The aim of the Forum was to explore how recent technologies can be used (and have been used) to influence our behaviour in ways that bypass our capacity to deliberate as autonomous agents. This is the case both in relation to exercises of individual autonomous agency (for example, when particular software tracks our behaviour and directs us to make certain purchases or adopt a certain lifestyle) and in relation to exercises of collective agency (a recent example is the Russian interference in a number of elections via the use of bots and fake social media accounts). To explore this issue, Professor Massimo Renzo brought together a group of legal and political philosophers as well as experts in computer science and communication who are doing cutting edge work in this area.
The forum started with a panel devoted to Communication and Free-Speech. Siva Vaidhyanathan addressed the question of how the problem of free speech is best understood. Instead of worrying about increasing the amount of speech, the real challenge we are facing,Professor Vaidhyanathan argued, is how to discriminate among speakers and subjects so that citizens may govern themselves and make good decisions about their lives. James Williams then suggested that the capacity to understand and guide novel forms of technological influence depends on the capacity to make clear distinctions between different forms of influence for which we currently lack an adequate vocabulary. Finally, Onora O’Neill examined the difficulty of identifying institutionally robust ways of enforcing standards for digitally transmitted content, particularly in light of the declining regulatory capacities of states. The second panel was dedicated to the effects that new technologies can have on our sense of the self. Brett Frischmann examined the potentially dehumanizing effects that certain technologies can produce, whereas Thomas Douglas explored the possibility of a “right to mental integrity”, whose function is to protect us against the technological manipulation of our minds. Finally, the third panel was dedicated to issues concerning the global order, with Samantha Bradshaw examining how governments and political parties exploit the algorithms and advertising infrastructure of social media platforms to spread disinformation and target users with propaganda and Scott Shapiro considering the question of whether cyber-attacks that do not have destructive kinetic effects, but manipulate and distort the political process of a country, can count as an act of war. Each session was followed by a stimulating discussion with an engaged audience.
All the images from the event are located here on Flickr.
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