Friday 21 June 2019

The digital era — Introduction

The digital era is the era of big data, algorithms and artificial intelligence. Of work, justice and relationships, as well as the organisation of the city, health and consumption. It has an impact on every industry, every sector alike. Data and algorithmic calculation aim to facilitate our decisions and optimise our actions in all these areas of our life. The proliferation of connected devices and sensors, that are more portable and customised than ever, is manifesting itself in every area of our daily life. Artificial intelligence must continually push back the boundaries of what is possible, by performing increasingly complex operations, in an automated and self-learning manner, such as medical diagnosis, the organisation of a production process, or even travel by car.

The rhetoric that accompanies this digital wave is rooted in a renewed promise of progress and social harmony. It touts an economic model that is based on the exploitation of data, promising growth and individual well-being. Many States commit to plans to support the digital infrastructure, whether with educational, productive or land planning policies. On the other side of the debate, questions are being raised about this digital buzz. Opponents denounce the advent of an automatic society that is stripped of its political reality, of new forms of social determinism, of an intensified surveillance of populations, of a commoditisation of our daily gestures or even the advent of a Mankind that is forced to live in the here and now and whose ability to judge is consequently undermined.

Despite the scope of the announced transformations and of these new divides, the current public debate is only slowly starting to respond to these huge challenges. All too often, digital technology is seen as a fragmented object, and is only approached from the scientific or technological perspective. As a result, its political, socio-economic and environmental tenets are often neglected. Likewise, the ethical questions are often limited, in almost caricatural fashion, to the protection of data of a personal nature. Technical experts and industrial giants are dominating the digital discourse. While their opinions are also valid, they should also listen to the opinions of citizens, researchers, professional and civil society organisations, to avoid a rigid interpretation of these challenges.

Digital technology is all too often presented as a wave that you must ride to avoid the detrimental impact of international competition or economic pressure. Without ignoring the current changes, this permanent urgency is undermining the debate and the appropriation of its challenges. The essentially reactive political response is struggling to incorporate it in a vision on society or a common horizon. But technology can only become meaningful for a society when its finalities and its use are carefully thought through and discussed.

So we need to ramp up the public debate. How? With an informed, critical perspective, by keeping our distance, encouraging people to think about the challenges of the digital world in all their diversity, both on the individual and collective level. By paving the way for a multitude of discourses, imaginaries and proposals on how to make sense of digital technology and to examine which place it should have in our societies. And most of all, by contributing to develop citizens who are capable of approaching the digital society as a political objective, in which the orientations and finalities are determined in a democratic debate. “In which digital society do we want to live?”. That is the question that we should focus on as part of the digital transition to tap into its maximum potential.

By asking ten researchers from different backgrounds to share their opinions on this topic, the Friday Group hopes to contribute to the public debate. These men and women, who are philosophers, lawyers and engineers, think about the digital society, questioning its mechanisms in areas that are as diverse as the economy, education, security, law or politics. Their interpretation, which is often out of step or goes against the current, forces us to think and confront the multiple challenges of our digital society, from different angles and in various different respects.