Opinions - 22.09.2017 - 00:00 

Digitisation: committed to truth

The digital world is changing people’s lives and nature; indeed, it may impact on the civilisation process in a way that no previous invention has been able to do. It is up to the universities to educate society’s future decision-makers into critical and open personalities with a sound faculty of judgement By Lukas Gschwend and Judith Gamp.

22 September 2017. Digital people communicate permanently and, in so doing, are transparent to a previously unknown extent. Theoretical freedom of information, however, is de facto cancelled out: personalised search results which allegedly want to do their best for users, in fact incarcerate them within narrow limits whilst they still think they are roaming the far reaches of the world wide web. The reason for this are the profit interests of the corporate groups involved. Whereas established social institutions are usually based on collectively agreed cornerstones, the internet has so far been a value-free space which is governed by the law of the jungle at best.

The total dimension of digitisation

Digitisation mobilises masses and provides individuals in social networks with esteem. This serves as the foundation for big data: the data of the masses are collected in order to control the masses’ consumer behaviour. The digital world’s claim to applicability is total, but so is the surveillance potential of digitisation. All our actions leave traces and thus possibilities for manipulation: logging into Facebook, using loyalty and credit cards, e-banking, web-enabled household appliances, the use of location services.

In this way, the brave new world creates dependencies. Like hardly any other innovation, it is totally geared to human requirements and thus deeply permeates human nature. This has psychological consequences for self-perception, for the self. From a neuropsychological perspective, permanent digital stimuli may even lead to an atrophy of analogue perception and thinking skills, which in turn may result in empathic degeneration and the inability to relate socially.

This makes digital society extremely vulnerable. Gigantic damage can be caused with very little effort. This generates a demand for government protection mechanisms. In view of the global dimension of digitisation, these can only become effective to a limited extent.

Universities must make ready for digitisation

The invention of the telephone, the railway and the computer were at most a challenge for engineers at universities. Digitisation, however, is changing almost all professional academic fields. This imposes a duty on universities: digital literacy is the basic criterion for being fit for the labour market.

The actual challenge for the universities goes much further, though: what is primarily required is a comprehensive sound faculty of judgement. The drivers of digitisation are usually economically motivated. A few big providers dominate the market; their powerful lobbies oppose regulation. In this regard, university graduates must be able to appraise developments correctly in order to judge them normatively correctly despite a post-factual conception of truth.

This requires an education which besides IT know-how also communicates competencies from economic, legal and social sciences, as well as from the humanities and, in particular, from ethics. Critical reflection must not be left to technology philosophers and culture critics. Managers, politicians, doctors, humanities scholars and natural scientists, engineers and lawyers must be able to adequately assess the opportunities and risks of digitisation for their professions and society and to take an active part in social discourse. The digital world possesses strong self-definition and creative powers, which unless people bethink themselves of their own freedom again will eliminate the autonomous decision-making competencies of individuals and society, for by means of social engineering, opinions can be influenced, mainstreams can be created, elections can be manipulated, and thus democracy and the constitutional state can be badly affected.

Critical thinking as a digital competence

This raises pressing questions for a university that is founded on the principles of humanism and liberalism. How can digitisation make people’s lives happier without estranging them from themselves? To what extent can and should there be regulations? What are the consequences of digitisation for society as a whole? How can it reinforce social integration instead of strengthening social shearing forces through job cuts and thus fostering instability? What competencies must the education sector make available?

In the light of the power of corporate groups and its effects on people: Must the global community set limits similar to the attempts made in climate politics? Is digitisation a catalyst for the civilisation process or is it predominantly about boosting profits? What do human dignity and human rights mean in the digital age? How far should freedom of information and the protection of the personality go? Do we need new fundamental constitutional rights which go beyond the so far purely programmatic digital Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU?

Elementary legal questions have still not been unequivocally answered:  To what extent do fundamental rights directly affect private and foreign companies through their third-party effect? What liability law consequences result from digital products and services? When may personal data be used by private companies?

Also strengthening "analogue" competencies

Besides digital literacy and a sound faculty of judgement, universities would be well advised to continue to strengthen “analogue” competencies among their students, too, or do so even more than they have done to date: knowledge, forms of understanding, skills and properties which are characteristic of human thought, emotion, communication and behaviour. If the analogue aspect disappears, the digital world will define itself.

For this reason, we need universities which, in the sense of a universitas, champion an enlightened rationality which is committed to truth, diversity, human dignity and public welfare. This involves values such as justice, proportionality and sustainability. This will result in added value for mankind which justifies the universities’ investments in technological progress – which, indeed, makes such investments absolutely necessary.

Lukas Gschwend is Full Professor of Legal History, Sociology of Law and Criminal Law, as well as Vice-President for Studies & Academic Affairs at the University of St.Gallen (HSG). Judith Gamp is a member of the research staff of the Vice-President’s Board for Studies & Academic Affairs at the University of St.Gallen (HSG).

The original German version of this text first appeared in Süddeutsche Zeitung on 30 July 2017 and in the 9/17 issue of the journal Forschung & Lehre.

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