Attention, please! – A commentary to the Onlife Manifesto and Onlife Initiative of the EU

11 March 2013

by Theresa Züger

On Febuary 8th the European Commission invited to discuss the latest outcome of the so-called “Onlife Initiative”. This interdisciplinary working group of scientists, consisting among others of the philosopher Luciano Floridi, worked out a manifesto, the Onlife Manifesto. The key question of this is: “What does it mean to be human in an hyperconnected era?” It addresses gatekeepers and policy makers in the private and political sector and is supposed to contribute to a rethinking process. For Floridi the Manifesto has the function to give an impulse for new concepts. A concept serves as a tool for human thinking. It enables us to recognise the world, understand and discuss it. The concepts of modernity should now be rethought to reach the right decisions for Europe in this age staged between the analog and the digital. The first catchword of the manifesto to start rethinking is “blurring”.

About blurring

On four levels, the authors recognize a blurring or shifting of hitherto concepts, in which modernity used to apprehend the world:

1. the blurring of the distinction between reality and virtuality

2. the blurring of the distinction between human, machine and nature

3. the reversal from information scarcity to information abundance

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

The argumentation, which the manifesto follows, points out that the paradigms of modernity are antiquated – at the fore the human utopia of omniscience and omnipotence. The omnipresence of information and communication technologies raise the necessity to rethink concepts of society and action.

Referring to Friedrich Hayek’s understanding of komsos und taxis, it would be no longer possible to clearly decide between spontaneous orders (which nature is supposed to be) and human planning and creating. Because of this interaction between the human and technical artefacts, the question of responsibility must be rediscussed.

Many claims of the manifesto remain vague, for example the demand for a more balanced distribution of power and responsibility among public authorities, corporate agents and citizens. Much clearer is the authors’ position regarding the claim of the human as a political actor. The human condition oscillates between being a free and political subjekt on one side and being the analysable and predictable object of science and economy on the other. Here the manifesto pledges obviously for the strengthening of the human as a subject, which is seen as a rational and free individual and only as such is capable of political action.

Attention for attention

The most innovative thought of the manifesto is, that the information age could also be seen as the “attention age”. In contrast to the infinite mass of information, attention is a very limited good. The instrumental use of human attention, exposed to the contest of the working world and economy, should be understood as a serious threat. It undermines the social and political being of a human,  for which attention is an inevitable capacity. Only by the autonomous use of our cognitive capacities, humans can act up as free, self-responsible and engaged citizens. The manifesto claims, that respect for the human attention capacities should therefore be enshrined in the catalogue of fundamental rights and thusly enjoy collective protection and valuation.

About 150 participants from politics, science and the private sector discussed the manifesto lively and controversially. The event certainly sparked curiosity towards the actual effects on the future decisions of the powerful – which at the moment are mostly decision makers in the private sector and governments. It was exciting to see that it took a representer of the private sector to bring up the term “digital feudalism” describing the present situation. Even though it seems to be uncertain in what kind of actual outcome the claims of the Onlife Initiative will discharge. On Febuary 8th, one thing was perceptible: The manifesto hit a nerve and will encourage valuable controverses.

This post represents the view of the author and does not necessarily represent the view of the institute itself. For more information about the topics of these articles and associated research projects, please contact info@hiig.de.

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