become efficacious, notably through the development of analgesics and anesthetics. Have they known hunger? Every morality, whether religious or secular, was embodied in exercises aimed at dealing with inevitable and daily pain: sickness, famine, the cruelty of the world.

They no longer have the same body or the same behavior; adults no longer have any hope of inspiring in them even an adapted morality.

Their parents were conceived blindly, whereas their birth was programmed. Since the average age of a woman having her first child has increased by ten to fifteen years, the parents of these students come from a different generation. For more than half these children, their parents are divorced from each other. Have they left their children as well?

Neither he nor she have the same genealogy.

Their predecessors met in classes and lecture halls that were culturally homogeneous, whereas they study in a collectivity where they mingle with students from numerous religions, languages, origins, and customs. For them, and their teachers, multiculturalism is the rule. How long will they still be able to sing, in France, of the "impure blood" of foreigners?

They do not inhabit the same global world; they do not inhabit the same human world. All around them, they encounter the sons and daughters of immigrants from less affluent countries, who have lived through vital experiences that are the opposite of theirs.

A provisional assessment: they are fortunate. They know nothing of the rustic life, domestic animals, or the summer harvest. They have not lived through ten wars, the wounded, the starving, the motherland, bloody flags, cemeteries, or monuments to the dead. Nor have they ever experienced, through their suffering, the vital urgency of a morality. What literature or history will they be able to understand?


The culture of their ancestors was grounded in a temporal horizon of several thousand years, adorned with Greco-Latin antiquity, the Jewish Bible, a few cuneiform tablets, and a short prehistory. This temporal horizon has now been extended billions of years, going back to the Plank barrier, and passing through the accretion of the planet, the evolution of the species, and a paleontology spanning millions of years.

No longer inhabiting the same time, they are living a completely different history.

They are formatted by the media, which is broadcast by adults who have meticulously destroyed their faculty of attention by reducing the duration of images to seven seconds, and the response time to questions to fifteen seconds — these are official figures. The word that is repeated most often in the media is "death," and the most frequently represented images are those of corpses. In the first twelve years of their lives, these adults will force them to watch more than twenty thousand murders.

They are formatted by advertising. How can French children be taught that the word "relais" is written with an "-ais," when it is spelled with an "-ay" in every train station in France? How can they be taught the metric system when the SNCF, the French national rail system, decides to call its fidelity program "S'Miles" — one of the most ridiculous things in the world?

We adults have transformed our society of the spectacle into a pedagogical society whose overwhelming competition, willfully ignorant, has eclipsed the school and the university. The media long ago took over the function of teaching — the time when one hears and sees, the time of seduction and consequence.

In France, our professors — criticized, mistrusted, and lambasted, since they are poor and discreet, even if they hold the world record for recent Nobel prizes and Field medals in relation to the size of the population — have become far less influential than these dominant teachers of the media, who are boisterous and rich.

These children inhabit the virtual. The cognitive sciences have shown us that using the Internet, reading or writing messages (with one's thumb), or consulting Wikipedia or Facebook does not stimulate the same neurons or the same cortical zones as does the use of a book, a chalkboard, or a notebook. They can manipulate several forms of information at the same time, yet they neither understand it, nor integrate it, nor synthesize it as do we, their ancestors.

They no longer have the same head.

With their cell phone, they have access to all people; with GPS, to all places; with the Internet, to all knowledge. They inhabit a topological space of neighborhoods, whereas we lived in a metric space, coordinated by distances.

They no longer inhabit the same space.

Without us even realizing it, a new kind of human being was born in the brief period of time that separates us from the 1970s.

He or she no longer has the same body or the same life expectancy. They no longer communicate in the same way; they no longer perceive the same world; they no longer live in the same Nature or inhabit the same space.

Born via an epidural and a programmed pregnancy, they no longer fear, with all their palliatives, the same death.

No longer having the same head as their parents, he or she comprehends differently.

