Analogue leadership in a digital world

Rathauspark, Wien. The path guiding people through the park framed with wooden benches.

In 2019 Hannes Werthner and a raft of his academic colleagues crafted their Digital Humanism Manifesto.

This Manifesto has helped shape the week-long Summer School held in Vienna organised by the Centre for Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning Technical University Wien, the Digital Enlightenment Forum and the Digital Humanism Initiative.

Two key statements in the Manifesto stand out:

  • Today, we experience the co-evolution of technology and humankind
  • We must shape technologies in accordance with human values and needs, instead of allowing technologies to shape humans

Digital Humanism has an academic focus and quite specifically states that:

  • Universities have a special responsibility and have to be aware of that.
  • Academic and industrial researchers must engage openly with wider society and reflect upon their approaches.
  • Practitioners everywhere ought to acknowledge their shared responsibility for the impact of technologies.

As with Web Science and so much of the enquiry in to the digital realm Digital Humanism places the responsibility for shaping the future of the digital realm largely on the world of research.  However, this is only a part, and it is these aspirations which drive the broader work that we do through Web Science, Intersticia and Brave Conversations.

The first Digital Humanism Summer School was held in September 2022 at the TUWien and, through the very kind invitation of my fellow Web Science Trustee George Metakides, I was invited to join the group of some 65 participants from 22 countries who were mainly young researchers from computer science and anciliary disciplines.  There were 24 lectures covering everything from Participation and Democracy, Digital Colonialism, the future of Work and Finance, to Ethics, AI and Robotics – see the programme here.

These embody the essence of what has driven much of the work I have done since the 1990s when through GAMAA (the Graphic Arts Merchants’ Association of Australia) and Print21 (the Australian Printing Industries Action Agenda) we began to explore the impact of digital technologies on how work is done, how people learn and how societies function as influenced through the world of printing and publishing.

In his opening talk on Digital Democracy George Metakides highlighted the fragility of the democratic systems in the world around us, and explored the nexus between power and politics particular as it is now manifesting online and resulting in an unprecedented concentration of influence and surveillance with attendant socio-political results.

Apart from the sheer breadth of topics covered in the programme and the excellent quality of speaker the Summer School was thought provoking in precisely the same way that we hope Brave Conversations is posing questions which force participants to identify and understand their values and how these are both influencing their use of technology but also shaping it.  One thing that is abundantly clear is that words such as ‘freedom’ and ‘autonomy’ are totally value-laden and therefore how do different people think about what sort of world they want to shape (East and West think differently  This is precisely the conversation that Wendy Hall raises whenever she talks about her Four Internets.

As I sat in the room listening and considering my own journey over the past thirty years I realised just how important it is that the voices of people who have shaped and lived through the profound changes we have gone through as our information has become digitised and our societies digitalised be heard, and heard clearly.  This is one of the foci I use in all of my talks when I walk people through the history of information technologies and the symbiotic nature of us and the machines we build.

We shape our technologies and our technologies shape us. (Marshall McLuhan)

Given the success of this first Summer School there will definitely be a second one in 2023 and it will be interesting to see how Hannes and his team build on these very strong foundations.

For me personally I am looking forward to becoming much more involved through the Digital Enlightenment Forum ( of which I was a member when it first started and have been invited to work with much more closely.

“Enlightenment” is a loaded word and one I will be exploring more in a later post but needless to say that shining the light on our current state and more fully understanding exactly what it is and how it manifests is probably the most important work of humanity in the 21st Century as we co-create the future with our smart machines.