ICT law, tech & comms, cyber law – we find many names for those we love. The digitization era is here and we all know it needs to be dealt with. For some, it is a revelation of what efficiency truly looks and feels like, for other it’s, well, hell. Nonetheless, digitization itself raises important questions about what it means to be human, and more so what it does to our very bodies. For GC’s, business lawyers, and other practitioners, different jurisprudential theories and perspectives have pretty much nothing to do with the practical operation of a business, and even less with one’s daily work. AI, e-signing, and other forms of digitization are up-and-coming tools, but nothing more than precisely that – tools. Or is it?
When Hamlet famously asked himself what it meant to be alive, philosopher George Berkeley came to his own conclusion by stating “to be is to be perceived”. This quite anthropological point of view was further cemented when Immanuel Kant introduced his knowledge theory and his pair of concepts, a priori/a posteriori (conclusions that are independent from experience and those that aren’t). This epistemological perspective has long since deeply formed our way of Western thinking with regards to both natural and social sciences, such as law. Kant’s knowledge theory somehow transformed into a one-way-ticket towards the postmodernist thinking that has truly shaped the way we perceive knowledge and experience today.
Applying a postmodernist thought model when talking about digitization would (quite briefly) mean that AI and the technical solutions we produce are nothing more than results of our human existence. We can safely separate us from them and them from us. This way of thinking, that entities exist only in relation and as a result to either our human consciousness or our human language (“I think, therefore I am”-kind of style), has lately been loosely known as correlationism. Without thinking, there is no being, and without being, there is no thinking. And as we all are pretty much raised in a society marked by Kantian and postmodernist thinking, we have come to accept a very human-centered state of mind. We are our consciousness, and as our consciousness is the gateway to the world around us, the world depends on us, and not the other way around.
But can a body be just a body? Is it possible to separate ourselves from our surroundings?
One new up and coming trend among legal nerds is the so called speculative turn (a bit of a wink to the much more famous “linguistic turn”). Thinkers identifying with this trend take all these questions to the next level, arguing that we should stop altogether putting the human body/consciousness in the center of all things. Some speculative realists, especially those drawn to a way of thinking known as object-oriented ontology, mean that We Are All Objects, and what separates us (without saying that we are independent from each other) from everything around us, is the difference we make. And everything makes a difference – from your very existence to the way you place your phone on the table compared to the way you didn’t place your phone on the table. Everything is different compared to everything else, and that difference is everything.
So, what could this possibly have to do with digitization?
What happens when we manage digital personal data? Are we managing information separate from ourselves, making no impact on who we are? Or are we perhaps working with issues that transform our very being? Thanks, or because of, digitization, our bodies no longer stop at the end of our fingertips. Your phone tracks every step you take, what you eat, where you go, what kind of music you like. Your glasses give you the ability to see; your pacemaker keeps your heart pumping. The distinction between us vs. our environment is continuously being dissolved, and we transform, change, evolve. Looking at digitization from a speculative realist perspective, we can both draw the conclusion that objects ontologically exist beyond our own cognition, and that they indeed affect us just as much as we affect them. It is important knowing, living the way we do, that it’s not only society that is being transformed, but that we too as humans are being formed and shaped in a truly fundamental way.