Rafael Capurro

Keynote paper at the conference:
International Policy Dialogue on IFAP Priority Areas in the BRICS countries, organized by UNESCO/IFAP and the University of Pretoria, African Centre of Excellence for Information Ethics (ACEIE), Cape Town, South Africa, July 4-8, 2018 (Power Point).
See detailed information here.

Published in: Digital Futures. A brief essay on sustainable life in the digital age. In: Mètode. Universitat de València, Science Studies Journal, Vol. 10, Annual Review 2020, 59-63 (DOI: 10.7203/metode.10.125.39.

Published in Spanish
Futuros digitales. Breve ensayo sobre la vida sostenible en la era digital.  En: Mètode Science Studies Journal Universitat de València, Núm. 102, Vol. 3 (2019), 33-37.


This paper deals with digital futures of public and private life from an ethical perspective. Facing technological challenges creates the need for critical reflection and political action, a need that arises when the interests and ambitions of public and private players collide with an ethical vision of a holistically just and fair global society as well as in interaction with individual societies. Dystopian phenomena such as digital surveillance, misuse of personal data and different kinds of digital addiction in everyday life are symptoms that call for a thorough ethical analysis. Information ethics is a catalyst of critical discourse on these issues in the media, research institutions and the parliament.



Facing digital futures does not mean that everything that can be digitized has per se a higher degree of rationality and social goodness and that therefore digitization should be considered as the royal road for better public and private life. There is no historical determinism that would impose on individuals and societies the obligation to digitize their lives without considering pros and cons and making a difference between themselves and their digital persona. The ethical challenge consists in unveiling digital options for the res publica, or the political space, with its institutions and processes as well as for civil society, or res privata. As the US computer scientist Terry Winograd and the Chilean engineer, entrepreneur and politician Fernando Flores put it in their 1986 foundational book Understanding Computers and Cognition: "in designing tools we are designing ways of being" (1, xi). All technology arises within cultural traditions, within historical, geographical and ecological settings. Technologies provide answers to problems faced by society in search of a better life, enlarging the freedom of its members within the premises of political liberty. Societal freedom and political liberty are based on an equitable access to information resources, educational institutions, labour opportunities and, last but not least, to positions of political responsibility in the res publica. Information ethics can be a catalyst for critical discourse and political action on these issues in both areas.

Information technology is, at a foundational level, grounded in cultures and customs as well as in the spirit of the age. When facing technological challenges, the need for critical reflection arises when the interests and ambitions of public and private agents collide with an ethical vision of a holistically just and fair global society. Ethics, being at the core of an interdisciplinary discourse, aims at analyzing and evaluating the goals, values and rules of public and private agents, particularly on issues dealing with justice and prospects of the good life. Ethics can help unmask our technological obsessions, obsessions that often take the shape of an ersatz religion. What follows is an attempt to reconcile the tension between digital life, or onlife, and its counterpart offlife. Dystopian onlife phenomena such as digital surveillance, misuse of personal data and different kinds of digital addiction in everyday life are symptoms that call for a thorough ethical, legal and political analysis.




Political organization of the Res Publica, particularly of its governmental, legal and administrative bodies, often utilizes a top-down approach with the state becoming entangled with private agents in what Dwight D. Eisenhower in his 1961 speech called "the military-industrial complex" (2). In the present age, considerations of digital technology must be added to this technocratic complex in which the state has the power to either guarantee equality of access to digital information and communication or use it for societal control. Where society relies on private agents within a free-market neo-liberal economy, private companies will choose either to act as a fair and ethical player within established social structures or they will choose to profit off available data in detriment to the privacy and informed consent of individual citizens as well as national and international legal rules and agreements. In both cases, the centralized top-down welfare state and the bottom-up liberal model based on the private initiative can be liberating as well as oppressing. Between these two possibilities there are different ways by which interests and objectives are entangled, including or excluding different societal agents within a state as well as between states and larger political international bodies and global private companies. In liberal as well as in top-down organized societies, the power of private companies can be dystopian if they become instruments of state power. Algorithms can be a mask of social oppression, surveillance and manipulation by state and/or private agents but they can also open possibilities for society to become more just if national and international rules of fair play are set up and applied. This is the reason why a basic international agreement on rules and values concerning the internet is needed as was stated already in the documents issued by the World Summit of the Information Society (WSIS) in 2003 and 2005. Societies must think also in localized terms about how to develop a better life for less advantaged individuals and groups, about the protection of individual and social privacy, and as well, the contribution of information technology for the protection of the environment and cultural heritage.

