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Digital humanism aims to balance human needs, emerging tech

Digital humanism is an approach to designing a digital future with human values and needs in mind, a concept arriving in response to the unchecked power of digital platforms.

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Keeping human interests and needs at the center of emerging technology is crucial to preventing further issues with monopoly power, privacy concerns and misinformation.

This concept, called digital humanism, is an approach to analyzing and describing the complex interrelationship between technology and humans, said Hannes Werthner, co-founder of the Digital Humanism Initiative and professor for e-commerce at Tu Wien, a university in Vienna, Austria.

The Digital Humanism Initiative aims to guide technology developers and policymakers on the importance of fostering technology and regulations that keep such concerns in mind as people's reliance on technology and digital ecosystems grows. The international collaboration was launched in 2019.

Speaking during a recent online event hosted by the Wilson Center, Werthner said that while technology is important to how society operates, it's important to recognize some of the issues it's caused as well. In particular, he referred to the growing use of AI algorithms to automate decision-making and the loss of privacy, the corporate concentration in online platforms and the spread of misinformation through social media networks.

Digital humanism is a broader approach to designing a digital future with respect to human needs.
Hannes WerthnerCo-founder, Digital Humanism Initiative

"Digital humanism is a broader approach to designing a digital future with respect to human needs," he said during the event. The initiative is made up of academics, policy makers and industry professionals, and its organizational supporters include the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, a global technical professional organization, and Informatics Europe, which represents the public and private research community.

Addressing harms caused by tech

One of the issues governments globally are reckoning with is how to regulate powerful companies like Apple, Google, Meta and Amazon. Big tech's power is "unique" in that while such companies often offer their platforms for free, they come at the cost of personal data, said Allison Stanger, political scientist and politics and economics professor at Middlebury College in Vermont.

"The big tech companies that have become so embedded in the fabric of our lives are different than monopolies of the past not only because they're a great bargain, there's no monopoly pricing here -- consumers get things for free," she said during the Wilson Center event.

Stanger said companies like Meta, formerly known as Facebook, have also come under fire for promoting content known to incite emotional responses from users. They've also been accused of helping to fuel the spread of misinformation, particularly during the 2016 U.S. presidential election and throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

"What we know and see and believe to be true is being shaped and modified by algorithms that we don't know anything about," she said. "That's what the digital humanism project is in part trying to illuminate and address in creative ways."

Social media platforms, for instance, allow misinformation to spread faster and further than at any other point in history, said Hannah Metzler, a postdoctoral scientist at the Computation Social Science Lab at the Complexity Science Hub in Vienna, Austria.

While one goal of the Digital Humanism Initiative is to educate and teach people how to avoid falling victim to bad information, Metzler said during the event that another piece of the puzzle is determining how to change the design of social media platforms to help address the issue.

Tu Wien's Werthner said the long-term goal of the Digital Humanism Initiative is to study issues like the role of AI in decision-making, the spread of misinformation and the concentrated power of tech giants. The initiative also provides guidance to tech developers and policymakers to help address such problems going forward.

"We are the designers and the developers of this, we have the freedom, the right and the responsibility to use our minds to design such technologies," he said.

Makenzie Holland is a news writer covering big tech and federal regulation. Prior to joining TechTarget, she was a general reporter for the Wilmington StarNews and a crime and education reporter at the Wabash Plain Dealer.

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