12 November 2019 • Martijn Tamboer
Ultimately, we are human
Our free society is at stake. Our 21st century world is a world of accelerating technological developments, such as digitalisation, robotisation and a constant battle for data. Philosopher Henriëtta Joosten has written a book about this: Uiteindelijk zijn we mensen [Free translation: Ultimately, we are human].
In her last book De publieke sfeer in de 21e eeuw [Free translation: The public sphere in the 21st century], Joosten, who is a researcher in the Philosophy and Professional Practice Research Group and a lecturer at the faculty of IT & Design at THUAS, considered the other side of our digital world. “With the deployment of ICT, we are creating a world of unprecedented possibilities. Take healthcare, for instance, a public service where technology clearly has more and more to offer us. However, there is a ‘but’.”
“Information and communication technology is having an unprecedented influence on our daily life. We are becoming accustomed to environments that are tailored to our individual preferences. However, technological progress in our society is placing constant pressure on the notion of a common world. Concern for that common world is a central issue in the public sphere.”
What does that common world look like?
“My philosophy builds on the work of Hannah Arendt, a 20th century political thinker. She takes a deeper look at human activity and describes the ‘vita activa’ (active life). This is a three-way division between labour (daily activities that are needed for survival), work (making products and services) and action. That final element deals with the ‘more significant’ aspects of life.”
Is it important to reflect on this?
“In this context, we can talk about a second birth: as an adult, you participate in society through responding publicly to common issues. This is what makes us human. That action requires us to take a step back from the issues of the day and together ask the question: What kind of world are we actually creating?”
What kind of world is that?
“It scares me a little sometimes. For instance, when you read that in China there are cameras above zebra crossings to record who crosses when the lights are red. Tech companies such as Google are becoming increasingly powerful. They incorporate certain values and standards into their systems which influence our thoughts, without us knowing which direction that influence takes us, let alone allowing us to intervene. Everything about you is recorded. Even municipalities know more and more about you. It appears that citizens are constantly losing this battle for data.”
What do municipalities in the Netherlands do with our data?
One example is the ‘smart neighbourhood’ that is being planned in Helmond. As a resident, you will receive a discount on your rent in exchange for access to your personal data, such as the readings of your waste water in order to measure your average consumption of medicines or drugs. However, the route that you walk home, the air quality and noise on your street will also be recorded. Companies can use this to test their products and the municipality can use the data to efficiently arrange public spaces. The goal is that the results from the data go straight back to the people who produce that data. However, what happens when you use the design principle that the data from residents ends up in common hands? Then you would have to decide together about this. There would be a greater chance that the public interest would be served instead of that of companies and individuals.”
Can we turn the tide?
“Citizens must be more involved in the far-reaching digitalisation of society. All of us need to talk about whether the current developments are desirable. When you leave everything to experts, then our free and resilient society is at stake.
We are not able to hold back developments in technology, but we always have the freedom to choose. We will have to talk from person to person about the kind of world that we are creating. And we will have to make those choices ourselves. So, my plea is also a plea for human freedom. As ultimately, we are humans.”
On 11 November, the Centre of Expertise Global & Inclusive Learning is organising a symposium to commemorate the publication of De publieke sfeer in de 21e eeuw: Hannah Arendt als gids voor professionals [Free translation: The public sphere in the 21st century: Hannah Arendt as a guide for professionals].
Location: Innovation Playground, The Hague University of Applied Sciences
Time: 3.30 p.m – 5.30 p.m
Please register using this form.
You can order the book here.