Can we be good people online? / Blog

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Can we be good people online?

Dr. Matthew Kuan Johnson, 20th May 2021

Can we be good people online? primary image

Shoshana Zuboff warns that we have entered an age that involves a possible “overthrow of the people’s sovereignty and…the perilous drift toward democratic deconsolidation that now threatens Western liberal democracies.” She suggests that these dangers can only be met through the widespread use of new modes of collaborative action:

If the digital future is to be our home, then it is we who must make it so.”

But what might such collaborative action look like in our digital present and future, and how might it protect our polities? Amidst the trolls and bots who seek to undermine the development and exercise of democratic virtues online, what kinds of democratic virtues in the online world might enable the kind of collaborative action that Zuboff warns we so desperately need, and how might they be fostered?

It was this weighty and timely topic that a team from the Edinburgh Futures Institute addressed on Tuesday night at the Ethics in AI Seminar, jointly hosted by the Institute for Ethics in AI and the Oxford Character Project at the University of Oxford.

The panel discussion opened with a presentation by Professor Shannon Vallor, the Baillie Gifford Chair in the Ethics of Data and Artificial Intelligence and Director of the Centre for Technomoral Futures in the Edinburgh Futures Institute at the University of Edinburgh. Professor Vallor centred her discussion on public virtues in the online world, which are the virtues exercised by collectives. This was exciting new territory, as most discussions of online virtue centre around the virtues of individuals, and not around the virtues of groups or collectives. Public virtues involve joint, coordinated actions and, Vallor suggests, are the ones most important for addressing large-scale societal issues such as climate change, pandemics, AI automation, and global inequality. In other words, these public virtues underlie the kinds of “collaborative actions” that Zuboff argues we so urgently need.

But what features of the online space might hinder the development of such public virtues?

Ewa Luger (Chancellor’s Fellow in Digital Arts and Humanities at the University of Edinburgh, Fellow of the Alan Turing Institute, and Acting Director of Research at Edinburgh Futures Institute) addressed this next question, presenting on the design aspects of digital platforms, and showing how various factors limit human agency and hinder the development of these public virtues. Luger explained how digital products and services are designed to foster fast, seamless, and pleasure-maximizing interactions, which discourage the user from taking time to reflect upon their engagement with the digital platform or device. She also explained how designers harness the power of dark patterns — strategies that designers use to influence users to make decisions or engage in behaviour that they may not have otherwise chosen. She concluded that in order to foster the public virtues online, and in order for us to be able to be good people online more broadly, we need to be aware of these design features that constrain our agency.

Finally, Dr. Oliver Escobar (Senior Lecturer in Public Policy at the University of Edinburgh and Academic Lead on Democratic Innovation at the Edinburgh Futures Institute) framed his presentation by suggesting that it is “not that good people make good digital worlds, but that good digital worlds make good people.” He surveyed statistics on the “global democratic recession,” cataloguing instances in which the strength of democratic institutions, and confidence in democratic systems is shrinking. Next, Dr. Escobar showed how the online world may provide a way forward, providing examples of how the online world had been used to build healthy democratic processes and engagement. These examples included online, deliberative minipublics (whereby randomly selected individuals convene to discuss political issues) and the participatory budgeting of Decide Madrid (which allows citizens to suggest and vote on proposals of up to €100 million). His presentation concluded by suggesting that online democratic engagement has come to be dominated by argumentative debate that bottoms out in point-scoring, rather than by collaborative deliberation that moves toward collective action. Dr. Escobar challenged the audience to reflect on how the online spaces in which democratic participation happens can be better curated to shape citizens into ones that develop and exercise the democratic virtues.

The second half of the event involved questions from the audience, moderated by Dr. Lani Watson, Research Fellow of the Oxford Character Project and Associate Member of the Faculty of Philosophy. The first question picked up on Dr. Escobar’s previous point, asking what a new kind of online platform that fosters democratic virtues might look like. The EFI team responded that in addition to facilitating better collaborative deliberation that moves toward collective action, it must also foster the capability to imagine a future of shared flourishing, rather than merely facilitating visions of one’s own individual future. The example of Polis, a platform used in Taiwan to enable large-scale public deliberation, was provided as one example of what such a platform might look like.

The next questions centred around the conditions required to create such a platform. The EFI team responded that it would be necessary to have some form of public ownership, so that there could be an alignment between user interests/the public good and the goals of the platform. This would require finding sufficient funding and technical resources to make it sustainable over the long-term. Furthermore, since it would be so different from existing digital platforms, there would be a need to help individuals overcome their scepticism to this very different way of being and engaging with others online. Other structural conditions would also need to be overcome, such as the fact that individuals drain much of their leisure hours, energy, and interactions and discussions into social media. Consequently, ways of encouraging individuals to find the energy, time, and interest in engaging with democratic participation in these new platforms would be necessary, but this would require addressing larger-scale societal issues and constraints.

Another question asked which behaviours individuals can engage in or avoid to help promote the public virtues online. Professor Vallor challenged the audience to become more reflective of the different publics of which one is a member. In so doing, she suggested, one will come to better realize the multiple publics to which one is responsible, which will help one to realize the people, causes, and projects to which one is responsible. This will shift one’s behaviour into a mode that is more cooperative and exhibits other democratic virtues, such as solidarity.

Dr. Watson asked a final question about whether the online world shifts us toward being better or worse people, on the whole. The panellists concluded that it was a mixture of both. Dr. Escobar related how it is easy to be overwhelmed by the “darker side” of online interactions, and to overlook the “brighter side.” He reiterated his confidence in the positive examples he had provided of democratic participation and virtues online, explaining to the audience in an especially moving moment, “But there are brighter forces at play that need to enter the radars of people so that people are aware. And this connects to the crucial point about solidarity: we tend to think that people online behave in highly individualistic and negative ways, however, with the right spaces, with the right participatory and deliberative processes, the results speak for themselves.”

This article opened with Zuboff’s challenge that, “If the digital future is to be our home, then it is we who must make it so.” The team from EFI, in providing a compelling vision of online public virtues, made this digital future appear much more hopeful. Indeed, if the digital world is to be home to more discussions like these — exemplary instances of the “brighter side” of online interactions — perhaps we can come to feel more at home in it, as well.

A video recording of the event is available here.

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