Digital humanism: Harmonizing humanity and technology

February 27, 2024

Victoria Hernandez, Financial and Telecom Executive. C-level and Board serial member. Digital Humanist, Business Angel, and International Speaker

In the relentless pursuit of progress, the force of technological progress has reshaped our world fundamentally. Amid this transformative whirlwind, the concept of Digital Humanism is emerging as a guiding light, prompting a recalibration of our relationship with technology in a more human-centric manner.

At its core, Digital Humanism is a call to reassert our personal and social responsibility in the face of advancing technology. While acknowledging the potential of machines and digital systems to enhance our lives, this should not absolve us of our ethical and moral responsibilities. Similarly, French author and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupery saw airplanes not just as machines, but also as tools for knowledge and self-understanding:

“We will forget the machine, the tool. … it does what it is supposed to do, unnoticed. And through this tool we will find again the old nature, the nature of the gardener, the aviator, the poet.” (from Wind, Sand and Stars, 1939)

Human 4.0

Descartes defined human beings as a type of machine, a reasoning entity, and an end in itself, which immediately ties into Artificial Intelligence. In this Cartesian logic, I am a sort of software, and introspection could be viewed as a programming language ready to launch a new version of myself at any time. The question then becomes: How can one become an augmented Human – a Human 4.0?

The latter half of the 20th century has seen more scientific and technological advances than all preceding human history. However, our brain’s structure dates back to the Neolithic era and isn’t equipped for the deluge of information we, as humans, are exposed to today: media, social networks, and more. Modern- day monasteries are connected to the internet, and those traditionally dedicated to pillars of knowledge might now be the subject of memes and GIFs on social platforms. Even a hermit in the remotest corner of the Earth might possess a personal satellite phone and have their own YouTube channel.

How can introspection be practised in a world pulled between technology and humanism – between the craving for data, tools that enhance our lives, and narratives and dreams that provide meaning? To preserve our sense of humanity we need to adapt to this new layer of complexity and evolving context.

I don’t know any more if I’m sleeping in the office or working at home.

Digital identity crisis

When everything arrives in algorithmic disarray—a joke, a Ukrainian news headline, a meme, a commercial promotion, a forest fire, your aunt’s vacation photos—coherence and the very sense of being in the world suffer. In this context, my mind might resemble my internet browser: 15 open tabs, two frozen, and music playing without me knowing its source.

We are shaped by society, our parents, and our beliefs—often donning masks that don’t truly reflect who we are. Unmasking this ‘persona’ and identifying our inner selves are prerequisites to finally becoming who we truly are. But have we considered how many WhatsApp groups we belong to? Each represents a micro-mask or micro-identity, a reality where we juggle multiple digital, physical, professional, and hybrid identities. We replace half of our social network (broadly speaking) within seven years—maintaining contact with only about 30% of those we converse with or seek help from.

What, in the end, is our true digital identity? And what impact does it have on our real identity. How can one gather coherent identities into a unified whole, comprehensible externally and consistent within oneself? Furthermore, which psychologists are adequately trained to address our potential digital identity schizophrenia?

If you can’t control the world, control your context.

In my extensive thinking about the world, the benefits of innovation, and the impact of technology on society, I occasionally stumble upon a fascinating concept: contextual collapse1. It denotes the impossibility of maintaining coherence in real life with our diverse digital identities shaped by the various social media platforms we use.

This collapse could explain the rise of fake news today, general apathy, and the success of conspiracy theories—like ‘flat- earthers’. 1 in 10 French people believe the Earth is flat2. This loss of context intensified after the COVID pandemic, revealing that some friends or family members had detached themselves from truth and science. Presently, a fake news piece travels six times faster than a factual one3.

Critical ignorance: a remedy for digital saturation?

At school we’re taught critical thinking—the ability to discern and judge. Critical thinking is a combination of an attitude (critical thinking) and a set of capabilities that allow for proper critique. In the present world, adding a filter for knowledge or critical ignorance to this equation becomes imperative. In the future, distinguishing fertile from toxic contexts and recontextualizing information will increasingly depend on our filters. Information that grabs attention and is potentially harmful, the immense time loss it generates, not to mention its overall mediocrity—all within our limited attentional and cognitive resources. Hence, we now need to consciously choose what to ignore.

Critical ignorance is educated ignorance and an understanding of filters. It aligns with philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s “The Art of Not Reading”, a precondition for reading good books by not reading bad ones: for life is short4. It also involves enhancing our free will: does the algorithm send me the information I like? Or am I beginning to like it due to constant exposure? Where is our free will in this scenario?

We must apply Socrates’ three filters: “If what you wish to tell me is neither true, good, nor useful, why would I want to know it?” Adapted to our era, they retain relevance and become a necessity for a modern ascetic. Thus, my consciousness could be liberated from the weight of established truths and become a clear-sighted eye within my inner realm.

