Digital Humanism


Hannes Werthner is an Austrian computer scientist and former professor of e-commerce at the Institute of Software Engineering and Interactive Systems at the Vienna University of Technology as well as former professor and head of the Department of Information Systems at the Vienna University of Economics and Business. In addition to e-commerce, his academic work also focuses on recommendation services and e-tourism; Werthner is also co-initiator of the Vienna Manifesto for Digital Humanism.

The interview on the topic of digital transformation/digital humanism was conducted by Gunther Reisinger, habilitated media theorist at Graz University of Technology and project developer at NOUS Digital (Vienna).

GUNTHER REISINGER I would like to start with the by now well known bracket of Digital Transformation: What is your view of this term? Do you think it is different from digitalization?

HANNES WERTHNER I have a split relationship with the term digital transformation for several reasons: essentially, we are talking about an informatization of our society rather than a digitalization. Which, as I understand it, means that we can represent certain data or certain processes digitally, i.e. discretely. In principle, it revolves around formalization, we are not just thinking about automation, but about how to automate work processes and in some cases even political processes.

It therefore goes far beyond what is understood within computer science studies by the term Digitalization, quite like how the term Artificial Intelligence is currently used as synonymous with Machine Learning as well as Deep Learning with neural networks, although neither of these mean the same thing.

Furthermore, it is important to mention that this process started much earlier: Fortune Magazine wrote as early as 1988 that computers are becoming so powerful, or are already so powerful, that companies need to base their strategies on them. So companies don't use computers to implement their strategies, but the other way around: the strategy has to take the tool into account or align itself with it. That was 35 years ago, that's how long this process has been going on. However, these processes only appear on the surface after a certain amount of time, and only then does it become visible and gain social momentum.

The third aspect that comes to mind is that strong inequalities can be observed: On a geographical level, political and social level. During the pandemic, we saw that social barriers and distances expanded. Informatization in particular shows that different speeds are dominant in this respect and that the digital divide is greater than assumed. Even within metropolises or within the so-called richer north of this society.

GR Could you say that you can only transform something that is already in the digital? In the Digital Humanism initiative, which you played a major role in supporting, it's all about thinking in terms of the digital. How would you define the term Digital Humanities?

HW Digital Humanities is the use of mathematical-informatics methods in the humanities – to some extent also in the social sciences. This shows that computer science as a method with its artifacts captures and also transforms the other disciplines: These artifacts are software, methods, procedures, but also ontologies, paradigms, and ultimately views of the world.

Digital Humanities currently possess a great dynamic and a transformative shaping power – also with regard to other disciplines. There is an abundant amount of data available on the web today: If used wisely, relevant results of analysis can be achieved relatively quickly. One just has to be careful how the data is designed, to work methodically clean. Basically, one should not glorify machines used in this way as overpowering God-given miracles, but always keep in mind that they are prone to error, like everything created by man. This would be a task of the humanities and social sciences – and for me this also includes economics: There is a responsibility to open up and discuss the terminology on a paradigmatic-ontological level. For example, with regard to the definition of the procedures, in relation to the methods, the variables or the informatic views.

Computer science is currently facing the well-known contradiction of becoming neither the dominant power, nor only the tool supplier. If we are only tool suppliers, then we make ourselves appear as less than we are, and the other disciplines will not be able to do anything with us in the long run.

Digital Humanism is something different, with an already very long history in computer science. In the first workshop in April 2019 at the Department of Computer Science, we looked how computer science relates to society and to people, to the design of technology for people. We understand it as reflective computer science, in the sense that computer science also needs the other disciplines to describe, analyze and also – if possible – influence complex techno-socio-economic processes.

GR Could you perhaps describe very briefly how this came about. Were there any special occasions?

HW There was the book by Julian Nida-Rümelin and Nathalie Weidenfeld in 2018 (Note: Digital Humanism. An Ethics for the Age of Artificial Intelligence), which deals with the digital space, with the limits of human beings and the limits of computer science. For example, it deals with ethical questions about the use of AI, or with the treatment of informative concepts or objectives in film. At the same time, I set up an international advisory board: This board advises us on future directions, evaluates, and makes suggestions for improvement.

The essence of all these discussions on the part of IT was: We see how much we are changing, but at the same time we have an uneasy feeling about it. Shouldn't we be thinking about the fact that we also have a certain responsibility? It was clear relatively soon that this would require a multidisciplinary approach: That's why, in April 2019, a workshop was initiated, with speakers from different disciplines such as jurisprudence, anthropology, philosophy, about technology consequences and technology history, about computer science. The Vienna Manifesto was also proposed, discussed and adopted there.

GR For many years, the discussion revolved around hierarchies between disciplines: it is very interesting that this initiative came from the technical sciences and was not initiated by the humanities. Do you think the time has come to face each other and actually work together, away from hierarchical structures, in terms of constructive interplay between disciplines?

HW As we write in the manifesto: We are at a crossroads. The manifesto is a call to think about that. A call to all kinds of decision-makers and non-decision-makers about a certain research orientation or research policy, a call to actively shape it. At the same time, it is important to understand technology or computer science as something that is contextualized, that always has to be thought of in a societal context, be it societal as a whole or within a company.

