A European digital public sphere has to be engineered—but that doesn’t mean pursuing an AI dystopia or creating a European Facebook.
In the early 20th century Simone Weil wrote: ‘Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvellous, intoxicating.’
Fascinated by the romantic and varied evils presumably awaiting humanity in the face of Ray Kurzweil’s artificial-intelligence ‘singularity’, many institutions and expert groups around the world proceeded to draw up lists of values to be respected, no matter how dystopic our transhumanistic future would be. A few prominent examples are the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the European Commission, with its high-level expert group on AI. Important value principles were endorsed for future AI systems, such as human oversight, safety, privacy, transparency, fairness and wellbeing.
I do not want to doubt the importance and good-heartedness of these efforts. But two things are striking about them.
Not set in stone
One is that they address problems for a future narrative that is not at all set in stone. The ‘creative capture’ Silicon Valley tales exercise over us makes us believe that we are all part of one robot-, cosmic- and AI-superintelligence evolution. It is a tale the information-technology industry makes its money from. But do we really need to believe that all kinds of human services, from job recruiting to arts, must go digital? Strictly speaking, this is only one of many paths humanity can take—and probably one that isn’t even wanted by more than a few freaks.
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So the question is: why do we in Europe make ourselves subject to such a ‘spirit of the age’, which does not sound beneficial for European citizens and even feels misaligned with European heritage and culture, much richer than dark science fiction? Why do we go so far as even to pass laws in preparation for such a future, thereby acknowledging its inevitability?
A second aspect is why such fundamental values as systems safety and robustness, human control, transparency and fairness are only discussed with a view to AI—or even ‘high-risk’ AI. Should these not be hygiene factors for all digital systems out there? Could it be that the red herring of our transhumanistic future is diverting attention from the actual challenges digitalisation presents here and now on the ground, where all these value principles are sorely needed?
Anyone who has peeked into the IT industry’s back end knows all too well that digitalisation, regardless of its numerous benefits, has driven companies into a lot of costly chaos. The most important challenges for a digital humanism are indeed on the table and need to be quickly addressed before we can think of steaming for the shores of further projects.
These are issues of software and hardware quality, of distributed architecture and network complexity, misguided business models of disruption and ‘surveillance capitalism’, long-term component supply challenges, environmental sustainability and, last but not least, the unforeseen hate, envy and addiction spreading through social networks like wildfire and eroding our democracies through algorithm-induced forms of tribalism.
In the face of all these costly challenges one might be forgiven for wondering why, actually, Europe should feel so pressed to engage in ever more digitalisation. Could it be René Girard’s desire fallacy—how one always wants something just because the other party wants it too? Could it be that Europe only feels the urge to become an AI leader because the United States and China are so keen on that position themselves?
One should not forget that US companies, which process so much of our data, also have to deal with all the problems outlined, which first-generation technology design has brought forth in the past 20 years. They are sinking in entropy. Should Europe follow suit, just because China does?
If Europe were to reflect on its core competencies and current competitive advantages, it would probably see that its developed culture and value-guided citizenship behaviour are what has made it so successful. Our inner cities still thrive on the values of beauty, splendour and perfection. Our landscape of gothic cathedrals still breathes the air of holiness and magnanimity of medieval Christianity—the whole world cried in the face of ‘Notre’ Dame burning down. Our machinery is known for its precision, robustness, safety and longevity. If we are to survive as a vibrant continent, then it is only through the nourishing and strengthening of this ‘culture of value’.
Mimicking the monoliths
How can we foster a culture of value in the arriving digital age? So far, the answer seems to be to mimic the technology monoliths, cloud systems, streaming platforms and social networks the US and China possess, as with the Gaia-X cloud system.
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To maintain a political balance of respect between continents and re-establish a trustworthy digital public sphere, it is certainly vital for Europe to regain data sovereignty, control its own network infrastructure on the continent, control the data leveraged from European citizens, prohibit competitive buy-out of European unicorn-technology firms and secure the resources needed for long-term maintenance of the digital infrastructure.
Indeed here Brussels could—if it were politically more independent from the US and more courageous—do a lot more for European citizens. For instance, ensuring by law that Europe’s public institutions (such as schools) purchase their digital supplies primarily from European firms could be a motor for European digital entrepreneurship. That’s a model of success, by the way, heavily used in both the US and China to support their own digital industries.
Alternative European path
But such top-down regulations and infrastructure in-sourcing initiatives are only half the story. They do not automatically create the kind of culture we really need to forge an alternative European path, away from transhumanistic, neoliberal, digital surveillance capitalism. If European citizens were served by local start-ups which embraced the dystopian Silicon Valley ethos, this might serve our trade balance but it would not lead to a rich and positive digital future in which a social Europe lives up to its heritage.
What we need instead is a new way of pursuing our digital innovations—a new entrepreneurial honour on the ground. A revival of the European spirit of goodness, perfection, conviviality, reliability and beauty that has led us to where we still want to remain.
This implies a more careful and thoughtful way of defining business missions. Young entrepreneurs must get away from ‘business canvas juggling’ and immature prototype launches and instead relearn what it means to build a true ‘value proposition’.
How can such a eudaemonic innovation path be learnt and fostered? Top-down value-lists planted in a misguided, transhumanistic Weltgeist won’t do the job. Instead we need—to commune with Weil—a re-embracing of the ‘boring’ good, in value-based engineering and innovation practice, for which first steps have been made.
Most important is to educate a generation of managers, entrepreneurs, innovators and engineers to become what the IEEE in its new ethical standards has started to call ‘value leads’. These are people who can distinguish true human and social value from monetary gain and who can guide companies, institutions and projects towards creating something good for its own sake—rather than creating what Martin Heidegger would have called ‘stuff’ for an initial public offering.
Value leads can help companies understand their unique technological value mission, derived from context-sensitive stakeholder dialogues. They can support top executives to embrace and defend that value mission, which should not only be there for public relations but should be detectable in the product. For that to be so, a traceable, value-based engineering path needs to be set, which includes ecosystem responsibility and control over all technical components involved in customer service delivery.
Such a path also implies a risk consciousness, which can efficiently guide the identification of system requirements before these are given over to agile and iterative forms of system development. Finally, risk consciousness should also lead ventures to forgo an investment if necessary. High risks in the name of abstract technological progress or monetary gain should not be taken, especially where these may be detrimental to humans or nature.
Sarah Spiekermann is chair of the Institute for Information Systems and Society at Vienna University of Economics and Business. Her latest book is Digital Ethics: A Value System for the 21st Century (Droemer). From 2016 to 2021 she was vice-chair of the IEEE 7000 Standard, the first global model for ethical IT system design.