We waste years by not being able to waste hours

-Amos Nathan Tversky (1932-1996) – Mathematical psychologist, author of foundational works on decision- making in a risky environment.

Utility of the useless

Over 2,500 years ago, the ancient Greeks warned us about certainty. Engraved on the temple of Apollo in Delphi: “Certainty brings ruin” (Eggya Para D’Ata). However, today, we are surrounded by sensors: I know when my bus will arrive, I know where my Uber or Amazon package is located, etc. These functionalities and apps could be termed “Ambient Certainty,” inducing a reassurance effect in our daily lives.

I once contemplated the possibility of being an ‘augmented Human’ in the depths of self-discovery and truth-seeking. Instead, I risk being a diminished and shrunk self, not a lost voice but an unfindable one—because my reality and daily life resemble an Airbus 380 dashboard.

To break away from constant performance and perpetual dashboards, one must recognize the value of the useless. What for? Absolutely nothing! Meandering, allowing the mind to wander, nourishing our imagination, and ultimately reflecting in the silence of truth. For, by constantly trying to predict and control everything without imagining, it’s not machines we should fear but the machines we might become.

Eugène Ionesco beautifully wrote about the ‘utility of the useless’5 as an art form. To that, I add nurturing our ability to see the beauty of the world and our inclination towards wonder—a trait we had in childhood but forgot in our adult lives. It involves beholding the grandeur of nature, unforgettable artworks, and even the marvels of daily life—like watching our child have breakfast.

This is what Japanese culture calls Mono No Aware, the art of perceiving emotion in things and transcribing them—an art of the ephemeral. An attitude tinged with melancholy in the face of impermanence. I’ve always appreciated Don Quixote’s comment: “Until death, everything is life.” Ultimately, wonder is to relish the taste of life.

We are not machines

So, can I be an augmented Human? A Human 4.0? My answer is no. We’re not machines; my true aim isn’t to publish a new ‘upgrade’ of myself as a Human. Instead, it’s about unveiling my authentic version and recognizing myself in it. We’re entering the exponential era, where everything moves rapidly. With the exponential life ahead, it’s a duty to comprehend technology to realize that we can no longer think in the same way as we did even ten years ago.

To find myself, I must resist certain types of information and online actors. I must adopt new mental habits that aid my development, such as critical ignorance and the art of the useless. Just as we seek the path of moderation in virtues within our journey, there’s a middle ground in the use of innovation and technology that we must learn to recognize: Where technology no longer liberates but entraps.

Digital humanism demands introspection

I realise that I am a ‘locksmith’ crafting new mental keys previously inexistent or buried within me—some to close doors, like critical ignorance, and others to open them, like my predisposition for wonder and embracing uncertainty. This, for me, gives meaning to the splendour of creating new abilities (or keys) of understanding that transcend within me and make me, a real human being.

Consider the impact and influence of online discussion, something that is inconceivable without digital technology. It has become a cornerstone of public interaction, shaping opinions, policies, and societal norms. However, the rampant spread of misinformation, the creation of echo chambers, and the manipulation within these digital worlds all threaten the basis of human interaction. Digital Humanism demands introspection, questioning whether our online interaction aligns with the ethical responsibilities we hold as individuals and societies.

An illustration of this tension lies in the evolution of social media platforms. Once simple communication mediums, they have transformed into influential entities that shape user behaviour, influence political decisions, and mould societal narratives. This power shift underscores the urgent need to uphold human responsibility in the digital environment.

We need a Digital Humanism task force

Today we are witnessing the co-evolution of technology and humankind, altering societal fabric with a deluge of data, algorithms, and computational power. This disruption creates and threatens jobs, generates and diminishes wealth, and betters and harms our ecology. As lines blur between humans and machines, the quest for enlightenment and humanism becomes paramount.

Digital Humanism advocates for a symbiotic relationship between technology and human values. It pushes for technology as a catalyst to augment human potential and elevate collective well-being. Reflecting on the influence of algorithms in shaping our digital and online experience sheds light on the urgency of integrating ethics, technology, and psychology within a Digital Humanism task force.

This interdisciplinary approach, drawing expertise from ethics, technology, sociology, law, psychology, and economics, becomes vital in championing Digital Humanism. These diverse disciplines offer a comprehensive perspective, exploring the ethical, societal, legal, and psychological dimensions of technology’s impact on humanity.

Inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee’s assertion that “the system is failing”6 underscores the dichotomy inherent in digitalization. While offering unprecedented opportunity, it raises grave concerns about web monopolization, extremist behaviour via social media orchestration, the creation of filter bubbles, privacy erosion, and digital surveillance. This revolution disrupts societies, demanding the creation of a just and democratic society where humans remain central to technological progress. His response is a Contract for the Web7, which implores academic communities, industry leaders, policymakers, and professional societies globally to engage actively in shaping policies. It represents a collective effort driven by concerns and hopes for the future, acknowledging our joint responsibility in navigating our technological trajectory.