In order to accomplish these tasks, it is crucial that not only is free access to information for all guaranteed but also that citizens are free to express their own opinions on issues of private and public life by respecting the law as well as basic standards of civility. The right to communicate in different formats, including one-to-one, one-to-many, many-to-one and many-to-many must become a human right, particularly in the digital age. However, such a right is endangered by different forms of censorship and surveillance. Public policy must take the lead in order to implement measures that guarantee the privacy of citizens as well as public digital spaces in which citizens do not fear that their data is being misused. Such policy must be applied to both corporations and governments, and at an international level to ensure other countries are not transferring the data of millions of citizens to marketing companies without any knowledge and consent of their citizens. In addition, such interventions must be transparent. Policy made in secrecy can lead to different forms of public and private corruption.

The search for what is good for the whole of society should not rely mainly upon philanthropic projects, as legitimate and important as such projects are towards the free contribution of civil society to the common good.

Nevertheless, it is society itself as a whole, represented and governed by democratically legitimated institutions and processes, whose goals are open to public scrutiny by free media as well as by a free and fair interaction of the members of civil society, that leads and maintains the public dialogue, being always in search of what is good for common life. The fragility of human life and its fundamental openness to the unforeseen put into question any kind of unquestionable social utopias, as much as such utopian metaphors play an important role in art and literature by unveiling structures and situations of oppression and injustice. Constitutions and basic laws aiming to provide a fundament for the good life for society as a whole are rooted in traditions as well as in historical experiences. These traditions and historical experiences include felicitous moments of great achievements in the arts, science and culture. But they also include processes of decay, self-destruction and murderous wars and ideologies of exclusion and annihilation of other human beings because of their race, language, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, political orientation or social status.



The vision of common values for all societies is at best enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well in other international declarations issued particularly by UNESCO such as those dealing with cultural heritage, multilingualism and universal access to Cyberspace, and the preservation of digital heritage, to mention just a few.  UNESCO has been promoting international and regional conferences on information ethics since 1995. Among them, I would like to highlight in particular, the first African Information Ethics Conference that took place in 2007, a conference jointly organized by the University of Pretoria, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the International Center for Information Ethics, sponsored by the South African Government and under the patronage of UNESCO. One of the outstanding outcomes of the conference was the Tshwane Declaration of Information Ethics in Africa, from which I quote:

"All people have equal rights as set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. To exercise their human rights people need and should have access to information as well as the ability to benefit from it.

Information should be recognized as a tool for promoting the goals of freedom, democracy, understanding, global security, peace and development and should be used as such.

Information should be made available, accessible and affordable across all linguistic groups, gender, differently abled, elderly and all cultural and income groups.

World-wide, the centrality of information is manifested as nations move towards Information and Knowledge Societies. To make the global Millennium development goals a reality, Africa should be a key player in this movement.

Policies and practices regarding the generation, dissemination and utilisation of information in and about Africa should be grounded in an Ethics based on universal human values, human rights and social justice 

Indigenous knowledge and cultural diversity is a valuable contribution Africa can make to the global Information Society. It should be preserved, fostered and enabled to enrich the world body of knowledge." (3)

A basic issue of digital futures concerns the development of digital identity as a basis for participation in public and private matters of social life. Its relevance has been recognized and promoted by the ID4Africa movement, co-founded by Joseph J. Atick in 2014, whose aim is “to promote legal identity for all in Africa (consistent with Sustainable Development Goal 16.9) and to empower individuals to claim their rights and to benefit from the fruits of development." (4). In order for digital identity to be a tool for empowering people and not for their surveillance and manipulation it is essential to provide it technical and legal protection from misuse by any kind of private or public agent.

