EMBRACING DIGITAL HUMANISM:
NAVIGATING THE INTERSECTION OF TECHNOLOGY AND HUMANITY FOR A BETTER FUTURE
by Laura Modre // October 10, 2023
reading time: 5 minutes
© Ketut Subiyanto
Amidst technology’s pervasive influence, digital humanism offers an optimistic vision for the future by prioritizing humanity in the development and use of technology. Emphasizing a holistic approach, it advocates responsible action in addressing concerns like AI bias and tech monopolies. This philosophy is already influencing research in areas like digital psychology and value-based engineering, paving the way for a human-centered evolution of technology.
Technology undoubtedly plays a pivotal role in shaping human experiences, whether in private life, the workplace or within society. The influence of technology is multi-faceted, offering immense potential, but also significant risks. While leveraging the transformative power of information & communication technologies (ICTs) and artificial intelligence (AI) can enhance connectedness, equity, innovation, and growth, these technologies also carry critical disruptive forces that jeopardize human rights, reduce human control, and propagate bias. It comes as no surprise then that many experts from the tech and non-tech sectors, express concerns about the potential dehumanisation of future economies and societies due to these advancements, ringing the alarm bells to take responsible action now.
Looking at the news of late, it is easily understandable that the sheer volume of articles covering the negative consequences of digital technologies can be overwhelming for many. Of course, it is essential to consider the detrimental effects of digital technologies on humans, businesses, policy, and societies, now maybe more than ever before. However, it’s equally important to recognise the complexity of the debate and not end up in a cycle of doomsday reporting. Digital humanism, a rather recently established field of research at the intersection of computer science, social science, and humanities provides a glimmer of optimism that not all is lost to digital technologies and AI. It therefore shifts the debate from an overwhelmingly negative criticism of technology towards a more holistic perspective on the intricacies and complexities of this era of rapid technological development, nevertheless urging responsible societal, political, and corporate action to ensure a human-centred digital present and future.
Digital humanism delves into how humans and technologies interact and scrutinises how these interactions impact human lives, their rights, and values, both on individual and societal levels. It serves as a philosophy or framework that urges to put us humans back at the centre of the development, utilisation, and regulation of digital technologies.
The objective is to provide a foundation for human-centred innovation and policy, fostering the creation of responsible, value-based technologies that effectively improve human lives rather than cause unnecessary personal, economic, environmental, and societal disruption. As such, digital humanism serves as a principle on a mission to create a symbiosis between humans and technology.
Digital humanism adopts a multi- and transdisciplinary approach, enabling more comprehensive considerations of the complex interactions between humans, society, and technology. Adhering to its principles should serve as a guide for the various stages of technological advancement, from design to implementation and regulation. Importantly, it does not advocate for a return to a tech-free world or vilify all technologies. In fact, digital humanism recognises the great potential of AI and ICT to drive progress, provided there is sensible technology development and governance to facilitate successful cooperation between humans and technology. Thus, it encourages the protection and further development of social achievements through technology in the realms of human rights, education, democracy and the environment.
© This Is Engineering
While a sensibility for the risks of technologies is essential to understand the importance of human-centricity in this digital and mechanical age, this awareness alone is not enough to address the challenges faced by individuals and societies. In fact, the era we find ourselves in has been defined as “post-digital” by many experts since “the digital” has already infiltrated all areas of life, making clear distinctions impossible. Considering this pervasive presence of technology, it becomes essential to adopt digital humanism as a guiding philosophy to provide a basis for the development of a human-centred tech reality.
The digital humanist approach
There is no doubt that digital technologies are changing our lives. The machines and systems we interact with have profound effects on our thoughts, decisions and behaviours, raising concerns about human autonomy and power. Examples include bias in healthcare or judiciary AIs that may jump to false conclusions on medical or legal questions due to skewedness of the training data. If the training data is biased – an inevitability when developers do not consider data fairness and representation – the output of machine learning systems can have detrimental effects on people’s lives when doctors or judges, for example, over-rely on AI-generated information and solutions. In such cases, it is not only critical to educate AI developers and provide actionable guidelines for a responsible design of these technologies, but also to educate users and set limits to the use of AI. This way, digital humanism promotes synchronicity between humans and technology and empowers humans with the help of technology rather than replace them with machines.
A digital humanist approach to technological development and regulation (incl. standards) should also be employed to ensure transparency and privacy and reduce the risks arising from data capitalism. This is particularly crucial when digital technologies collect, store and use people’s personal information, ranging from simple music preferences to highly sensitive and private health information.
A real solution
These examples illustrate that digital humanism does not simply provide criticisms of technological advancements. Rather, at its core, it is a constructive initiative that is committed to developing real solutions to protect and further develop humanity and to design technologies that empower rather than threaten people. To achieve this, digital humanism’s principles and mission, outlined in its manifesto, therefore include promoting democracy and inclusion, ensuring data privacy, regulating tech monopolies, educating for responsible technology use and enabling critical thought.
However, for digital humanism to have a real impact, businesses, governments, and societies must actively implement its principles. Enforcing its principles and translating them into real actions and guidelines is therefore essential in establishing digital humanism as a basis for our increasingly technology driven world.
Strides are slowly being made in this direction, with more and more research institutes, universities, businesses and governments aligning with its mission. At BrandKarma, for example, digital psychologists have adopted digital humanism as their guiding philosophy when examining the interactions of people and technologies and implementing technological solutions to improve human experiences in business and society. Digital psychology evaluates the implications and effects of technology on people’s psychological dimensions, and can not only be utilised to guide proper integration of technologies in people’s lives, but also to guide the initial design and development of technologies. Another application of digital humanism that can also be regarded as an extension of digital psychology is seen in value-based engineering, a new approach fostering human-centred engineering to bring human needs and values back into the debate in the development of technological systems and solutions. Value-based engineering is regulated in ISO/IEC/IEEE 24748-7000 and translates digital humanism’s values and ideology into actionable standards by providing clear guidelines for IT companies and departments to consider the ethical implications of their creations, producing meaningful and value-based technologies.
Essentially, digital humanism “is a driving force […] determined to build, regulate, and develop technology for people, for a better future” (TU Wien Informatics). It is a proactive approach committed to facilitating a seamless and human-centred evolution of the rapidly changing technological landscape. Therefore, it should be integrated in every related and affected domain, ensuring a harmonious and holistic integration of technology and humanity.
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