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The Onlife Initiative

Background Document: Rethinking Public Spaces in the Digital Transition

The Onlife Initiative

What I propose in the following is a reconsideration of the human condition from the vantage point of our newest experiences and most recent fears. This, obviously, is a matter of thought, and thoughtlessness—the heedless recklessness or hopeless confusion or complacent repetition of 'truths' which have become trivial and empty—seems to me among the outstanding characteristics of our time. What I propose, therefore, is very simple: it is nothing more than to think what we are doing.

Hannah Arendt, Prologue of “The Human Condition”, 1958.

The deployment of ICTs and their uptake by society affect radically the human condition, insofar as it modifies our relationships to ourselves, to others, and to the world. This digital transition shakes established reference frameworks, which impact the public space, politics itself, and societal expectations toward policy making. The Onlife Initiative intends to explore these impacts within the policy context of the Digital Agenda for Europe.

What do we Mean by Concept Reengineering?

There is no such thing as a neutral apprehension of reality. Philosophy tells us that we grasp the world around us through concepts. Even when we think that we are representing our environment in a specular or objective way, our perception is necessarily mediated by concepts, as if they were the keyholes through which we inevitably see and perceive reality. Concepts show their efficacy by providing us with an understanding of our surrounding realities and a means by which we are able to grasp those realities.

Knowledge aggregates around given concepts, and paradigmatic shifts happen when new concepts are designed, taken up, adapted or re-adapted, thereby providing a new basis for knowledge accumulation and for the production of a new sense of meaning (semanticisation).

Concept reengineering is an activity that aims at putting ourselves in the best position to reflect meaningfully on what happens to us, and thereby help us envision the future in positive terms. The dominance of negative projections about the future is often the signature of the inadequacy of our current conceptual toolbox. We fear and reject what we fail to understand and semanticise. So, the overall purpose of this concept reengineering exercise is to acknowledge such inadequacy and explore alternative conceptualisations that may enable us to re-envisage the future with greater confidence.

It is acknowledged that, collectively, we are undergoing a deep crisis, the expression of which is apparent in economic, social, environmental, and financial terms. In a less obvious manner, but equally, if not even more significantly, the crisis affects the public space, politics itself, and how we conceptualise both ourselves and the world as well as our mutual interactions. Through the concept reengineering exercise, we intend to focus on the issue of public spaces and put philosophy in practice within the realm of policy making.

Sources of inspiration and references will be multiple and diverse, but the notion of public space underlying this proposal is greatly inspired by, if not borrowed from, Hannah Arendt. Her vision rests on the fact that politics emerge from the plurality and that the public space is the space lying between us, where each of us can experience freedom. If that space between-us collapses, and if politics becomes only a means to an end (whatever good this end pretends to be), then we are not far from totalitarianism, she argues. She invites us to dissociate ourselves from the illusion that the most efficient way to make society good is to make each of its members a good person. To Jonas, who held this view, she replied: “if this was true, then we are lost!”[1] And indeed, as humans, we all experience the internal dialogue between good and bad. That we need sometimes to make this polarized figure external can be part of building our collective identity, but we should not fool ourselves by thinking that we can really strive, through politics, to make each human a unequivocally good being. For that reason, this exercise will focus on what matters for the public space, rather than what matters for each individual, or, in other words, it will focus on the means and preconditions needed to reinvigorate the sense of plurality which is essential if each of us is to experience freedom in this hyperconnected era[2].

To the best of our knowledge, this experience of putting philosophy into practice is a genuinely new one, but should this not be the case, lessons will be drawn from similar past experiences. This is also part of the exercise.

  • [1] TV broadcast discussion, Toronto, 1972 reported in “Edifier un monde, Interventions 1971– 1975”, Hannah Arendt, p. 98, Editions du Seuil, Paris, 2007.
  • [2] “If philosophers, despite their necessary estrangement from the everyday life of human affairs, were ever to arrive at a true political philosophy, they would have to make the plurality of man, out of which arises the whole realm of human affairs—in its grandeur and misery—the object of their thaumadzein. Biblically speaking, they would have to accept—as they accept in speechless wonder the miracle of the universe, of man, and of being—the miracle that God did not create Man, but 'male and female created He them.' They would have to accept in something more than the resignation of human weakness the fact that 'it is not good for man to be alone.'” Arendt (1990).
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