Autonomy in the Digital Age: Rethinking Relationships between Humans, Technology and Society

Autonomy Conference 2022
© University of Bonn

20. - 22.11.2022 | University of Bonn

An international Conference of the Research Group “Autonomy and autonomous Systems” of the Universities Bonn & RWTH Aachen

Autonomy, originally a core concept of the Enlightenment epitomizing aspirations of modernity, has become one of the central and particularly high-profile concepts in debates on digital transformations.

The discourse figures of this debate mostly comprise a polarizing perspective that oscillates between the restrictive or dangerously uncontrollable effect of digital technologies, such as facial recognition, surveillance or 'autonomous weapons' and the liberating, autonomy-enhancing function ('smart home', 'assisted living'). Contexts of application include e.g. administration, military and police, social and health-related services, medicine and education, and not to forget, the digital economy with its diverse challenges regarding the future of work. Today, in times of digitalization, datafication, and an increasing influx of artificial intelligence into many sectors of society, the concept of autonomy needs re-definition and reflection under contemporary technological conditions.

Our starting point for the reflections on understanding of autonomy in the digital age is a conceptual sensitivity that asserts the possibility of autonomy for both personal-subjective and collective-social relations. On both levels, conditions for autonomy are subject to rapid change. Outlining the distinction between autonomous and automatic systems, different degrees of autonomy can be distinguished - from weak forms, in which it is a matter of gradual absence of external control, to strong forms, in which the respective 'autonomous' entity is able to set its own laws (rules).

With the development of Artificial Intelligence (AI) systems and the increasing use of robots in everyday life technological transformations have come along with social changes and new conflicts. Questions of privacy and data use, the future of work or the subsequent dawn of a 'post-capitalist' society, as well as the discussions about the consequences of autonomously acting combat robots and the ethical regulation of warfare are just a few examples of the present challenges and those still to come. Meanwhile, discourses of technological autonomy address an array of issues concerning the future of democracy. Global digital dependencies, the delegation of authoritative power and the rise of global platform companies challenge the political autonomy of democratic states and their technological sovereignty. On a cultural level, the integration of autonomous systems into society launches a discussion about a technologically induced crisis of humanist values and question the ideals of the enlightenment for today’s socio-technical practices. Studies related to trans- or posthumanism construe technologies as an opportunity to improve or even overcome the human condition. Visions of human enhancement, virtuality, cyborg-societies mingling with autonomous machines and artificial superintelligence might sound utopian today, but perhaps not anymore tomorrow. The reasoning in both optimistic assumption and skeptical anticipation illustrates the urgency of re-defining not just our idea of personal autonomy within the digital, and datafied society but also the need to theorize and analyze new forms of autonomy to understand the next phase of digital society. Interdisciplinary research on the concept of autonomy is needed in order to substantiate our normative, functional, and epistemic claims on the development of the relationship between humans and technology in the future.

The conference “Autonomy in the Digital Age: Rethinking Relationships between Humans, Technology, and Society” aims to encourage a conversation among all disciplines interested in issues concerning ‘Autonomy and Technology’, allowing for diverse and interdisciplinary perspectives. We intend to explore the significance of autonomous living in our digital societies, to question the humanist concept of autonomy itself in our technological reality and to analyse the implications of our interaction with (semi)autonomous systems.


Keynote Speakers

Prof.Dr. Lucy Suchman
University of Lancaster, England
Research: Anthropology in Science and Technology Studies, Cultural imaginaries, Material practice

Prof. Dr. em. Karin Knorr Cetina
University of Constance, University of Chicago
Research: Sociology of Finance, post-social theory, epistemic cultures, globalization

Prof. Dr. Abraham Newman
Georgetown University, USA, School of Foreign Service and Department of Government
Research: Economic interdependence, Globalization, International Politics


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