Digital technologies encapsulate choices that embody values, norms, economic interests, and assumptions. In alignment with critical rational reasoning, interdisciplinary collaboration emerges as the key to shaping a future where technology harmonizes with human needs. This amalgamation of humanistic ideals with critical reflections on technological progress aligns with the intellectual tradition of humanism, striving for an enlightened humanity.

The core principles endorsed include designing digital technologies to foster democracy and inclusivity, prioritizing privacy and freedom of speech, establishing effective regulations derived from public discourse, addressing tech monopolies, asserting human decision-making, fostering interdisciplinary collaborations, recognizing universities’ pivotal role, encouraging ethical awareness in education, and acknowledging practitioners’ shared responsibility in technology’s impact.

A unified vision for responsible technology

Digital Humanism stands as a guiding principle that reasserts human values and responsibilities in the face of advancing technology. It emphasizes the need to shape digital advancements in alignment with human needs, ethical considerations, and societal well-being. At its core, Digital Humanism seeks to:

Reaffirm Human Responsibility: It emphasizes that technology should not absolve individuals or societies of their responsibilities. Instead, it calls for an expanded scope of accountability, challenging the delegation of responsibility to autonomous systems.

Align Technology with Human Values: Digital Humanism advocates for technology that serves humanity’s needs and values, rather than reshaping human behaviour in undesirable ways. It emphasizes the importance of using technology as a tool to enhance human potential and improve quality of life.

Reflect on Ethical Implications: This concept prompts us to delve deeper into the ethical implications of technology. It urges a philosophical introspection on the impact of technology on fundamental concepts, such as discourse, and calls for a proactive approach to addressing these challenges.

Given its importance, a task force dedicated to Digital Humanism should encompass interdisciplinary expertise:

Ethics and Philosophy: These disciplines play a crucial role in guiding ethical reflections and understanding the societal implications of technological advancements.

Technology and Engineering: Expertise in technology and engineering is necessary to understand the practical implications of implementing ethical frameworks within technological systems.

Sociology and Anthropology: These fields provide insights into how technology shapes societies and cultures, allowing for a deeper understanding of human behaviour in digital environments.

Law and Policy Making: Legal experts and policymakers are essential to navigate the regulatory landscape and develop frameworks that uphold human values while governing technological advancements.

Psychology and Behavioral Sciences: Understanding human behavior in digital spaces is vital. Experts in psychology and behavioral sciences can shed light on how technology influences human actions and decisions.

Economics and Business: Given the commercial aspects of technology, experts in economics and business can provide insights into the economic impacts of Digital Humanism and guide responsible business practices.

By uniting these diverse disciplines within a task force, Digital Humanism can be effectively implemented, ensuring that technology serves humanity while respecting fundamental ethical values.

As we stand at the precipice of the future, action becomes imperative. It’s time to steer technology towards a future that honours human values, fosters inclusivity, and advances societal well-being. The responsibility rests upon us to shape a future where technology and humanity coexist harmoniously.

  1. Term invented by researchers Danah Boyd, Alice Marwick, and Michael Wesch.
  2. pense-que-la-terre-est-plate ↩︎
  3. twitter-les-fake-news-se-propagent-beaucoup-plus-vite-que-la-verite.html ↩︎
  4. Arthur Schopenhauer, Parerga und Paralipomena, 1851 ↩︎
  5. Eugène Ionesco “L’art de l’inutile” conference in 1961 at the Sorbonne University in Paris, France. ↩︎
  6. /news/222901-tim-berners-lee-on-the-future- of-the-web-the-system-is-failing /fulltext?mobile=false
  7. / ↩︎

Victoria Hernandez-Valcarel, a seasoned Financial and Telecom Executive with a C-level and Board background, is renowned for her impactful roles across various companies and organizations. As a non- executive Director at CaixaBank Payments & Consumer and a member of the European Innovation Council (EIC) she oversees substantial funding applications. She represents the EIC’s €10.2bn fund in influential telecom and technology companies and EC programs. Additionally, she serves on the boards of TeamEQ and Cashway startups, leveraging AI & ML for HR solutions and innovative financial technology.

Victoria’s career highlights include leadership positions as Alliances’ Director British Telecom Europe, Executive Chairman Orange Spain, and Senior Vice-President International Proximus. Beyond her corporate endeavors, she’s a driving force in promoting gender diversity, serving as President of Europe for the Global Telecom Women Network (GTWN) and founding member of the Global Board Ready Women (GBRW) Task Force, which championed the 40% Gender Diversity Quotas for publicly listed European corporations.

She holds a Bachelor’s in Engineering in Computing Sciences from UPC, an EMBA from INSEAD, and completed programs at Columbia Business School and Harvard University in Digital Marketing and Financial Technology. Victoria lives in Paris and speaks fluently 5 languages. She has one lovely daughter (Rita).