Human nature is a project, and what it means to be human evolves. New social and political developments, scientific discoveries and technological innovations have always played a part in shaping our understanding of human nature. But never has the influence of technological innovation been so rapid and pervasive as in today’s world. The new digital universe we find ourselves in, its algorithms, instant connection, and gratification, as well as its world-spanning complexity, create an enormous potential for human evolution, but they also present immense dangers.
Our aim is not to counsel against the use of modern digital technology, but to support and enable a form of engagement that is considered subtle, careful, and respectful. While the beneficial potentials of technological development are often discussed, there is an urgent need to also reflect on their dangers, which are becoming visible today in a society that has lost agreement on what truth is or what distinguishes opinion from fact, i.e. in our post-truth world.
The aim of the philosophical perspective we are contributing is to identify how conceptual choices and patterns of thought inform the development of our databases, interfaces, behaviours and values in an increasingly networked and connected world. This world is witness to an intensified tension between the collective and the individual. On the one hand, databases chasten our conception of individuality by placing human beings and their behaviours as points in a data space. On the other hand, our interfaces are invariably designed in such a way as to reify a conception of the individual as sovereign. This tension plays out across countless examples, ranging from how betting apps utilise principles of persuasive design to subvert cognitive inhibitions and social mores (Schull 2014), to how the principle that ‘similarity breeds connection’ (homophily) is leveraged in constructing and influencing key demographics through data analysis (Chun 2021).
How can the key strengths and virtues of the discipline of philosophy impact this situation? In what ways can philosophy contribute to empowering individuals and the human collective to think and act in ways that encounter and use technology responsively, with increased awareness and skill? What relevance do key philosophical skills such as conceptual analysis, inference patterning, and the ability to toggle between different levels of complexity and abstraction have for our increasingly networked future?
In recent years, the study of human rights through the discipline of politics has generated (at least) three strands of inquiry:
Through its connection with international law – scholars seek to explain a state’s domestic laws, and domestic and foreign policy and action on human rights issues;
Through a connection with psychology – scholars aim to understand and unravel individual attitudes and behaviour in relation to human rights;
Through a connection with sociology – scholars aim to understand and explain the existence and dynamics of societal structures and their impacts on the lived experience and enjoyment of human rights.
In all these discussions, the state is assumed to be central to the explanations or to the impact its laws, policies, and actions have on individuals and society. However, the rapid growth of the power of a range of private corporate actors since the second half of the twentieth century has challenged this assumption. The spread of digital technology and its implications for the determination of legal and political jurisdictions has further complicated the assumption of state primacy in the international and domestic arenas.
Political science, as a discipline, must contend with these challenges in order to reflect, examine, understand the issues related to and impacts of digital technology on human lives and human rights.
What is the role of the state, as a sovereign entity, in the protection of the rights of its citizens and residents against corporate action that transcends legal and political boundaries?
How do individuals comprehend the impact of digital technology on their lives and the enjoyment of their rights?
To what extent and in what ways have societal structures morphed or adapted to digital technology and in what ways has this impacted the enjoyment of human rights?