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What does it mean to be human in the digital age? What do advances in communication technology mean for communication rights and other human rights? “Do we live in a ‘post‐truth’ era?”
These are some of the questions explored in the latest issue of The Ecumenical Review, the quarterly journal of the World Council of Churches (WCC).
Contributors to the issue – titled “The Spirit of Truth in a Digital Age,” include Philip Lee, WACC Global general secretary, whose article analyzes the digital revolution’s impact on communication rights, and the political, economic and cultural challenges imposed by advances in technology at all levels.
In “Communication Rights in a Divided World,” Lee writes that “there are no one-size-fits-all solutions” for digital transformation. But he argues that it “cannot be left to market forces or to a benign vision of a world in which all governments are sufficiently liberal minded to permit dissent and peaceful revolution.” Rather, “Digital transformation must be driven by the needs of peoples and communities who help construct communication and information ecosystems firmly rooted in principles of justice, freedom, equality, and mutual solidarity.” People and communities “must be enabled to reach their own consensuses around their needs and what should be done, and they must be regularly and constructively consulted by those charged with implementing, regulating, and monitoring such ecosystems.”
Pre-digital age “communication rights had to be guaranteed by nation-states and their governments, whose responsibilities included regulating the information and communication industries, notes Lee. “This remains true of the brave new digital world. But a crucial difference is that civil society must now be empowered to review, revise, and consent to such regulation as well as to obtain redress when ICTs are misused or abused.”
In “The Ethical Challenges of the Digital Age,” Heinrich Bedford-Strohm looks at the ethical challenges posed by digital technology on, among other things, data and privacy, algorithms, concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few, the future of work, military defense, and various aspects of being human. Bedford-Sthrohm, who is bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bavaria and president of the council of the Evangelical Church in Germany, offers theological and anthropological reflections and offers some prescriptions on how to deal with these ethical challenges.
“A few powerful companies control the communication of billions of people,” notes Bedford-Strohm. He cites Yuval Noah Harari’s, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, which notes the effect of big data players like Google: “As we increasingly rely on Google for answers, so our ability to search for information by ourselves diminishes. Already today, ‘truth’ is defined by the top results of the Google search.”
Bedford-Strohm notes how changes in Facebook’s algorithms have “an impact on the communication behaviour of billions of people worldwide,” and yet there are “still no effective internationally coordinated rules for transparency and regulation to limit this powerful global market power.” He asks: “How is it that roads and rail are (for good reason) services of general public interest, while the digital infrastructure of the Internet, on which people spend more time each day than in cars and trains, is controlled by a few very powerful agents?”
Other articles in the issue include a reflection on “The Spirit of Truth,” a critique on artificial intelligence and its military, commercial, and industrial application; an exploration of new forms of digital living, and “communication for life in cyberspace.”