Self-Determination in a Networked Society

AlgorithmWatch co-founder Lorena Jaume-Palasí attended the Digital Future Science Match 2018 on May 14 and gave a talk on self-determination in the digital era. This is an edited version of her speech.


6 August 2018

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Digital Future Science Match 2018

Self-Determination in a Networked Society

Self-determination in the networked society is a concept that needs to be defined. Well-known in the German discussion about data protection and privacy, the meaning is not as clear as it seems to be. In general, the terms self-determination or autonomy refer to the idea of self-governance.

To be able to attribute responsibility is a pillar of Immanuel Kant’s ethical theory and a prerequisite to moral agency. Autonomy is the capacity of the individual to have control over her own actions. Having control over one’s own actions requires being able to give reasons for one’s behavior and behaving rationally. In order to ascertain individual autonomy, beliefs, reasons and actions of a human being are evaluated dependent on their coherence. If I state that I’m a vegetarian but eat meat even though there are vegetarian alternatives available, I am not behaving coherently. Rationality in this case is not about the rational content of a belief, but a procedural rationality connecting believes with actions.

Autonomy, however, has additional prerequisites, since it depends on external factors. My autonomy exists next to the legitimate right to autonomy of the others: The exertion of my human right to autonomy – for instance by wanting to marry Mr. X, depends on the human right to autonomy of Mr. X.

But the idea of autonomy and the parameters of autonomy cannot exist without the morals and norms of society. It may seem paradoxical but externally imposed rules and principles – heteronomy – set the frame(work) for a self-determined individual. Language is the vehicle to mediate between our autonomy, the autonomy of others and societal rules.

Autonomy is a relational concept and can only exist in a society: The Alaskan trapper1 living like a hermit alone in the woods has no ethical conflict with other human beings. She does not need a language to communicate, since she has no one to communicate with. In the trapper’s world there is no societal heteronomy. The only rules she knows are her own, there’s no friction with the autonomy and will of others, no checks and balances necessary to evaluate the rationality and moral goodness of her rules. In that world autonomy loses its meaning.

So autonomy requires heteronomy and frictions with the autonomy of the others – it is a concept about will and the different angles and wills in a society.

In the networked society a different concept is being used as the digital equivalent: Informational autonomy or self-determination – the right of governing “our data” as the way to decide about our privacy and public preferences and act self-determined in the digital space.

So what does that mean, to govern my data? What is data? And what is meant by ‘my data’?

In the networked society, data is the technical aspect of communication. When we communicate in the digital world, we generate and process data. That data is not “my data”, it is “data about me”. And this is the point where the fundamental flaw of the concept of informational self-determination becomes apparent.

It confuses the categories: Autonomy is about the will. Autonomy is not about controlling communication, which is the medium with which wills are formulated and mediated. Claiming self-determination over data is like claiming sole control over a spoken language. I cannot claim sole control over the English language merely because I am using it. The English language belongs to all its speakers. It is produced in a joint effort.

When trying to base the concept of autonomy on data self-governance, we attempt to intervene in the part of the process that is about balancing the own will with the societal framework and the wills of the others. Thus, we disrupt the dynamics of autonomy at the core: We ban friction with other wills, we open the door to moral relativism and risk becoming a society of lonely Alaskan trappers where wills can only collide.

Let us lift the curtain of technology and put the human in the center: Autonomy is not about governing data, it is about balancing one’s own will with the will of others and the rules of society in a just, ethical manner.

1 Man alone in nature is a theme strongly represented in literature and film. From Henry Thoreau's Walden to the film Into the Wild - the man follows his path in the forest, alone and independent. The woman is in society, trying to restrain him and bring him back. In this stylized story, it is omitted that there have always been women who have retreated into the solitude of the wilderness. The fur trade of the 19th century is often described as a purely male field. But there were also female trappers, such as Kate Rice, shown on the cover picture, who opened up mines and lived as a trapper in Canada in the 19th/20th century. An earlier example are the Christian-ascetic Desert Mothers who lived in the Egyptian desert in the 4th/5th century. In the Middle Ages, going into solitude, whether as a clergywoman or as an herbalist, was one of various ways for women to escape marriage and gain control of their own bodies. Even today, there are modern hermits who have given up contact with society altogether.