Digital Freedom

Optimal Freedom in a Digital World

Digital Freedom is a project started by TechPhil and collaborators in 2022

Project Summary

While social media has had some very positive effects, like connectivity and efficiency, technology-ethicists have also pointed to the many negative consequences. For example, the freedom of individuals is threatened in many ways, e.g. through intensifying surveillance, manipulation, misinformation, social pressure, and addiction. Whole societies have experienced fragmentation and polarization as a result of bias, echo chambers, fake news, and trolling. Many of these new challenges from social media can be understood as threatening the balance which is necessary between a person’s autonomy and their sense of belonging. People require both individual freedom – to develop their unique identities and shape their own lives – and a degree of integration into groups both small and large. This balance is easily upset: there can be too much autonomy when people fail to respect common norms or feel alienated from a society that has become fragmented, just as there can be too much pressure, surveillance, regulation, and assimilation such that people’s freedom as individuals is undermined. Striking a healthy balance between autonomy and belonging can serve to not only provide people with the opportunities necessary for developing good lives in good societies, but also to mitigate extremism and conflict. In this project we bring together research from the fields of philosophy, media studies and ethics. The procedure will be to develop a philosophical framework outlining the conditions for what we call «optimal freedom». This framework can then be used as a basis for a study regarding how social media has changed the conditions for optimal freedom. This, in turn, will enable us to reach the primary objective of making concrete suggestions for policy makers, technology developers and individuals regarding how technology can best enhance optimal freedom.

Project Objectives

Digital Freedom is an interdisciplinary research project analyzing the consequences of social media for autonomy and belonging at both micro and macro levels of society. In particular, we aim to determine the best possible balance between autonomy and belonging, which we call “optimal freedom”. The primary objective of the project is to make concrete suggestions for policymakers, technology developers and individuals for how social media can be used to enhance optimal freedom. This objective will be reached through the secondary objectives which are: 1) to develop an analytical theoretical framework outlining the conditions for optimal freedom; 2) to do a media study on how social media has changed the conditions for optimal freedom.

Project Advisory Board

Amanda Lagerkvist – Professor of Media and Communication Studies at Uppsala University and a founder of existential media studies. Her work explores digital/human vulnerabilities in light of existential philosophy, focusing empirically on death online, digital memories, and on increased automation of human life and the Earth. She heads the BioMe project, which explores existential and ethical challenges of biometric AI within the human lifeworld.

Shannon Vallor is 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, where she is also Professor in the Department of Philosophy. Her research explores how emerging technologies reshape human moral and intellectual character, and maps the ethical challenges and opportunities posed by new uses of data and artificial intelligence. Vallor is a former Visiting Researcher and AI Ethicist at Google. She is the author of Technology and the Virtues: A Philosophical Guide to a Future Worth Wanting (OUP, 2016) and editor of the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Technology (OUP, 2022). She won the 2015 World Technology Award in Ethics from the World Technology Network.

Mark Coeckelbergh is Professor of Philosophy of Media and Technology at the University of Vienna. He is former President of the Society for Philosophy and Technology and a member of the High Level Expert Group on Artificial Intelligence for the European Commission. He is a member of the editorial boards of the journals AI and Ethics; Science and Engineering Ethics; The AI Ethics Journal; Techné; Journal of Information, Communication and Ethics in Society; and many more, in addition to being Associate Editor of AI & Society. His publications include Human Being @ Risk (2013), New Romantic Cyborgs (2017), Introduction to Philosophy of Technology (2019), AI Ethics (2020), and the highly relevant forthcoming books The Political Philosophy of AI: An Introduction and Self-Improvement: Technologies of the Soul in the Age of Artificial Intelligence.

Charles Blattberg is Professor of Political Philosophy at the University of Montréal. A former student of both Isaiah Berlin and Charles Taylor, Blattberg has for many years been publishing books and papers that focus on a number of the themes relevant to this research project, such as liberty as authenticity and the politics of recognition. Blattberg will especially contribute to the project with his expertise on Charles Taylor and political philosophy.