Digitalization and its ramifications require more academic knowledge
Digitalization affects people and society and has even changed us. Collecting and processing large information files benefit society, but it also has its downsides, for instance, for security, privacy, and the climate. And yet our society is insufficiently equipped for these rapid developments. The theme of the Opening of the Academic Year in Tilburg is digitalization. Dean Boudewijn Haverkort of the Tilburg School of Humanities and Digital Sciences explains what is possible thanks to digitalization, what we should be doing to control it, and what could be the university’s role.
Opening Academic Year 2023/2024
The Art of Digitalization. That was the theme of the Opening of the Academic Year 2023-2024 at Tilburg University in the Auditorium on Monday, September 4, 2023. All students and staff of Tilburg University were invited.
Did you know that the carbon footprint of two Google searches is equal to boiling water for a cup of tea? Haverkort believes that awareness around digitalization is particularly important. But what exactly is digitalization?
‘Digitalization makes information available online so that it can be combined and analysed quickly. All kinds of business processes rely on it,’ Haverkort explains. He is the ‘enthusiastic driving force’ behind an important part of the university’s strategy, the Digital Sciences for Society program, in which scientists from different Schools collaborate in the field of education and research. He sees it as his ‘duty to serve our students in area of digitalization and to prepare them for their role in society.’
‘We are a university oriented towards the humanities and social sciences. But that society is changing rapidly as a result of digitalization, through the introduction of the internet, PCs, smartphones, etc. It is a development that progress has thrown in our way and that we cannot but embrace. It deeply affects every aspect of society, the way we interact with each other and with the government, the way we do our work, purchase things, spend our leisure time, and communicate. And that development has an impact on our behavior. For instance, we hardly make unannounced phone calls anymore. Or how we treat each other on social media platforms. They are far from neutral and they again compel us to behave in new ways.
We are a university oriented towards the humanities and social sciences. But that society is changing rapidly as a result of digitalization. It is a development that progress has thrown in our way and that we cannot but embrace.
This development opens up many opportunities for innovation. In the past, you had to go to the library to look for information. These days almost everything is available online and, as a result, the way you gather and use information has changed as well. Digital tools help us to combine lots of information, and to process it more efficiently. It has an enormous impact on technology but also far beyond. For instance, making cars safer, producing electric cars, but also on the doctor-patient relationship. Nowadays, patients with a health problem have already done an information search and take a completely different approach when they consult a doctor than they did ten years ago.’
These developments are irreversible, so can we still steer and shape the transition?
‘The training of those doctors, all curricula in fact, must be updated with a view to digitalization, and scientists should be aware of the innovations. That goes for all academicians, economists, lawyers, behavioral scientists, everyone. I was on holiday in Germany recently, where digital tools have not been embraced quite as strongly as in the Netherlands. People buy less online, so you have more livable and economically attractive city centers and less retail vacancy. They also think that paying cash has its benefits: you don’t leave a digital trail. These considerations have everything to do with privacy – and with the country’s history.’ Digitalization (re)forms a society.’
Most citizens do not know what they should know about cybersecurity. That is strange if you think about it. There are rules for everything and everyone knows and is taught the traffic regulations. Scientists can contribute their knowledge also in this field.
In the Netherlands, there is too little awareness, too little knowledge in the field of digitalization. A kind of ‘Californian technology optimism’ dominates: as a driver of innovation, it is a positive thing in itself. But it makes sense to realize where we are heading as a society. For example, I am struck by how often rather confusing and inaccurate statements are made about “algorithms”. You cannot calculate everything, not all digitalization is AI; things are often oversimplified. I am happy to see growing awareness within the government. There is now a Parliamentary Standing Committee on Digital Affairs (vaste Kamercommissie voor Digitale Zaken), and a state secretary with this subject explicitly in her portfolio. But further steps need to be taken here as well.’
What is the negative impact of digitalization and what can science do about it?
‘Our security could be threatened. Most citizens do not know what they should know about cybersecurity. That is strange if you think about it. There are rules for everything and everyone knows and is taught the traffic regulations. Scientists can contribute their knowledge also in this field.
Privacy is another worry. And what we cannot ignore either are the ramifications for energy and climate. People who buy online, that is to say, people with money, also contribute to the building of those distribution centers along the highways, where wages and working conditions are less than favorable. And using ICT costs lots of energy: worldwide, it is on a par with aviation. Of course efforts are being made to reduce that energy need, but things are not going to get any better by themselves, especially if we continue to digitalize at this pace.
I am also happy to see how scientists from all Schools seek to connect in digitalization projects in our Digital Sciences for Society program.
Another important aspect is digital literacy. In principle everyone participates in online traffic. But can everyone keep up with the speed of change? Elderly people but also youngsters sometimes lack the necessary skills. Society should be aware of this.
Furthermore, AI algorithms are mostly trained with data from the Western world, usually produced by men. That results in bias, and we should be aware of that, too. We could pay attention this issue in our programs, for instance, in practical workshops in which students work together. Experiencing these issues first hand will better equip students for future challenges.
That is the reason why, as a university, we invest considerably in this subject, facilitating interdisciplinary research projects in which digital sciences play an important part and improving our education in this discipline, for all students.
I am also happy to see how scientists from all Schools, yes, also from the School of Theology, seek to connect in digitalization projects in our Digital Sciences for Society program. There is a great need among scientists, especially the younger generation, for knowledge and collaboration in this area. That is the reason why, as a university, we invest considerably in this subject, facilitating interdisciplinary research projects in which digital sciences play an important part and improving our education in this discipline, for all students. And it is a bonus that this has brought us more in line with European policy in this area.’