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Agents, Artefacts and Nature

Reclaiming a public/private distinction where the public is where plurality is experienced while the private is the realm of functionality leads to the need to recognize that plurality can also apply to intermediaries, legal entities, organisations, institutions, not only to humans. Let's call 'agents' those beings who recognize their interactions with the other beings as one of plurality, i.e. beings (i) granting other similar beings with equal status to themselves, (ii) appearing for their who and being recognized as such, and (iii) partly blind to themselves and aware that it is by their appearance to others that they experience identity and freedom.

With that in mind, the EU can be seen as a public space where Member States, as agents, experience plurality. The EU can then be seen as a space of appearance for Member States, where they disclose their “who” and not their “what” and where they depend upon each other to experience who they are. The same applies at UN level. Privileging plurality over functionality is recognizing that, for the public space, reaching goals matter much less than securing a space where agents whose identities are singular and reflective interact together in a constructive and meaningful way20. It is also recognizing that freedom does not flaw from sovereignty and power but from interactions and meanings.

This characterisation of agents, be they human or not, as beings acknowledging that their freedom is anchored in plurality rather than in sovereignty, offers also a criterion for distinguishing agents from artefacts. Indeed, we suggest stating that agents are those beings with a who that matters, while artefacts are those beings whose identity correspond only to their external and functional description, i.e., beings for which the what (and maybe the how) only matters. An artefact is an entity whose function corresponds to what it is meant for. It is fully heteronomous. Going back to Arendt tripartition, i.e., labour, work, action, artefacts are the outcome of work, while agents are those engaged in action. Hence, the difference between agents and artefacts cannot be based on objective differences about their essence, but rather on the type of interactions they are engaged with, i.e. either plurality or functionality, or put in other words, action or work. If humans are considered only for their attributes or the tasks they have to fulfil or the role they have to play, although they are humans, they are artefactualized, and this only by the way they are represented, but nonetheless very effectively. Once someone is represented as an artefact, there is no further barrier against considering him or her as such.

So, agents are those beings self-aware that plurality is a key component of their own condition, i.e. those beings granting other similar beings the triple recognition underlying plurality: (i) the recognition that they are equal, (ii) the recognition that they are unique and specific, and (iii) the recognition that they are in need of the others to experience their own identity and freedom.

Then, if agents are those who, aware of their plurality, inhabit the world and shape it, notably with artefacts they build and control, nature can then be defined as what is beyond the control of agents, what stands around them. It includes artefacts, sensors, even robots to the extent that they escape agents' control, and have become part of the environment that they have to navigate within and make sense of. This artefactual nature is the reservoir of new beginnings, as we used to consider “virgin nature” to be, before sustainability issues arose.

Hence, the difference between nature and artefacts is not anymore based on the difference between what is “given”, on the one hand, and what is fabricated, on the other hand, but rather on the difference between what is beyond our control, on the one hand, and what is under control, on the other hand. Of course, this has also incidences on the distinction between what we have to cope with and what we can be held responsible21 for. The dividing line separating the remit of fate from the remit of responsibility is changing in function of time, space, and scale or granularity.

Practical wisdom in a hyperconnected era consists, for each agent, be they humans, organisations, or institutions, in acknowledging where this dividing line lies, in each life situation, and in a perspective of natality and plurality.

Mistaking agents for artefacts brings about a world whose horizon is omniscience and omnipotence, and comes dangerously close to totalitarianist forms of thinking. Mistaking nature for artefacts lead to misallocation of responsibilities, either by overestimating them or underestimating them[1].

  • [1] This echoes the point made in the paragraph 2.1. of the Onlife Manifesto: “…it is hard to identify who has control of what, when and within which scope. Responsibilities and liabilities are hard to allocate clearly and endorse unambiguously”.
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