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The Onlife Manifesto

The Onlife Initiative

Preface The deployment of information and communication technologies (ICTs) and their uptake by society radically affect the human condition, insofar as it modifies our relationships to ourselves, to others and to the world. The ever-increasing pervasiveness of ICTs shakes established reference frameworks through the following transformations[1]:

i. the blurring of the distinction between reality and virtuality;

ii. the blurring of the distinctions between human, machine and nature;

iii. the reversal from information scarcity to information abundance; and

iv. the shift from the primacy of entities to the primacy of interactions.

The world is grasped by human minds through concepts: perception is necessarily mediated by concepts, as if they were the interfaces through which reality is experienced and interpreted. Concepts provide an understanding of surrounding realities and a means by which to apprehend them. However, the current conceptual toolbox is not fitted to address new ICT-related challenges and leads to negative projections about the future: we fear and reject what we fail to make sense of and give meaning to. In order to acknowledge such inadequacy and explore alternative conceptualisations, a group of 15 scholars in anthropology, cognitive science, computer science, engineering, law, neuroscience, philosophy, political science, psychology and sociology, instigated the Onlife Initiative, a collective thought exercise to explore the policy-relevant consequences of those changes. This concept reengineering exercise seeks to inspire reflection on what happens to us and to re-envisage the future with greater confidence.

This Manifesto aims to launch an open debate on the impacts of the computational era on public spaces, politics and societal expectations toward policymaking in the Digital Agenda for Europe's remit. More broadly, this Manifesto aims to start

a reflection on the way in which a hyperconnected world calls for rethinking the referential frameworks on which policies are built. This is only a beginning…

Game Over for Modernity?

Ideas that hinder policy making's ability to tackle the challenges of a hyperconnected era

§ 1.1 Philosophy and literature have long challenged and revised some foundational assumptions of modernity. However, the political, social, legal, scientific and economic concepts and the related narratives underlying policymaking are still deeply anchored in questionable assumptions of modernity. Modernity has indeed—for some or many—been an enjoyable journey, and it has borne multiple and great fruits in all walks of life. It has also had its downsides. Independently of these debates, it is our view that the constraints and affordances of the computational era profoundly challenge some of modernity's assumptions.

§ 1.2 Modernity has been the time of a strained relationship between humans and nature, characterised by the human quest to crack nature's secrets while at the same time considering nature as a passive endless reservoir. Progress was the central utopia, coupled with the quest for an omniscient and omnipotent posture[2]. Developments in scientific knowledge (thermodynamics, electromagnetism, chemistry, physiology…) brought about an endless list of new artefacts in all sectors of life. Despite the deep connection between artefacts and nature, an alleged divide between technological artefacts and nature continues to be assumed. The development and deployment of ICTs have contributed enormously to blurring this distinction, to the extent that continuing to use it as if it were still operational is illusory and becomes counterproductive.

§ 1.3 Rationality and disembodied reason were the specifically modern attributes of humans, making them distinct from animals. As a result, ethics was a matter of rational and disembodied autonomous subjects, rather than a matter of social beings. And responsibility for the effects brought about by technological artefacts was attributed to their designer, producer, retailer or user. ICTs challenge these assumptions by calling for notions of distributed responsibility.

§ 1.4 Finally, modern worldviews and political organisations were pervaded by mechanical metaphors: forces, causation and, above all, control had a primary importance. Hierarchical patterns were key models for social order. Political organisations were represented by Westphalian States, exerting sovereign powers within their territory. Within such States, legislative, executive and judiciary powers were deemed to balance each other and protect against the risk of power abuse. By enabling multi-agent systems and opening new possibilities for direct democracy, ICTs destabilize and call for rethinking the worldviews and metaphors underlying modern political structures.

  • [1] Those transformations are fully described in the Onlife Initiative Background document available on https://ec.europa.eu/digital-agenda/en/onlife-initiative.
  • [2] By posture, we mean the dual notion of stance and posing, or, in other words, of occupying a position and being seen occupying it.
 
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