In a post-Covid-19 future, will technological humanism or digital dehumanisation win?

The technological explosion triggered by the coronavirus pandemic is unstoppable.

Technological Humanism Forum

Algorithms and AI are bursting into households faster than ever, harvesting colossal amounts of data about our behaviour in these highly uncertain times. Are we facing an invisible enemy? What future lies ahead after the pandemic? A world of technological humanism or digital dehumanisation? José María Lassalle, director of Esade’s Technological Humanism Forum, speaks to Do Better about the technological dilemmas of the coronavirus crisis.

Do Better: How is the pandemic changing our relationship with technology?

José María Lassalle: Covid-19 has transformed technology into the new normality for humanity. We are facing a new reality that has revealed how the structure of the planet – and the globalisation shaping it – will develop through technology. Lockdown has consummated the digital transformation: analogical freedoms have been rewired as essentially digital experiences. Our digital footprint is so accurate and data-packed that it reflects virtually everything we think, feel and need during the extraordinary atmosphere of immediacy in the confinement of recent weeks.

Are we doomed to excessive technological control?

The onslaught of data triggered by the pandemic is sweeping us towards a sort of "biggest data." The floodgates of network traffic have been cast open by a mega tsunami of data about ourselves. Our online activity and the quantity and quality of the data we share have an incalculable value. Countless hours of teleworking and talking to each other on screens in all sorts of circumstances provide a remarkable record of nuances of responsiveness that will speed up machine learning and spur us towards AI breakthroughs that will place the much touted general intelligence almost within our grasp. Never before have we helped machines learn so much about us.

Covid-19 confinement
Never before have we helped machines learn so much about us (Photo: Manel Subirats/iStock)

Is technology an invisible enemy?

With the justifiable excuse of giving greater priority to healthcare than privacy – an inherent part of our states of emergency and one that is not questioned – we are contributing to giving those who manage our data extraordinary power, laying our privacy bare with no misgivings or hesitation. We are heading for the consummation of the technological era, a new period that resets the previous era. An era subject to algorithms controlled by big corporations – while their returns climb to stratospheric levels. 

It is surprising that while the State flexes its analogical muscles by putting reality on hold, confining an entire country to their homes and freezing the economy without causing social conflict, the big IT companies are consolidating their dominance of a cyber world in which the physical experience of human beings is replaced by another sort of experience that disappears in contact with screens. During these exceptional Covid-19 times, without the slightest opposition, an algorithmic governance has been imposed that replaces our physical identity by a digital identity, a sort of experiment lacking any civic or online rights or safeguards. 

Exceptional circumstances can be a double-edged sword...

This digital identity makes us less human, affects what we were like and provides the conditions necessary to define us as teleworkers, digital content consumers and app users. Some technologies, such as those using geolocation data to track infected persons, are designed to contain the spread of the coronavirus and new outbreaks. They develop the capability to link our social interactions by using storage and centralisation facilities whose monitoring capacities can transcend the functions originally designed with the pandemic in mind…

Monitoring technology
Monitoring capacities of geolocation technologies can transcend the functions originally designed with the pandemic in mind (Photo: Jay Lazarin/iStock)

This type of technology will indeed allow them to control our movements 24/7/365 while also identifying our companions and the relationship between us. The dovetailing of such details with GPS information could create an architecture able to link up our anonymous data and put names and faces to our digital footprint.

Should we be concerned about this?

The fallout from nurturing "biggest data" in these exceptional circumstances is undeniably worrying. Failure to democratically control this technological empowerment runs the risk of our liberal democracy morphing into a technological dictatorship. Instead of cooperative freedom, we might see the advent of a technological order of surveillance and control that monitors our movements and health, and kowtows to a privatised, cyber behemoth. A dystopian landscape that we can only prevent by digital guarantees and rights that safeguard our privacy, and a technological humanism with a catalogue of new rights and guarantees that prepare digital citizens to found a cyber democracy that strikes a balance between technology and freedom.

A tough dilemma with conflicting interests.

Global digitalisation continues to widen the inequality gap. Not only because of the widespread poverty that the economic recession will cause, unless public policies to mitigate its worst social impact are implemented, but also because it may be multiplied by the aggregate effects produced by our data, which are monopolised by platforms seeking to monetise them without any solidarity trade-offs. To prevent this inequality, algorithm and AI regulations are necessary in order to make these tools available to humanity and establish reliable, ethical guidelines. This means championing humanistic values and public policies that focus on the human being.

Failure to democratically control technological empowerment runs the risk of our democracy morphing into a technological dictatorship

We still have a long way to go.

The Covid-19 pandemic must not cast many into poverty or enable a few to profiteer from present-day needs. This is not ethically acceptable because it springs from a digital hyperactivity in response to the pain caused by the coronavirus and the anxiety exacerbated by lockdowns.

Critical thinking about the future is becoming as urgent as dealing with the pandemic itself. It must be addressed from a standpoint of technological humanism that helps us avoid the mandatory use of a technology that catapults us into a dystopian future characterised by Paul Virilio’s warning that the digital world was the politics of the very worst. To prevent this, we must settle the conflicts I have just described by adopting a narrative that calls for humanity-centric public policies inspired by a humanism that enables, in practice, as much responsibility in human hands as the available technical capability.

The narrative is one of justice and congruity that intermeshes the relationship between humanity and technology, establishes a strategic alliance between human dignity and technology, and situates the digital consummation in which we are immersed inside a framework focussed on ethics that are based on and oriented towards humanity. We must adopt a form of government underpinned by a humanism that does not make us overlook our need for empathy, generosity and solidarity with others, a humanism that continues to assert our demands for privacy and free choice.

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