Today's information societies are in many regards disinformation societies where lies, fake news, and misinformation of all kind are perpetually sent and received around the globe. It can be said that such was already the case in all societies. In fact, the ethical and legal issues brought about by the invention of writing, and later on of printing, were no less ambivalent for human communication. However, new and emerging technologies can change human life at a foundational level, marking substantial differences in social life, differences that have become apparent with each new technological invention. It is in this basic sense that it can be said that technologies are not neutral, although it is no less true that they can be considered as having the possibility of a dual use. Digital technology has changed the structure of human communication at a global level and brought about possibilities of social action that are unprecedented. At the same time, disruptive possibilities are apparent and give rise not only to an academic debate which started some seventy years ago – the mathematician Norbert Wiener published his "The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society" in 1950 (5) – but also to a broad social and political discussion on ethical issues that has reached mass media and the Res Publica with the creation of ministries of digital affairs.

This discussion concerns not only the debate on the possible use or misuse of digital technologies but also on how far we – but who is meant by 'we' ? – want these technologies to infuse our private and public life and, in fact, our bodies. In order for this discussion to be productive it is crucial that we as individuals and as society pay attention to the difference between onlife and offlife in the public as well as in the private realm 

Mounting obsessions with digital technologies leads to all kinds of addictions and different forms of oppression and exploitation, particularly in the working world but also in the educational and family environment. Learning to live in the digital era is not an easy task and should not be relegated to the marketing departments of private companies or to quick decision making of politicians. The more digital devices are intertwined with our lives and our bodies, the more we must learn to take a temporary or local distance from them in some places and situations. This is an important task for educators no less than for parents. We can learn from the history of other technologies such as, for instance, cars. The more we transform our cities into car friendly cities the more we became aware that cities are a complex habitat whose core are people, not cars. This is becoming more and more apparent with the increasing creation of pedestrian areas and the development of infrastructure for mass public transport on one hand and on the other hand, the use of less impactful individual means of transport, such as bicycles. Face-to-face and interface communication is not an either-or alternative but a difference that must be perceived and integrated into everyday life. Issues arising from digital futures are optional, open to free weighting based on different kinds of values that are context dependent (6). This makes apparent the responsibility of governments to provide digital spaces of public communication instead of relying alone on private entrepreneurs. Communication is the bond of human society and should therefore be an issue of the Res Publica Digitalis. This is evident in the case of non-digital spaces as spaces of public transportation and relaxation in our cities.


Dealing ethically with digital futures means to face an open field of possibilities that are unveiled when we are open and free to think about them instead of following hypes and marketing slogans of the IT industry. The capacity and the right to say 'yes' or 'no' must be cultivated and legally guaranteed not only with regard to oneself but also and originally to all kinds of social interactions where possible and in many cases should also take care of the welfare of others, particularly of those that need our support in different areas and situations, permanently or temporarily. Facing digital futures, we must be able to imagine different forms of public and private life in specific cultural contexts in which the life-work balance is perceived with regard to the possibilities and constraints inherent in digital technology. From this perspective, digital enlightenment has a double meaning: it addresses, on the one hand, what is called digital literacy, that is to say, the task of empowering people in their knowledge and use of digital devices. It might be more useful to talk about digital literacies (plural) since there are different contexts in which digital devices are used or might be developed for becoming more useful for the people. On the other hand, digital enlightenment means a critical appraisal of the digital as such not only with regard to issues related to possible misuses but also to the possibilities of not using this or that device at all, either permanently or from time to time.




1. Winograd, Terry and Flores, Fernando (1986). Understanding Computers and Cognition. A New Foundation for Design. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

2. Eisenhower, Dwight D. (1961). Military-Industrial Complex Speech.
Available at:

3. Tshwane Declaration on Information Ethics in Africa (2007).
Available at:

4. ID4Africa.
Available at:

5. Wiener, Norbert (1989). The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society. London: Free Association Books (1st. ed. Boston, 1950).

6. Nissenbaum, Helen (2010). Privacy in Context. Technology, Policy, and the Integrity of Social Life. Stanford: Stanford University Press.


The author thanks Christopher Coenen (Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Germany) and Jared Bielby (Chair, International Center for Information Ethics, Canada) for critical remarks and polishing the English.

Last update: July 9, 2018


Copyright © 2018 by Rafael Capurro, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. and international copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the author is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the author.


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