Philosophical Perspective

“We can affirm the unavoidable use of technical devices, and also deny them the right to dominate us, and so to warp, confuse, and lay waste our nature.”  

Martin Heidegger 

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?

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