He or she writes differently. After watching them, with admiration, send an SMS more quickly than I could ever do with my clumsy fingers, I have named them, with as much tenderness as a grandfather can express, Thumbelina (Petite Poucette) and Tom Thumb (Petit Poucet). These are their real names, much nicer than the old pseudo-scientific French word, dactylos (typists).

They no longer speak the same language. Since the time of Richelieu, the French Academy has published its own dictionary, every twenty years or so, as a reference work. In prior centuries, the difference between the two publications was four to five thousand words, a fairly constant measure. Between the current dictionary and the next one, the difference will be around thirty-five thousand words.

With this rhythm, it is obvious that our descendants will soon find themselves as distant from our language as we are, today, from the Old French spoken by Chrétien de Troyes or Jean de Joinville. This gradient provides a quasi-photographic sign of the changes I am describing.

This immense difference, which affects most languages, is derived in part from the changes between the jobs of recent years and those of today. Thumbelina and her friend will no longer have to apply themselves to the same kind of work.

Language has changed, and work has mutated.


Better yet, they have all become individuals. The individual was invented by St. Paul at the beginning of our era, but it has been born again in our time. Until recently, we lived in what we might call our "belongings": French, Catholics, Jews, Protestants, Muslims, atheists, Southerners or Northerners, females or males, poor or rich. ... We belonged to regions, religions, cultures (rural or urban), teams, towns, a sex, a dialect, a party, and a motherland. Through travel, images, the web, and abominable wars, almost all these collectives have broken apart.

Those that remain are unraveling.

The individual no longer knows how to live in a couple; it divorces. It no longer keeps to its own kind; it moves about and chats with anyone and everyone; it no longer prays in its own parish. In the summer of 2011, the French soccer players no longer knew how to be a team. Do our politicians still know how to construct a plausible party or a stable government? Everyone speaks of the death of ideologies, but what is disappearing is rather the belongings recruited by these ideologies.

This newly-born individual is good news. When I weigh the harm done by what grumpy old men call "egoism" against the crimes committed by and for the libido of belongings — hundreds of millions of deaths — I love these young people to death.

That being said, new links still need to be invented, as evidenced by the number of people who use Facebook, quasi-equivalent to the world's population.

Like an atom without valence, Thumbelina is completely naked. We adults have not invented any new social links; our generalized tendency toward suspicion, critique, and indignation had led instead to their destruction.

Rarely seen in history, these transformations, which I call hominescent, have created, in our time and in the midst of our own collectivities, a rupture so large and obvious that few have measured its magnitude. It is comparable to the more visible ruptures of the Neolithic, the beginning of the Christian era, the end of the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance.

Although we are on the other side of this fault line, we are still teaching our young people in institutional frameworks that come from a time they no longer recognize. Buildings, playgrounds, classrooms, lecture halls, campuses, libraries, laboratories, even forms of knowledge — these frameworks, I am saying, date from a time and were adapted to an era when both the world and humans were something they are no longer.

Three questions, for example.


What to transmit? Knowledge!

Until fairly recently, the support of knowledge was the body of the knower, such as a storyteller or a bard. The body of the pedagogue was itself a living library.

Gradually, however, knowledge became objectivized, first in scrolls or on pieces of vellum or parchment, which were the supports of writing; then, during the Renaissance, in books made out of paper, which found their support in the printing press; and finally, today, on the web, which is the support of email messages and information.

The historical evolution of the support-message couple is a good variable by which to assess the function of teaching. Teaching has changed, rather suddenly, at least three times. With writing, the Greeks invented paideia; after the printing press, treatises on pedagogy proliferated. Today?

I repeat. What to transmit? Knowledge? It is already available and objectivized on the web. Transmit it to everyone? Knowledge is already accessible to everyone. How to transmit it? Done!

With access to people through cell phones, and access to places through GPS, access to knowledge is now open. In a certain manner, it has already been transmitted, always and everywhere.

