Technological humanism: the antidote for the dangers of the digital era
Global agenda 22 November 2021
Article by Pablo Vázquez Galobart for Do Better.
In addition to great technological developments, the digital revolution has also brought about a variety of hazards that threaten the future of people and democracy. As a result, increasing numbers of experts are expressing their concern about the collateral damage of this new technology paradigm: a landscape of far-reaching, uncertain consequences, some of which are already destabilising the pillars of the classic humanism that has upheld our societies for centuries.
The main concerns include the tsunami of big data and uncontrolled algorithms. Others are cybersecurity breaches, the impact of AI on our decision taking and the unprecedented concentration of power in the hands of tech giants. There is also a growing fear that people will be increasingly dehumanised and transformed into mere consumers of apps and contents: ending up as digital footprints of themselves.
Confronted by this dystopian landscape, humanity faces an unavoidable and historical challenge in order to safeguard its future: it must urgently lay the foundations for a new digital humanism that sets out the ethical and moral boundaries of the digital revolution. But this is a complex endeavour full of unknown quantities.
How can the challenges of this new era be dealt with? How can human dignity be given priority over technology, robotization and AI? Foremost researchers, politicians and entrepreneurs examined these issues at the first Esade Digital Humanism Forum, the main findings of which have been published in a report led by José María Lassalle, director of the forum.
No turning back
The first main finding of the forum is that the digital revolution is here to stay, despite the risks involved. This makes it essential to find ways of offsetting its negative fallout without forgoing the opportunities it offers for social and economic progress.
In this respect, mention must be made of the declaration by Spain’s AI secretary of state, Carme Artigas, in her opening speech, i.e. that Europe must take the lead in building genuine digital sovereignty based on empowering people about data and technology capabilities. One example of this is the funding of €72bn earmarked by the Spanish Government for the digital shift between 2021 and 2023.
Along the same line, the findings underline the need to foster public and private policies that assert the central role of humans, and place technology at the service of civic aims. “The digital world has accelerated and ethical leadership is now more important than ever” said the executive chairman of the Mobile World Congress, John Hoffmann.
Democracy in jeopardy
Against this new backdrop, one of the most urgent issues is how to redress the huge imbalance between the power of technology and the power of democracy caused by the insufficient political action taken in these areas until now.
The worst aspect of this imbalance is that the stranglehold of technology is tightening with each passing day – which could have serious repercussions for the political stability of democracies, not only because it undermines their egalitarian foundations but also because of the duress it exerts on the human ability to manage technology.
Little by little, AI-driven algorithms are beginning to be applied extensively in political and business environments and this, when combined with the spread of fake news on social networks, creates perfect breeding grounds for subordination and dehumanization, with the possible risk of destroying the foundations of modern civilization. “Today’s political polarization has been facilitated to a great extent by platforms such as Twitter that call for messages to be fast, more extreme, more lurid and more viral,” says Victoria Camps, philosopher and State Counsellor. This diagnosis applies to other platforms too, such as Facebook after a recent investigation by the Wall Street Journal revealed some of the company’s shadiest practices.
Confronted by these tech giants, if we want to guarantee freedom and safeguard the primacy of human beings, then rather than segmenting or polarising our democratic societies, the digital shift must bring them together, connect them and foster dialogue and tolerance between their members.
Urgent need for digital charter of workers’ rights
Democratic freedoms are not the only things at stake, workers’ dignity and rights are also in jeopardy.
The inexorable advance of the digital shift is encouraging immediate outsourcing which, whilst increasing corporate flexibility and speed of response, invariably causes more precarious employment.
Therefore, as outlined in the Esade Forum, States must undertake structural reforms involving a digital charter of individual and collective employment rights designed to prevent workers from becoming unprotected and defenceless, without overlooking other considerations such as sustainability, inclusion and the privacy of citizens.
“Europeans must continue to champion the idea that data belong to the people,” said CEOE president, Antonio Garamendi. “It would be a mistake and a failure, from the European standpoint, to regard data as a matter for companies or the State.”
According to the findings presented at the forum, an algorithm cannot be the boss, nor can companies be governed by automated management that subordinates the dialogue and supervisory capacity of employees to machines.
Protagoras is still meaningful today
Two and a half millennia ago, the Greek sophist Protagoras stated a canon that is still valid today, “Man is the measure of all things.”
These profoundly humanist words were strongly emphasised by the director of the Esade Digital Humanism Forum, José María Lassalle. “We must apply the digital shift to Protagoras”, he declared, “and declare that human beings are the measure of all things in the internet.”
To achieve this, digital humanism must be a platform for critical thinking about the threats posed by technology, because one unquestionable conclusion that emerges is that the future of the digital revolution must necessarily involve humanist sustainability.
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