15 Dec A stroll through digital transformation
Does privacy in our digital society have the same meaning as it did before? In what way (and to what extent) do new technologies interfere with our personal interactions? Will robots take over our jobs? Do algorithms know us better than we know ourselves? Does Google Smart Compose take away my authenticity (and do I mind?)? This is just small selection of the many questions that arose during Darian Meacham’s interactive session about digital transformation. The session was the closing of the Educational Week of the business module Digital Strategy.
Digital strategy is all about identifying opportunities and managing the risks in a way that business and society benefit from digitalisation, and turning these insights into action. From a business perspective, it is about identifying value that can be generated by digital innovations for customers and business relations, and about developing new business models that turn this value into return on investment.
Opportunity to reflect
Dr. Darian Meacham is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASoS) and Principal Investigator for Ethics and Responsible Innovation at the Brightlands Institute for Smart Society. His academic research focuses on the social, ethical and political impacts of new technologies. On this Friday afternoon he invited the students to slow down and ‘take a stroll’. His session offered an opportunity to reflect in various ways (social, ethical, political) on the digital society we live in. The aim of the session was to look in a slightly different (philosophical) way at our daily practices, the challenges and problems that emerge. And to understand how these reflections can play a role in design thinking.
The session started with a quick word on the coming of age of ‘digital ethics’. “So far we have seen two waves”, referring to Carly Kind, director of the Ada Lovelace Institute in the UK, Dr. Meacham stated. “The first wave focused on more abstract principles and guidelines and was led by philosophers and ethicists. Computer scientists led the second wave, searching for and proposing technical and design solutions to counter problems like algorithmic bias. The third wave, emerging now, focuses more on ‘the tough questions of power, equity, and justice that underpin emerging technologies, and directed at bringing about actionable change’.”
Privacy and authenticity
Digital transformation, privacy, authenticity turned out to be topics everyone can relate to and has an opinion about. Lively discussions emerged about authenticity and privacy. “Privacy can be defined in terms of information asymmetry”, Meacham explains. “Certain things you know about yourself, that no one else knows, or that you have control over who knows. In the present world the dynamics have changed, as has our relationship with data. Deep-held feelings suddenly aren’t as intimate or unique as you always presumed. Netflix and Spotify know your preferences maybe even better than you do yourself. Google Smart Compose helps you writing your e-mails. And many of us love it, because it makes life easier and work faster. What does that tell you about your authenticity, your personal style of expressing yourself?”
Meacham’s lecture also covered the future of work. “Automation anxiety is an old concern. It was also present in the 19th and 20th century, basically every time there has been a rapid phase of tasks, roles and occupations being automated. In that sense, our present concerns are no different. The main concerns are that automation leads to unemployment, deskilling, labour market and economic polarisation (eroding the middle class) and to a different meaning of work in both a social and political sense. On the bright side: automation also helps us to be more productive because we have to spend less time on tedious tasks. And it creates new jobs as well.” During the session different scenarios were discussed and how we would feel about them. The big question we face when we talk about automation is if this time is somehow different than past waves of automation? As digital technologies become increasingly adept at handling more complex cognitive as well as emotional tasks, what will the role of human labour be in the economy of the future?”
Philosophy in the present age
What is the role of philosophy in the technological age? Darian Meacham: “Philosophy generates sensitivity and helps us reflect about values, both individual and in business. It puts issues in a broader context. In short: it supports in anticipating, reflecting, including and responding to the challenges and problems of our time.” Meacham expresses that he was positively surprised by the enthusiasm and talkativeness of the students. “They are all professionals with years of practical experience. They understood and had an opinion about the issues we were talking about and are very much aware of the necessity for reflection in business and in design thinking.”