Objectivized, certainly, but more importantly, distributed. Knowledge is no longer concentrated; it is distributed. We used to live in a metric space, as I said, which was linked to centers or concentrations. A school, a classroom, and a lecture hall are concentrations of people, students and professors; a library is a concentration of books; a laboratory is a concentration of instruments. But now, this knowledge — these reference works, these texts, these dictionaries, and even observatories! — are distributed everywhere, and in particular, in your own home. Even better, you can access them from almost any place you happen to find yourself. You can reach your colleagues or students anytime and anywhere, and they can easily respond.

The old space of concentrations, the space where I speak and you listen, has been diluted and expanded. We are living in a distributed space of immediate neighborhoods. I can speak to you from my home or anywhere else, and you can listen to me from anywhere — even your home. What, then, are we doing here?

Above all, we cannot say that students lack the cognitive faculties to assimilate this distributed knowledge, since these faculties have been transformed along with, and because of, their support. With the advent of writing and the printing press, for instance, memory mutated to the point where Montaigne said he preferred "une tête bien faite plutôt qu'une tête bien pleine," "a good head rather than a full head." This head has now mutated yet again.

Pedagogy was invented by the Greeks (paideia) when writing was invented and disseminated, and it was transformed anew in the Renaissance when the printing press appeared. Today, pedagogy is again changing completely with the advent of new technologies, whose novelties are only one variable among the many I have cited or could enumerate.

We all sense that we urgently need a decisive change in teaching, a change that will eventually have repercussions on the entire space of our global society and its obsolete institutions. Indeed, it will not only affect teaching, but also work, business, health, law and politics — in short, all our institutions. Yet this change is still far off, no doubt because those who lived through the transition from these final states have not yet retired, and they are instituting reforms using models that have long since been surpassed.

I have taught, for half a century, in almost every latitude of the world, and everywhere, this crack is opening up as wide as it has been in my own country. In each case, I have been subjected to — and suffered from — these reforms, like a plaster cast on wooden legs, a mere patching-up. But plaster damages the tibia, even an artificial one, and the patching-up tears the very tissue it is meant to strengthen.

Yes, for the past several decades I have watched us live through a period comparable to the dawn of paideia, when the Greeks learned to write and demonstrate. Or the Renaissance, which experienced the birth of the printing press and the reign of the book to come. Yet the two periods are incomparable. At the same time as these techniques are mutating, the body itself is metamorphosing, changing both birth and death, suffering and healing, occupations, space, habitats, being-in-the-world.


Excerpted from Thumbelina by Michel Serres, Daniel W. Smith. Copyright © 2012 Editions Le Pommier. Excerpted by permission of Rowman & Littlefield International, Ltd..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Translator's Introduction / Part I: Thumbelina / 1. Novelties / 2. From the Body to Knowledge / 3. The Individual / 4. What to Transmit? To Whom to Transmit It? How to Transmit It? / 5. Envoi / Part II: School / 1. Thumbelina's Head / 2. The Hard and the Soft / 3. The Space of the Page / 4. New Technologies / 5. A Short History / 6. Thumbelina Meditates / 7. The Voice / 8. Supply and Demand / 9. Children Transfixed / 10. The Liberation of Bodies / 11. Mobility: Conductor and Passenger / 12. The Troubadour of Knowledge / 13. The Disparate Against Classification / 14. The Abstract Concept / Part III: Society / 1. in Praise of Reciprocal Grading / 2. In Praise of Humphrey Potter / 3. The Death of Work / 4. In Praise of the Hospital / 5. In Praise of Human Voices / 6. In Praise of Networks / 7. The Reversal of the Presumption of Incompetence / 8. In Praise of Marquetry / 9. In Praise of the Third Support / 10. In Praise of the Pseudonym / 11. The Algorithmic and the Procedural / 12. Emergence / 13. In Praise of the Code / 14. In Praise of the Passport / 15. The Image of Society Today / Index

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