In the Corner of Frankenstein and Big Brother

Fears and risks in a hyperconnected era

§ 2.1 It is noteworthy that Cartesian doubt, and related suspicions about what is perceived through human senses, have led to an ever-increasing reliance on control in all its forms. In modernity, knowledge and power are deeply linked to establishing and maintaining control. Control is both sought and resented. Fears and risks can also be perceived in terms of control: too much of it—at the expense of freedom—or lack of it—at the expense of security and sustainability. Paradoxically, in these times of economic, financial, political, and environmental crisis, it is hard to identify who has control of what, when, and within which scope. Responsibilities and liabilities are hard to allocate clearly and endorse unambiguously. Distributed and entangled responsibilities may wrongly be understood as a license to act irresponsibly; these conditions may further tempt business and governmental leaders to postpone difficult decisions and thereby lead to loss of trust.

§ 2.2 Experiencing freedom, equality and otherness in public spheres becomes problematic in a context of increasingly mediated identities and calculated interactions such as profiling, targeted advertising, or price discrimination. The quality of public spheres is further undermined by increasing social control through mutual or lateral surveillance ( souveillance), which is not necessarily better than "big brother" surveillance, as increasingly cyberbullying shows.

§ 2.3 The abundance of information may also result in cognitive overload, distraction, and amnesia (the forgetful present). New forms of systemic vulnerabilities arise from the increasing reliance on informational infrastructures. Power games in online spheres can lead to undesirable consequences, including disempowering people, through data manipulation. The repartition of power and responsibility among public authorities, corporate agents, and citizens should be balanced more fairly.

Dualism is Dead! Long Live Dualities!

Grasping the challenges

§ 3.1 Throughout our collective endeavour, a question kept coming back to the front stage: “what does it mean to be human in a hyperconnected era?” This foundational question cannot receive a single definitive answer, but addressing it has proven useful for approaching the challenges of our times. We think that handling these challenges can best be done by privileging dual pairs over oppositional dichotomies.

3.1 Control and Complexity

§ 3.2 In the onlife-world, artefacts have ceased to be mere machines simply operating according to human instructions. They can change states in autonomous ways and can do so by digging into the exponentially growing wealth of data, made increasingly available, accessible and processable by fast-developing and ever more pervasive ICTs. Data are recorded, stored, computed and fed back in all forms of machines, applications, and devices in novel ways, creating endless opportunities for adaptive and personalised environments. Filters of many kinds continue to erode the illusion of an objective, unbiased perception of reality, while at the same time they open new spaces for human interactions and new knowledge practices.

§ 3.3 Yet, it is precisely at the moment when an omniscience/omnipotence posture could be perceived as attainable that it becomes obvious that it is a chimera, or at least an ever-moving target. The fact that the environment is pervaded by information flows and processes does not make it an omniscient/omnipotent environment. Rather, it calls for new forms of thinking and doing at multiple levels, in order to address issues such as ownership, responsibility, privacy, and self-determination.

§ 3.4 To some extent, complexity can be seen as another name for contingency. Far from giving up on responsibility in complex systems, we believe that there is a need to re-evaluate received notions of individual and collective responsibility. The very complexity and entanglement of artefacts and humans invite us to rethink the notion of responsibility in such distributed socio-technical systems.

§ 3.5 Friedrich Hayek's classical distinction between kosmos and taxis, i.e., evolution vs. construction, draws a line between (supposedly natural) spontaneous orders and human (political and technological) planning. Now that artefacts taken globally have come to escape human control, even though they originated in human hands, biological and evolutionary metaphors can also apply to them. The ensuing loss of control is not necessarily dramatic. Attempts to recover control in a compulsive and unreflexive manner are an illusory challenge and are doomed to fail. Hence, the complexity of interactions and density of information flows are no longer reducible to taxis alone. Therefore, interventions from different agents in these emerging socio-technical systems require learning to distinguish what is to be considered as kosmos-like, i.e., as a given environment following its evolutional pattern, and what is to be considered as taxis-like, i.e., within reach of a construction responding effectively to human intentions and/or purposes.

3.2 Public and Private

§ 3.6 The distinction between public and private has often been grasped in spatial and oppositional terms: the home versus the agora, the private company versus the public institution, the private collection vs. the public library, and so forth. The deployment of ICTs has escalated the blurring of the distinction when expressed in spatial and dualistic terms. The Internet is an important extension of the public space, even when operated and owned by private actors. The notions of fragmented publics, of third spaces, and of commons, and the increased focus on use at the expense of ownership all challenge our current understanding of the public-private distinction.

§ 3.7 Nevertheless, we consider this distinction between private and public to be more relevant than ever. Today, the private is associated with intimacy, autonomy, and shelter from the public gaze, while the public is seen as the realm of exposure, transparency and accountability. This may suggest that duty and control are on the side of the public, and freedom is on the side of the private. This view blinds us to the shortcomings of the private and to the affordances of the public, where the latter are also constituents of a good life.

§ 3.8 We believe that everybody needs both shelter from the public gaze and exposure. The public sphere should foster a range of interactions and engagements that incorporate an empowering opacity of the self, the need for self-expression, the performance of identity, the chance to reinvent oneself, as well as the generosity of deliberate forgetfulness.

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