Digital Humanism: Towards a Technology that Serves Humanity

August 31, 2023

A chance for Europe

While the US still celebrates its “the-winner-takes-it-all” mindset and China continues to monitor its citizens like Big Brother, many countries in Europe (among them Austria) have recently zoomed in on digital humanism.

Barbara Stöttinger, Dean of the WU Executive Academy, and digital economist Martin Giesswein explain why Europe should embrace the opportunity to become a pioneer in the use of new technology that benefits humanity (and not vice versa) and in which way the WU Executive Academy will be able to contribute to this goal.

A human head made of digital dots and polygons
Digital humanism leading the way in the use of new technologies - can Europe be a role model? Photo © shutterstock - Irina Shi

Technologization and the digitalization it has brought in its wake have permeated all spheres of economy and society. A report by the European Investment Bank details how investments in digital business fields have increased in Europe due to the pandemic. As many as 53% of companies in the European Union that had already relied on modern digital technologies further invested in digitalization during the pandemic. And a total of 34% of EU companies that did not use digital technologies before the coronavirus changed the world as we knew it have by now started to invest in digitalization (see EIB survey 2022).

Three Different Approaches to Digitalization

“China, a dyed-in-the-wool surveillance state, has used digital technologies to control society and censor public opinion for a long time now. And in the US, the prevailing mentality is that the winner takes it all, as a result of which business interests in technological progress trump human needs and fundamental rights,” Barbara Stöttinger, Dean of the WU Executive Academy, explains.

“In Europe, on the other hand, we can currently observe the rise of digital humanism, which has sprung from the continent’s tradition of humanist Enlightenment. In this school of thought, technology must serve humanity, never the other way around,” she adds.

The Viennese Tradition of Digital Humanism

Digital expert Martin Giesswein has observed a budding Viennese school of thought that focuses on digital humanism. The city of Vienna has fueled these ambitions by organizing a funding competition. The WU Executive Academy has also made room for the principles of digital humanism in the executive education it offers, raising managers’ awareness of the topic and the need for an ethics-based approach to digitalization.

Barbara Stöttinger Portrait

Barbara Stöttinger

  • Dean of the WU Executive Academy

We not only want to further and discuss digital humanism in a theoretical and philosophical way, we want to make it part of the business practices of companies. For this reason, we are currently working on a concept of a human-centered digital transformation in cooperation with Goodshares as part of a project funded by the Vienna Business Agency – for the benefit of both individuals and organizations.

The following factors and dimensions of entrepreneurial action are considered in digital humanism:

Data Protection and Surveillance

Ever since the General Data Protection Regulation entered into force in 2018, there has been no way around dealing with data protection for European companies. “Here in Austria, people are quite liberal in sharing their personal data. At the same time, European companies have a tendency to overreach in terms of data protection, not least because of the GDPR,” Martin Giesswein says. This development notwithstanding, the digital expert cautions against auctioning off consumer data to tech oligopolies. There is a risk that “these data might get into the hands of US-American and Chinese firms, which, compared to their European counterparts, are far less diligent in handling data.” What’s key here, according to the expert, is “to protect the data sovereignty of the local population and companies and to enable small and medium-sized enterprises to participate in the streams of consumer data instead of leaving them up for grabs for the global tech giants.” Barbara Stöttinger argues in the same vein: “There is no question about the importance of protecting the personal data of consumers.” In this endeavor, digital humanism could even offer a competitive edge: “A variety of stakeholders from politics and the economy will have to intensify their efforts to create a framework that will protect both consumers and employees while simultaneously serving companies by providing innovative and ethically sound business models based on, for example, Web3 and the blockchain.”

Digital Business Models

More and more startups and companies check their existing digital business models against the environmental, social, governmental (ESG) factors developed by the United Nations. ESG rankings were established to give investors an insight into how much a company’s business interests are focused on values such as inclusivity, ecology, and sustainability. Startups and SMEs will also have to pick up speed when it comes to digital business models. “The oligopolies formed by a small number of tech giants such as Google and Meta will stand in the way of economic prosperity for businesses at large,” Martin Giessway says.

Portrait Martin Giesswein

Martin Giesswein

  • Digital expert

And this is where ethically sound business models can make all the difference and create a competitive edge – for instance by saving data in compliance with the GDPR, transferring them via the blockchain in a decentralized and safe way, or developing software as open source so that many people can contribute to its development.

Digital Tools that Serve the People

“We shouldn’t take the easy way out by training machine-savvy people, i.e., streamlining the education of people who operate machines. It’s quite the reverse: We will need machines that support humans in a fair and effective way,” Barbara Stöttinger says. But also for this goal, people are key: “Artificial intelligence can make discriminatory decisions when it is programmed using biased data,” she points out.

Algorithmic bias is one example: MIT researchers Joy Buolamwini and Timnit Gebru found out that face recognition software provided by corporations such as IBM and Microsoft has a much easier time identifying white men than black women. Another example is a hiring algorithm that eliminates promising candidates from a pool of applicants because it has learned that most managers are white men around the age of 35.

Many holographic zeros and ones
Algorithms today are often biased by the data they learn from, making them discriminatory. Photo © pixabay - Gerd Altmann

In 2018, the European Commission’s High-Level Expert Group for Artificial Intelligence published Ethics Guidelines for Trustworthy AI. It states that “AI is not an end in itself” but a promising means to achieve the goals of “enhancing individual and societal well-being and the common good, as well as bringing progress and innovation.”

New technologies such as the blockchain could also make a deliberate contribution to meeting these criteria and enhancing the decentralization and transparency of data streams.

Access to Digital Technologies and Skills

“It’s not necessary for everybody to become a digital expert or data scientist,” Martin Giesswein says. “But it’s certainly important to convey digital skills to all people so that they don’t get lost in the digital economy. Particularly managers absolutely must have a solid grasp of digital methods, digital business models, and digital ethics, which includes ethical ways of processing user data and using fair, unbiased AI,” Barbara Stöttinger explains. She points to the huge untapped potential: “Women account for less than 20 percent of ICT students,” Stöttinger says. She also emphasizes that every citizen needs basic knowledge in this field in order to be able to take responsible decisions. “Many of us don’t treat their personal data very prudently, sharing a great deal of private information on social media. The better we understand how digital mechanisms work, the more we can act as mature citizens,” Martin Giesswein holds. And the same goes for companies and managers: “Particularly universities and business schools have a responsibility to educate and inform people – which requires targeted research and teaching.”


For Martin Giesswein and Barbara Stöttinger, the current developments harbor enormous potential: “Humanism has always been a good instrument to keep capitalism’s antics in check. And digital humanism will do the same for the digital economy’s capitalism.” The WU Executive Academy will also play its part, equipping managers and executives with strategic advice and checklists for the implementation of digital-humanist principles.

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