The New Digital Wave of Rationalization: A Loss of Autonomy

The New Digital Wave of Rationalization: A Loss of Autonomy

Lambèr Royakkers, Rinie van Est
Copyright: © 2020 |Pages: 16
DOI: 10.4018/IJT.2020010105
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The new wave of digitization and the ensuing cybernetic loop lead to the fact that biological, social, and cognitive processes can be understood in terms of information processes and systems, and thus digitally programmed and controlled. Digital control offers society and the individuals in that society a multitude of opportunities, but also brings new social and ethical challenges. Important public values are at stake, closely linked to fundamental and human rights. This paper focuses on the public value of autonomy, and shows that digitization—by analysis and application of data—can have a profound effect on this value in all sorts of aspects in our lives: in our material, biological, and socio-cultural lives. Since the supervision of autonomy is hardly organized, we need to clarify through reflection and joint debate about what kind of control and human qualities we do not want to lose in the digital future.
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1. Introduction

At the beginning of the twentieth century, social theorist Max Weber (1864–1920) found that the modern Western world had become dominated by a belief in rationality (Weber 1930). Faith in rationalization implies that efficiency, predictability, calculability, and control through substituting technology for human judgment present dominant cultural values. In Weber’s days, belief in efficiency led to the redesign of administrative processes, the factory, airports and cities. These practices were defined in terms of flows that could be designed and mechanized in an integrated manner, so to speak as one ‘great efficient machine’.

Weber discussed rationalization as a double-edged phenomenon. On the one hand, it can have many benefits, such as broader access to cheaper products and services with consistent quality. On the other hand, ‘rational’ systems can possess many irrationalities, such as inefficiency, unpredictability, incalculability and loss of control. For example, too many rules can render bureaucracies inefficient. Max Weber was most concerned about the so-called “iron cage of rationality”, the idea that an emphasis on rationalization can reduce the freedom and choices people have (i.e., loss of autonomy) and lead to instrumentalization of humans (i.e., dehumanization).

Nowadays no aspect of people’s lives is immune to rationalization any more (Ritzer 1983). This expansion has gone hand in hand with the arrival of a new engineering vision of life: life as an information processing system. The founder of cybernetics, Norbert Wiener (1948), described animals and machines alike as information processing systems that always act with a specific goal in mind, then check whether their actions lead to the desired result and adjust their behaviour accordingly. On the one hand, this enables biological, cognitive and social processes to be described in digital terms. On the other hand, it enables the construction of digital machines that deliberately act and display properties that we normally assign to living systems. From this cybernetic perspective living and non-living nature thus appears as uniform and universally calculable, and controllable as such. This digital control paradigm laid the symbolic basis for engineering the information revolution and has led to the rationalization of each aspect of our lives.

At the moment, digitization is accomplished by a new wave of digital technologies, such as robotics, Internet-of-Things (IoT), biometry, persuasive technology, and digital platforms (Royakkers et al. 2018). Digitization is ubiquitous in our society, and penetrates every aspect of our lives: the technology nestles itself in us (for example, through brain implants), between us (through social media like Facebook), knows more and more about us (via big data and techniques such as emotion recognition), and is continually learning to behave more like us (robots and software exhibit intelligent behaviour and can mimic emotions). Van Est (2014) referred to this as the intimate technological revolution.

When we understand digitization as rationalization, we can recognize it as a double-edged phenomenon. In the footsteps of Weber we are concerned about the so-called “digital or cybernetic cage of rationality”, the idea that digitization as rationalization can undermine human flourishing. According to Nussbaum (1999, 41), human flourishing depends on basic human rights (such as bodily integrity, freedom of speech and the right to affiliation), and requires human capabilities, such as senses, imagination, and thought (for example, “being able to use the senses; being able to imagine, to think, and to reason – and to do these things in a ‘truly human’ way”) and emotions (for example, “being able to have attachments to things and persons outside ourselves; being able to love those who love and care for us”).

This article deals with the existential concern that digitization might cause loss of human autonomy. Autonomy refers to the ability to have control over your own life and decisions: to set goals in life and choose the means of achieving them. The loss of autonomy can happen when digitization as rationalization overshoots its mark and leads to socio-technical systems that become anti-human or even destructive to humans.

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