“This is absolute nonsense.” This was the reaction of the audience, both academics and non-academics, participating at the First International Conference on IT and Tourism, in Innsbruck in 1994. Beat Schmid (University of St. Gallen, Switzerland) spoke about electronic markets and Larry Press (UCLA, USA) about digital agents.
Now, only 28 years later, this “nonsense” runs the world, Information Technology and its artefacts act as the operating system of our life, and it is hard to distinguish between the real and the virtual. We cannot imagine a world without it, and – besides running the world – it contributes and will continue to contribute to solving important problems. However, this comes also with interconnected shortcomings, and in some cases, it even puts into question the sovereignty of states. Other critical problems are echo chambers and fake news, the questioned role of humans in AI and decision making, the increasingly pressing privacy concerns, and the future of work.
This “double face” is why we started the Digital Humanism initiative, with a first workshop in April 2019 in Vienna. Over 100 attendees from academia, government, industry, and civil society participated in this lively two-day workshop. We talked about technical, political, economic, societal, and legal issues, benefiting from contributions from different disciplines such as political science, law, sociology, history, anthropology, philosophy, economics and informatics. At the center of the discussion was the relationship between computer science / informatics and society, or, as expressed during the workshop, the co-evolution of information technology and humankind. The major outcome was the Vienna Manifesto on Digital Humanism, now available in seven languages, which lays down the core principles of our initiative.
Since then, we have organized a set of workshops and panel discussions. These events, forced by the pandemic to be online, have drawn a growing worldwide community. In addition, we succeeded in establishing a core group of internationally renowned intellectuals from different disciplines, forming a program committee that jointly “governs” and directs the Digital Humanism initiative.
We share the vision that we need to analyze and to reflect on the relationship between human and machine, and, equally important, to influence its development for better living and society. Technology is for people and not the other way around. We chose the term Digital Humanism, which was introduced – in the German-speaking world – by Julian Nida-Rümelin and Nathalie Weidenfeld with their book “Digitaler Humanismus” (Piper Verlag, 2018). We want to stress that humans should be at the center of the digital world. Technological progress should improve human freedom, peace, and progress in harmony with nature.
Today, the spirit of humanism should inspire the developments of our society, which is largely reliant on digital technologies. As such, we distinguish Digital Humanism from the Digital Humanities, the study of human society and culture pursued by digital means. In contrast, Digital Humanism aims at rethinking our current digital practices, including research, development, and innovation in the digital domain. As such, it maintains a positivist goal for technology to create societal progress rather than just innovation for the sake of economic growth.
The term humanism, taking a historical perspective, refers to two rather different movements. The first denotes the period between mid-15th until end of 16th century (Renaissance Humanism), with a rediscovery of antiquity in the arts and in philosophy, and in which scholars, philosophers, and artists were called and called themselves “humanists.” Aesthetics and ethics became centered on humans, rather than on the supernatural or divine. The best-known iconic representation of Humanism is Leonardi da Vinci’s Vitruvian man, where a human enclosed in a circle is shown as the archetype of the principles of harmony and proportion advocated in Vitruvius’ book De Architectura. A second period of humanism flourished in the Enlightenment period (end of 18th century), and the French revolution was largely inspired by the principles of human freedom and democracy rooted in the humanistic spirit of that time. Humanism was associated with educational and pedagogical ideals that focused on values such as human dignity and humanity. Naturally, the two movements share a range of common concepts and interests, some of which remain relevant for Digital Humanism today, for example, a strong focus on human rights and how to maintain them in the digital realm.
There are, however, critics of these classical notions of humanism. Especially, the educational ideal of humanists has been criticized as supporting beliefs in European cultural supremacy. Furthermore, a focus on the human subject always requires critical examination regarding who that subject precisely is and which of its many traits should be considered essential. However, Digital Humanism today certainly has no supremacy or colonial mission; quite the contrary, it is critical of already existing colonial tendencies in today’s digital technologies. This is evidenced by our stance on digital sovereignty and geopolitics, for example. Similarly, the question of which traits of human nature should be focused on is a subject of discussion in Digital Humanism, especially since the relation of the individual and the society is a major concern of digital humanists.
