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Philosophy and Ethics of the Digital Transformation

Today, challenges are too often framed in a way where the choice seems to be between blind confidences in the future, on the one hand, or an enlightened approach based on identifying risks on the other! The current implicit trend of criticising the present, as if the present was what is broken and needs to be fixed, and the future where solutions lie, forces too much attention to be paid on risks only. This prevents us from making sense collectively of what happens to us, with the digital transition, in a forward-looking AND meaningful way.., i.e. with enlightened confidence.

Hannah Arendt, a philosopher and political thinker of the 20th century, offers a ground to frame the challenges in new terms. She suggests giving more weight to the fact that humans are born beings, and not only mortal ones. Remembering about the infinite improbability of our birth, rather than being focussed on the certainty of our death: she highlights that the durability of the world is due to the recurrence of new beginnings, and that freedom is experienced in beginnings much more than in sovereignty! 

So, let's experience the present as the beginning of something we are giving meaning and shape to. No absolute fear, no blind confidence: engaging with the present and shaping it is the task of the day. The Onlife Initiative aims at contributing to this task!

We used to think of the online world as an add-on to the off-line world. The "gates" to move from offline to online were identifiable. The explosion of the "gates" between off-line and online, through ubiquitous access to the internet for persons and objects and the increasing and distributed processing power, suggests that we adopt the vision of a hyperconnected reality where the distinction between off-line and online has totally faded away. Hence, the challenge is to analyse this hyperconnected, or onlife(?), world as a "new nature" around us.

Let's call literacy the set of skills, understood in a wide sense, which enables the experience of plurality and freedom. In a pre-digital context, literacy is about reading and writing, but it goes much beyond the technical ability and reaches out to the ability to understand, to contextualize and to be persuasive. For example, each of us learn very young and, most often, very painfully, the subtleties of written and oral communication. We all experienced the differences between what we want to say to our mother or to our best friend, or between what we want to say in confidence, and what we want to say loud and clear. When things go wrong, we learn and we adapt, and little by little, we acquire that extended literacy. Literacy is made of a mix of technical, social and ethical skills and considerations. It is also highly evolutive. As put nicely by Siva Vaidhyanathan, in the hyperconnected era, “we are all babies”! Indeed, who is aware of what is accessible to whom when engaging on social networks, browsing on the internet, buying online, walking around with a mobile phone turned on, etc...

Acquiring a digital literacy is a collective and societal endeavour that requires an uptake and “naturalisation” of knowledge and codes, about the different modes of communication in a hyperconnected era, and their consequences for plurality and fredom. It is about adapting common sense, fairness, respect, responsibility, freedom, privacy into the new worldly conditions. Shaping this new version of literacy, which can be called a digital literacy, or a digiteracy, or a digitality, is an emergent and ongoing process and all stakeholders are actively revisiting and reshaping them: there is no monopoly for taking part in such a game.

Trends and Weak Signals

The key transformative drivers are all the developments leading to the blurring between the off-line and online worlds, as we used to know these two worlds and treat them as if they were distinct, i.e. IoT, convergence between fixed and mobile, augmented reality, convergence of linear and non-linear services, cloud computing, "smart" devices, ... .

  • According to the ITU, the percentage of individuals using the internet has grown from 15.8% in 2005 to an estimated 38.8% in 2013
  • The ITU reports that from 2007 to 2013 (estimated), world wired broadband subscriptions increased from 346 million to 696 million
  • ITU also reports that mobile broadband subscriptions increased from 268 million to over 2 billion, and mobile cellular subscriptions increased from 3.4 billion to 6.8 billion
  • The Pew Internet & American Life Project reports that the percentage of internet users in the United States that used social networking sites from 8% in 2005 to 67% in 2012. 
  • Globally, eMarketer estimates that 24% of the world’s population will use social networking sites in 2013, growing to 34% by 2017. 
  • According to the Consumer Electronics Association, as of March 2013, 40% of American adults who use the internet have a computer tablet (e.g. an iPad, Kindle, Nexus 7, etc…), up from 38% in December 2012 and 31% in September 2012.  Overall, the household penetration rate for tablets increased 17% over the previous year.  More broadly, the Pew Internet & American Life Project reports that adult ownership of cell phones has increased from 73% in 2006 to 91% in 2013, while smartphone ownership grew from 35% in 2011 (first year of data) to 56% in 2013.  Tablet ownership has increased from 3% in 2010 to 34% in 2013.
  • According to Cisco IBSG, the number of internet-connected devices will increase from 500 million in 2003 (0.08 per person on the planet) to 50 billion by 2020 (6.58 per person)
  • Cisco Systems forecasts that global data center traffic will increase from 1.8 zettabytes (ZB) in 2011 to 6.6 ZB in 2016, with approximately 2/3 of that coming from cloud computing traffic
  • Research firm IDC expects that global public spending on public IT cloud services will be more than $40 billion in 2012 and should approach $100 billion by 2016, with one of every seven dollars spent on packaged software, server, and storage offerings by 2015 for cloud-based services.
  • Sales of “smart” products is expected to grow from more than $500 billion in 2011 to more than $1 trillion by 2016
  • 50,000 augmented reality (AR) glasses were shipped in 2012, which is expected to rise to 124,000 by the end of 2013, and potentially 10 million by 2016



