Tending the Digital Commons: A Small Ethics toward the Future

Alan Jacobs at the Hedgehog Review: “Facebook is unlikely to shut down tomorrow; nor is Twitter, or Instagram, or any other major social network. But they could. And it would be a good exercise to reflect on the fact that, should any or all of them disappear, no user would have any legal or practical recourse….In the years since I became fully aware of the vulnerability of what the Internet likes to call my “content,” I have made some changes in how I live online. But I have also become increasingly convinced that this vulnerability raises wide-ranging questions that ought to be of general concern. Those of us who live much of our lives online are not faced here simply with matters of intellectual property; we need to confront significant choices about the world we will hand down to those who come after us. The complexities of social media ought to prompt deep reflection on what we all owe to the future, and how we might discharge this debt.

A New Kind of Responsibility

Hans Jonas was a German-born scholar who taught for many years at the New School for Social Research in New York City. He is best known for his 1958 book The Gnostic Religion, a pathbreaking study of Gnosticism that is still very much worth reading. Jonas was a philosopher whose interest in Gnosticism arose from certain questions raised by his mentor Martin Heidegger. Relatively late in his career, though he had repudiated Heidegger many years earlier for his Nazi sympathies, Jonas took up Heidegger’s interest in technology in an intriguing and important book called The Imperative of Responsibility….

What is required of a new ethics adequate to the challenge posed by our own technological powers? Jonas argues that the first priority is an expansion and complication of the notion of responsibility. Unlike our predecessors, we need always to be conscious of the effects of our actions on people we have never met and will never meet, because they are so far removed from us in space and time. Democratically elected governments can to some degree adapt to spatially extended responsibility, because our communications technologies link people who cannot meet face-to-face. But the chasm of time is far more difficult to overcome, and indeed our governments (democratic or otherwise) are all structured in such a way that the whole of their attention goes to the demands of the present, with scarcely a thought to be spared for the future. For Jonas, one of the questions we must face is this “What force shall represent the future in the present?”

I want to reflect on Jonas’s challenge in relation to our digital technologies. And though this may seem remote from the emphasis on care for the natural world that Jonas came to be associated with, there is actually a common theme concerning our experiences within and responsibility for certain environmental conditions. What forces, not in natural ecology but in media ecology, can best represent the future in the present?…(More)”.