What is Digital Humanism?

By Martin Recke

21/11/2017 | In 2015, the smart guys at Gartner tried to coin a strategic buzzword they called Digital Humanism. They even wrote a Digital Humanism Manifesto, but never really published it. Digital Humanism, as defined by Gartner,

is the notion that people are the central focus in the manifestation of digital businesses and digital workplaces. Businesses who embrace digital humanism use technology to redefine the way people achieve their goals and enable people to achieve things not previously possible.

Despite Gartner's efforts, the term actually didn't take off. Google Trends for example doesn't even recognize it. This might be rooted in some deeper misunderstandings of the term itself and its implications. First of all, humanism is an ambiguous word. To further confuse the occasional reader, the Wikipedia lists several different flavours of humanism, both with lower-case and capital H. Is Digital Humanism an ethical philosophy, a theory based on generation of knowledge, meaning and expertise or a new intellectual movement like the Renaissance Humanism? And then there are the academic disciplines called humanities who also happen to discuss a digital humanism since 2011 at least.

Doing further research, I dug up a ground-breaking essay written by Milad Doueihi, a french professor of digital humanities (!) at Paris-Sorbonne University. His definition, though seen through the lens of the humanities, makes a lot of sense:

Digital humanism is the result of a hitherto non-experienced convergence between our complex cultural heritage and a technology that has produced a social sphere that has no precedent. This convergence, instead of simply forming a link between antiquity and now, has redistributed concepts, categories, and objects, as well as behaviours and associated practices, all in a new environment. Digital humanism is the affirmation that current technology, in its global dimension, is a culture, in that it creates a new context, on a global scale.

Digital technology is a culture. This is strong. It is of course also true and not new at all. As early as 1984, the Orwell year, sociologist and psychologist Sherry Turkle (who was itself born in 1948, the year Orwell finished writing his famous novel) published her book The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit. There she defines the computer as more than just a tool, but as part of our daily personal and psychological life. She looks at how the computer influences the way we view ourselves and our relationships with others, and claims that technology defines the way we think and act.

In 1995, while the web was still in its infancy, Sherry Turkle came up with another now-classic book: Life on the Screen. More than two decades ago, she already thought and wrote about virtual worlds, their impact on the way we think about ourselves, and how our human identity changes due to the fading boundary between humans and computers. She raised ethical questions as well as questions of perception, regarding the difference between the human mind and machines. This stuff is pure gold in a time when we talk about artificial intelligence that might replace or supersede humans altogether.

Which brings us back to Gartner. In opposition to the digital humanist they see the digital machinist. The machinist will seek to automate everything and put the user, the people out of the equation as far as possible, and maybe even entirely. This strongly resonates with a mechanistic, materialist worldview that reduces the human being to an entity that can be replaced and superseded by technology. This is a bit odd, since humans created technology in the first place, but it reminds me of Goethe's ballad The Sorcerer's Apprentice (German: Der Zauberlehrling).

On the contrary, Digital Humanism also stands for the shift away from computer-literate people to people-literate technology. Machine learning, autonomous agents and things (Alexa, Siri or the self-driving car) and smart robots for example all point in the same direction – to further ease the interaction between humans and machines. This has been the case since the early days of digital interfaces, from punch cards to terminals, graphical user interfaces to the web, (mobile) multi-touch and now voice.

Seen this way, Digital Humanism refers to the age-old concern to put humankind, in all its aspects, at the centre of our work. The early, 14th century humanists started a cultural revolution that peaked in the Renaissance era. Maybe it is time for a new cultural revolution, a new Renaissance. Or is it already happening?

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