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Digital Humanism

25 March 2021
- by Hans Akkermans, co-author of the Vienna Manifesto on Digital Humanism and a PC member, co-chairing the DigHum Curriculum Working Group

For a long time, Informatics has been viewed as a foremost technical scientific discipline; an idea aptly captured by the name “Computer Science”. This view may have been justified in the past, but as our society becomes increasingly digitized, ICT technologies undeniably have a full-scale fundamental impact on society at large. An international and multi-disciplinary group of academics seek to analyse this new digital society and to ensure that technology is developed in line with human values and needs.

The birth of Digital Humanism

Since the breakthrough of the World Wide Web in the late 1990’s, technology’s influence on our lives has surged. We are now witnessing how ICT technologies have hit the mainstream. In the public perception this is currently epitomized by (Big) Data Science and AI, but clearly many more Informatics branches are part of this phenomenon. While some technology optimists uncritically hail ICT’s societal impact as unequivocally beneficial, many others have expressed doubts and concerns about various developments as undesirable or dangerous, see e.g. [1].

Reflecting on these developments, a significant international group of academics created the initiative on Digital Humanism in May 2019. This was launched at a workshop in Vienna, with the publication of the Vienna Manifesto on Digital Humanism [2]. The manifesto quotes the founder of the Web, Tim Berners-Lee, in that the system is failing [3] in view of phenomena such as the monopolization, “bubblization” and weaponization of the Internet and Web. With broad uptake of commercial applications based on automatic analyses of (customer) data, the fields of AI and Data Science play a central role in introducing societal injustices with neither identifiable cause nor responsible party. The Digital Humanism initiative undertakes to analyze the digital society state-of-play. It investigates associated critical issues from an interdisciplinary perspective and discusses views and insights on how to shape technological developments in a “human-compatible” way.

Digital Humanism acknowledges that the relationships between technology and society are complex, but it does not view the impact of technological developments on society as a one-way street or as “unavoidable”. Rather, it views the relationship of technology and humankind as a coevolution (a point further developed e.g. in [4]). It thus calls for a contribution by scientists and professionals to help steer the digital society in the direction of a better society and life, fully respecting democracy and universal human rights.

Taking part in the initiative

The Digital Humanism initiative runs several activities. In addition to an Annual DigHum Workshop, there is a regular Lecture Series consisting of talks and panels on urgent topics. Attendance is free and open; talks are live-streamed, but also stored for later viewing on the DigHum YouTube channel. Previous talks and topics include:

  • Matters of ICT and ethics (Deborah Johnson, Guglielmo Tamburrini, Barbara Grosz)
  • “How not to destroy the world with AI” (Stuart Russell)
  • Digital sovereignty, superpowers and geopolitics (a.o. June Lowery-Kingston, European Commission, Paul Timmers)
  • Freedom of expression in the digital public sphere (Sunimal Mendis, Christiane Wendehorst)
  • Philosophical foundations of Digital Humanism (Julian Nida-Rümelin)
  • Preventing Data Colonialism without resorting to protectionism – The European strategy (George Metakides, Pilar del Castillo (MEP), Lokke Moerel, Yvo Volman (EC))

A book Perspectives on Digital Humanism is in preparation, on a broad range of topics viewed from different disciplinary angles, edited by Edward Lee, Carlo Ghezzi, Erich Prem and Hannes Werthner. Its Open Access publication is scheduled for Summer 2021.

The future of Digital Humanism

While the Lecture Series and associated publications continue, further actions and topics are emerging. A Digital Humanism PhD Summer School (or Winter School, as the Covid-19 case may be) is currently under development. Recently, a DigHum Curriculum Working Group formed that aims to spark off ideas on how such matters can be brought into academic student education in the various digital fields. This will be done in collaboration with the Aurora European Universities Network in which Amsterdam is a node.

Here, broad agreement exists that societal impacts and ethical aspects of digital technologies deserve their place in the academic curricula. It is also widely recognized that these issues are highly interdisciplinary. There is less clarity, however, on how to teach interdisciplinary topics in an academically satisfactory, in-depth way. Moreover, it is non-trivial how to address systemic matters of social justice, equality, diversity, inclusion and such, that go beyond the individual designer-engineer level of “Tech Ethics” (as it is often called in the US). Taking inspiration from current educational initiatives from across the world, DigHum hopes to provide useful guidance for academic education on the digital society.

Thus, the DigHum initiative intends to bring about shared understanding and, most importantly, to create valuable insights that influence public opinion and policy on how digital technology is to be shaped in accordance with human values and needs.

We still welcome signatures on the Vienna Manifesto on Digital Humanism on the DigHum homepage https://dighum.org/, as an expression of responsibility and need for action by the academic and professional ICT communities. 

References

[1] Public Letter on Lethal Autonomous Weapons, initiated by Toby Walsh and colleagues, cf. https://futureoflife.org/open-letter-autonomous-weapons/

[2] Moshe Y. Vardi. 2019. To Serve Humanity. Communications of the ACM, July 2019, Vol. 62, No. 7, Page 7. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1145/3338092.

[3] Tim Berners-Lee. 2018. ACM Turing Award Lecture, given at the 10th ACM Web Science Conference on 29 May 2018 in Amsterdam. The video of the Turing Lecture is available at the acm.org website: https://amturing.acm.org/vp/berners-lee_8087960.cfm

[4] Edward A. Lee. 2020. The Coevolution: The Entwined Futures of Humans and Machines. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, USA, 2020.

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