People explore the Audi exhibit during CES 2019 at the Las Vegas Convention Center, in Las Vegas, on January 9, 2019. (Photo by DAVID MCNEW / AFP) (Photo credit should read DAVID MCNEW/AFP/Getty Images)

How the digital revolution is changing our idea of humanity

By Yvonne Hofstetter

The digital revolution doesn’t just raise issues of privacy. It fundamentally alters the conception of free and sovereign humans on which liberal democracy is based.

From ubiquitous computing and ambient intelligence to sensors in our homes and satellites in our skies, our modern communications infrastructure is an also surveillance infrastructure that is almost impossible to escape.

Such digital surveillance can certainly have beneficial effects for the economy and for security. Networked industrial plants can be monitored and controlled to only produce what is necessary to meet actual demand, which makes manufacturing environmentally friendlier. The health condition of steel railway turnouts, their potential malfunctions and their material failures due to heavy mechanical stress can be measured, and their required maintenance can be predicted and more optimally scheduled.

However, monitoring and controlling objects and infrastructure is different from monitoring people – or at least, it should be. In legal terms, a person is a subject, a bearer of rights and legal obligations. We couch the monitoring of people in the euphemistic language of profiles, social credits and scores. But the analyzed raw data of our lives produces a different image of a person, one that is an algorithmically furnished digital twin. The data economy reduces humans to mere data. What remains is merely the measurable and visible.

We have all helped developed this new image of ourselves. We have accepted and socially legitimized the digital transformation of our lives that has been driven by technology companies rather that by governments. In other words, we have colluded in a radical social redesign driven by market participants rather than by representatives of the people.

This has severe and underappreciated consequences – not just for democracy, but for the idea of what it means to be a citizen on which governing systems are based.

Liberal democracies are based on a certain image of a human – a person who is sovereign, who thinks by herself, who is granted individual fundamental rights and who can execute powers, either by voting or after being elected.

But the ideologies pursued by digital technology giants are quite different. Digital technologies that indiscriminately monitor people like things blur the line between human and machine, between object and subject. Digital technologies objectify humans and treat them like all other observable objects.

For digital entrepreneurs, humans are programmable. The slogan of one American artificial intelligence company x.ai takes this idea to the extreme: ‘Using AI to program humans to behave better.’

This idea fundamentally contradicts the basis for democratic government. A determinate, unfree, possibly digitally manipulated human cannot be sovereign.

This could have some very tangible consequences for legal systems. ‘In the history of law, the change of the image of man is epoch-making,’ said German legal philosopher Gustav Radbruch in 1927. ‘Nothing but the image of man to whom a legal age relies upon is crucial to the style of such legal age.’ It is not hard to see how this shift in image could manifest itself.

Any democratic nation that strives to preserve the sovereignty of its people should take these ideas seriously and recognize them for what they are – ideas and claims about the nature of humanity. It is not technological advances that will change society so much as the accompanying ideologies, often unspoken, that humans can be ‘programmed’ and reduced to their digital footprint.

The challenge is to contain such claims and ideologies and preserve the sovereign individual, but still put glamorous and powerful technologies in his hands.

Yvonne Hofstetter

Yvonne Hofstetter is a lawyer and essayist and the author of Das Ende der Demokratie (“The End of Democracy”, Munich: C. Bertelsmann, 2016). She is a member of Chatham House’s Commission on Democracy and Technology in Europe.

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