In the context of the Enlightenment, proponents of Digital Humanism should also be aware of the critical theory of the Frankfurt School of philosophy. Its prominent members Adorno and Horkheimer provide a critical analysis of the process of empowerment from rationality, and the resulting de-mystification would in principle apply to any technological process that aims to increase the power of the individual. This certainly applies to most digital technologies. But already Habermas, a later member of the Frankfurt School, has pointed out that throwing out rationalism would also mean discarding its many important contributions to law, democracy, and science – and thus also to technology. One can even draw an interesting reinforcing link of Digital Humanism to the dialectic of the Enlightenment: individual decisions are an important source of digital innovation, but this source can also lead to a dangerous gain in power to manipulate masses collectively. In addition, digital humanists also warn about the power of the knowing caste (as indicated by Horkheimer and Adorno) or, as a digital humanist might say, the power of platforms. And where abstraction was identified as a tool to manipulate, and formulae as tools to create predictability, digital humanists are now wary of digital tools and big data abstractions with very similar concerns. Machine-based abstraction has become a prerequisite for dealing with the complexities of our world. The alignment of such abstractions in Information Technology with human values and with the complexity of our natural environment are core objectives of Digital Humanism, and they remain a task ahead.
Digital Humanism is young, so, understandably, there are different definitions, understandings, and perspectives, and it has different historical roots. In some sense, we are still in the process of theory building, with respect to understanding the interplay between man and modern technology as well as to framing possible approaches to alternative designs. With this book we take a step into this direction, where we aim to be inclusive and integrative. We invited renowned international colleagues with varying institutional and disciplinary backgrounds to contribute in an open way with their thoughts and ideas. In the end, we received 46 contributions from 60 colleagues, providing their views on the present and future of the digital world. We think that this approach (including also a peer review phase) worked well; the free format approach and the shortness of contributions make for an accessible variety of perspectives. We offer you here the result of this endeavor.
Although no grouping is perfect, we tried to assign the contributions to 11 parts. We start with the Vienna Manifesto on Digital Humanism, as it is the basis of our joint undertaking and lays down core principles.
- The first part, AI, Humans, and Control, examines the tension between technology-driven and human-driven decision making; it looks at the difference between humans and machines, and asks whether we are losing control.
- Participation and Democracy examines the interplay between digital technologies and democratic practices and takes into consideration diversity issues, also in a geographical context.
- Ethics and Philosophy of Technology studies the extent to which digital technologies change our ethical and epistemological perspectives, and also the other way around: what role ethical considerations should play in technology development.
- Information Technology and The Arts addresses how the notion of creativity is changed by technology. It connects Digital Humanism with artistic practices as well as our cultural heritage, while highlighting also the importance of culture and art for digital innovation. Science fiction, for example, is a driver of digital innovation.
- Data, Algorithm, and Fairness looks at the potential that digital technologies have to both reinforce and ameliorate unfair treatment of groups of humans. It deals with complex questions that may arise from an overly strong focus on the individual rather than a societal perspective. It considers the attention economy and effects that arise from the characteristics of internet search.
- Platform Power examines the economic and societal role of today’s mega-platforms, such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter, looking at their dynamics, on the important role they played in the pandemic, and their impact in specific industries and their business models.
- Education and Skills of the Future considers how the future of work will affect education, the impact of technology on the skills needed in future, and what and how we should teach our young.
- Digital Geopolitics and Sovereignty looks at the contradiction of the inherent global dimension of the digital world and the limits of national governance structures. What is the future of sovereignty in digital times?
- Systems and Society addresses societal issues such as the future work, how to deal with changes imposed by the digital world, how to frame technological design, and how to formulate corresponding political answers.
- Learning From Crisis addresses the role of technology in the human reaction to the global pandemic of 2020-21, and it draws important lessons for a probable next (global) crisis.
- Realizing Digital Humanism reflects on possible next steps and on the level of research, writing on a more general societal and political level. As one contribution states, it seems easy to describe the problem, but it is hard to solve it.
Digital Humanism is a fundamental concept, it is about our future as humans and as society, not only in the digital world. As such, it is not only an academic undertaking, it is also a political issue. We need to engage with society, having a mixed audience, from academics to political decision makers, from industry and institutions to civil society and non-governmental organizations, and it is not only about science, research, and innovation. Equally important are education, communication, and influencing the public for democratic participation. We hope that this collection of essays provides an essential contribution to this important endeavor.
We want to thank our colleagues for their contributions, also for responding on time (at least most of the time) to our usually “urgent” requests. It was a pleasure to work with you – thank you. We also thank our donors who made this volume possible. We follow an open access strategy, with the content being accessible both via our website as well as being published by Springer. Donors are the City of Vienna (Kulturabteilung), WWTF (Vienna Science and Technology Fund), the Austrian Ministry of European and International Affairs, iCyPhy (Industrial Cyber-Physical Systems Center at the EECS Department, UC Berkeley), and the Database and Artificial Intelligence Group at TU Wien. Finally, we want to thank Mete Sertkan and Stephanie Wogowitsch, from the e-commerce group of TU Wien. Without their support and commitment this undertaking would not have been possible.
The work here is about the need to interfere with the process of digitalization, to change this process. But who will be the agent of change? Our hope is that this book will motivate you, our readers, to contribute and to participate in our journey into the future. In the end, it is up to us, the citizens of the world.