What is algorithmics actually about? Is it the goal to realize something as quickly as possible or is it the goal to develop something with fault tolerance? In short, is the goal of an architecture to be fault-tolerant or efficient? And this is where the aforementioned context comes into play: for example, the architecture of the Internet is not particularly efficient, but the architecture of the Internet was originally designed to be fault-tolerant (because it was de-centralized).

GR How could the executing companies be more actively involved in such political processes? You yourself headed a research unit for e-commerce at the Vienna University of Technology: Have your experiences in this field over the past decades had any influence on this initiative?

HW As an example, I co-founded and set up Tiscover: A very early platform idea, entrenched with platform economics and network dynamics. Tiscover was then sold and disappeared. In general, I have become an observer of missed opportunities in e-commerce – at least from an Austrian perspective. However, even at the European level, many projects were not pursued due to conflicting interests at local, regional or national level. You become more sensitive and see how things develop, grow and endure, or not.

Digital humanism is broader in this regard: These insights, I had about missed opportunities at the European or Austrian level, raise awareness and broaden the view in the long term.

GR How and where could the implementing parties get actively involved? Keyword: the Vienna Manifesto!

HW Digital humanism is a construct of ideas on which one can continue to work. On the theory-building level, as well as on the political level. In Vienna, for example, this topic is anchored in the government program.

And there is the idea of a Vienna Institute for Digital Humanism in the government program, as well as research tenders where several disciplines have to cooperate with each other, a cooperation between research and development with a view to transferring knowledge, involving the education system as well as politics. For example: How must software be conceived and built in a new way, together with technicians, sociologists and humanities scholars. Is data protection going to be discussed, are other disciplines involved?

GR Can you briefly describe why the manifesto form was chosen? After all, the manifesto has always been a very powerful political weapon, a kind of protest, ultimately born out of the history of postulating.

HW It is indeed meant to be an outcry. But not only to the world outside, to those who decide, but also to ourselves, because we also participate in decision-making. It's both. And we also end up saying "It depends on us", whoever the "us" is. I see few besides us taking action, so we have to take matters into our own hands. The suggestion came ultimately from Hans Akkermans (note: Univ. Prof Business Informatics, Amsterdam), with an outcry to us, to our scientific colleagues in our own and other disciplines, along with civil society.

However, we are also aware that we are mostly preaching to the choir. It is to be read as a kind of self-knowledge, which is – especially for computer scientists – quite critical.

GR Wouldn't the implementing institutions also be well involved? Once again, I'm referring to the agencies, who develop most of the solutions.

HW Universities are publicly funded, so they have a social responsibility in the sense of educating and thinking. They also have the societal role of an "excellent" institution, i.e. not only there to produce know-how in the form of knowledge and personnel as cheaply and efficiently as possible. They are also there to reflect: What is not working or what can be done better, where is something going wrong? Universities are the place to boldly contradict. And that brings me to the companies: It is interesting that precisely the large US private universities, which are very good with big industry and also enjoy very good endowments, are the most critical ones.

Therefore, for me, integration or cooperation with companies does not necessarily conflict with scientific freedom. It depends on the form it takes. It depends on the rules. It mustn’t become a case of outsourcing, because otherwise after two years I’ll take my work somewhere else,, where it is cheaper.

In the manifesto, we have deliberately responded to this criticism as well: We refer to all practitioners who are active in this field, and try to integrate as many as possible. These are not only companies, but also employees working in the IT departments of public institutions: We are not exclusive here, digital humanism is deliberately an inclusive concept.

GR Do you see a connection with the humanities-oriented institutions, such as the federal museums? Because of their educational mission, wouldn't they be interesting partners when it comes to implementing digital humanism in a field that, by definition, should be rooted in a humanistic ideal of thought?

HW Yes, I think that museums are very interesting partners: We are talking to with the Vienna Library in the City Hall, for example, which is both a museum and a library – a hybrid. Likewise, the National Library has a dual function, and the municipality of Vienna also maintains working groups on digital humanism and cultural heritage. It's about the double-edged relationship between art, culture and IT. The distribution is changing, and at the same time we need something to regulate our creativity – to curtail our omnipotence. Or for free design. Both create virtual entities without being restricted by physical boundaries.

Computer science is similar: our software entities only follow rules of electronics, the logic of programming, but not the structural engineering of a building or its load-bearing capacity.

GR The pandemic has prompted museums to think of major initiatives in the digital. That would be a very interesting starting point for digital humanism: How might we conceive of the long tradition of these institutions going further in this direction as well?

HW One aspect is the macro level. I believe that Austria's major institutions must also open up to the idea of networks: One should by no means underestimate the possibilities of computer science as an intermediary, also in design as well as in distribution and in reaching the most diverse target groups or in creating target groups. There is undisputedly a network dynamic, so cooperation should be more important than possible individual benefits. If not, Google & Co will eventually decide what the Internet looks like.

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