Complexity, Responsibility and Governance

Distributed Epistemic Responsibility in a Hyperconnected Era


To explore what being human in a hyperconnected reality could mean, we may start with Hannah Arendt's challenge to reconsider “the human condition from the vantage point of our newest experiences and most recent fears” (Arendt 1958) as was suggested in the background note to the ONLIFE Initiative. A core experience in our contemporary socio-technical lifeworld—often resulting in fear—concerns responsibility and accountability: namely, the difficulty to attribute responsibility and to locate accountability in ever more distributed and entangled socio-technical systems. Think small: about the difficulties of finding and reaching the person to make responsible in case of a non-functioning internet connection? Think big: who is responsible—accountable and liable—for the financial crisis?

Computer technology and ICT in particular has deepened and aggravated these issues. Think of artificial agents, search engine algorithms, the personal data handling of social networking sites; think of drones, robots in military and healthcare or unmanned vehicles, think of algorithmic trading: who is responsible and especially if things go wrong—who is to blame: designers, users, the technologies or rather the distributed and entangled socio-technical systems? What are the normative implications and who is in charge and able to set the regulative frameworks?

On the one hand these are issues to be tackled by policy makers: regulations are needed for algorithmic trading, for drone deployments, for the design of electronic patient record systems—and for an overabundance of constantly emerging new issues related to the attribution or assumption of responsibility in socio-technical environments. On the other hand, there are actions and decisions to be taken by each and every one of us in our daily lives. When meandering on the Web, where can

we place trust and where should we be vigilant? How can we and how should we assume responsibility ourselves and how can we attribute it to others?

In this contribution I specifically focus on the responsibilities in processes of knowing. I argue that concerning these so-called epistemic responsibilities we are also facing new challenges in a hyperconnected reality, which require thought and action both on a macroscopic level as well as on a microscopic level. While reconsidering received notions of responsibility, it is therefore advised to distinguish two relevant perspectives:

1) the individualistic perspective, focusing on individuals acting as knowers within increasingly complex and dynamic socio-technical epistemic systems. The leading question here is: what does it mean to be responsible in knowing?

2) the governance perspective, focusing on the question how systems and environments should be designed so that individuals can act responsibly. The leading question here is: what does it take to enable responsibility in knowing?

Clearly, these two perspectives are related. Actors acting within environments shape these environments through their action just as much as those with an explicit governance mandate are themselves often part of the environments they intend to design and govern. Nonetheless, the distinction enables fleshing out different tasks and duties—different responsibilities—related to either acting within systems or designing and governing systems.

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