Citizenship in a Networked Age: An Agenda for Rebuilding Our Civic Ideals | University of Oxford

Citizenship in a Networked Age: An Agenda for Rebuilding Our Civic Ideals

1 June 2020

An interdisciplinary team of academics based in the Department of Materials at the University of Oxford have launched a new report called: ‘Citizenship in a Networked Age: An Agenda for Rebuilding Our Civic Ideals’. The report aims to provide fresh thinking and a robust account of what it means to be a good citizen in a digital, AI age.

The authors argue that as we are finding in the current circumstances, digital technologies can help us communicate and carry out tasks together, but the danger is that in focusing on connectedness they increase the remoteness of our moral decision-making. While efficiency is important, there is a clear differentiation between the goals of machines and those of humans for whom a broader sense of human flourishing and the "moral whole" of the human community creates meaning, purpose and a sense of the common good. 

The report aims to open debate on the civic virtues that can guide humans in the networked age and concludes with seven key recommendations:

  1. Identify and protect human uniqueness for moral decision-making
  2. Nurture the complementary skills of humans and machines for collective decision-making
  3. Engage in consensus-building about civic ideals for a networked age
  4. Teach listening as a civic virtue
  5. Maintain distance between thoughts and speech
  6. Promote the value of privacy for personal moral development
  7. Revalue democracy in terms of the ability to bring about social unity and trust

The researchers conclude that these recommendations require strong collaboration between industry, government and citizens.

Professor Andrew Briggs who led the project holds the Chair in Nanomaterials at Oxford University and was inspired to look at the implications for human flourishing of developments in digital technologies and artificial intelligence by the machine learning he uses in his own laboratory for experiments.

Lead author of the report Dr Dominic Burbidge at Oxford University says: ‘We are at a critical stage of greatly needing democratic input into the sorts of technological changes and solutions being put to our current challenges. This input is needed not just in terms of providing legitimacy to current solutions, but in terms of improving the solutions themselves. We believe there is a unique capacity for moral reasoning in every human being which makes citizen involvement in decision-making both necessary and enhancing.’

The researchers stress that without common understandings of civic virtues that guide us through changes in society, a technocratic approach emerges that justifies practices on the basis of results only. They argue that while these are important, they dry-up in the long term if moral debate does not happen alongside technological innovation: good results come about when there are good reasons motivating their pursuit.

Professor Andrew Briggs says: ‘We need robust discussion of our civic virtues—the habits and practices that both bind us together as a supportive community and direct us towards the common good. In our research we found that the foremost civic virtue in need right now is listening well - a practice that has received precious little analysis in the social sciences and yet on which much of our togetherness depends. Current technological advances often split-up and divide our attention span, making the giving of undivided attention to others a precious resource.’

Professor Sir Paul Collier, Oxford Blavatnik School of Government, author of The Future of Capitalism, says: ‘Commercially-driven new technology has plunged us into a networked world that has huge implications for our societies. Public policy has been slow to react and people are understandably anxious. We urgently need advice based on scientific knowledge and impartial judgment, and with this report we have it.’

Find out more about the project, the report and upcoming virtual events here: www.citizenshipinanetworkedage.org

For more information, to request a copy of the report or to speak to its authors, please contact the University of Oxford press office at news.office@admin.ox.ac.uk

Notes to editors

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