The results of all brainstormings undergone at the "Ground-breaking Policies for Future Societies" workshop, including this very vision, can be found here.


Policy making is and was about fostering and regulating the online world, as if it was an extension of the offline world. This additive and extensive vision of the coexistence of the online world and the offline world is outdated or will soon be. The challenge -and the opportunity (see below)- is to accompany the emergence of a new literacy in a hyperconnected reality. 

Policy making has a contribution to make in this endeavour, but it would be wrong to believe that policy can deliver such literacy, as it is wrong to believe that policy could prevent risk in an absolute manner. Policy-making, by being aware of the current emergence of new forms of literacy, has to be responsive and add value to the workings of societal intelligence and the ongoing shaping of an emergent digital literacy. 

Transitions are difficult to manage, for at least two reasons:

1. Re-engineering concepts destabilises socio-technical eco-systems, as these have been built according to them. So, stakeholders may find it too risky to engage in such a rethinking and may prefer perpetuating the older frameworks, where their role is clear and which they know best. 

2. There is no ready-made alternative, and the emerging new concept and principles need to grow and be solid enough before being credible candidate for substitution. Calf teeth go away when the new ones are ready... 

  • While internet access has been rapidly spreading it is not universal and the majority of the world’s population still does not access the internet (and the digital life contained therein) on a regular basis
  • Identifying and addressing emergent power resources and power relationships in a truly online-offline merged future
  • Keeping pace with a “literacy” that may undergo persistent change if technology development trends maintain their present trajectories

Acquiring a digital literacy is a huge opportunity to reclaim confidence in the future. It is this collective and societal endeavour that forges knowledge and codes, about the different modes of communication in a hyperconnected era. It is about adapting common sense, fairness, respect, responsibility, freedom, privacy into the new worldly conditions. Shaping this new version of literacy, which can be called a digital literacy, or a digiteracy, or a digitality, is an exciting process. It is about developing tools, not to control the environement, but to be able to navigate within it, i.e. to orient ourselves, individually and collectively. Navigation requires control of the boat, not of the ocean. It also and always requires orientation. And orientation requires knowledge, abilities and tools. 

As Newton, Maxwell, Schrödinger, Einstein formulated laws that were instrumental to understand, and consequently, engage with the "nature" as it was before, i.e. the non-fabricated environment, we are currently expecting those who will formulate the laws that will be instrumental in this new "hyperconnected nature". In the meantime, we'll be in a sort of equivalent position of our ancestors living before Galileo and Newton;-)....This provocative statement aims at suggesting that we should not approach the unknown with fear, but more with the curiosity and an appetite for the forthcoming understanding that will surely come before the reality chooses again to escape;-) The unknown is also the condition for being able to do good things and have pleasant surprises. The unknown is also the space from which new meanings, new visions, and new cultures emerge (In fact the "new" is never or rarely really new, it is itself a reformulation or a reactualisation of eternal notions. The word "eternal" is too strong as it suggests that these notions are absolute and stable, which they are not, but what is meant is that there is an iterative process between what comes from the past and the contextualisation to adapt to the new worldly conditions...)

  • Explore previously impossible social and political arrangements
  • Support the emergence of a genuinely democratic (and undirected) pattern of ethics
  • Provoke the creation of radical new philosophies in response to lives lived seamlessly on and off-line
How will human nature, if it has not significantly changed in several millennia, truly respond to lives in which the lines between off-line and online have faded from view?
How will those populations that are currently disenfranchised and without access to the increasing digitization of life truly fare as online and off-line merge for the affluent world?
What groups in contemporary society stand the most to gain from trying to control the development and evolution of society’s digitization?



Underpinning policy ideas