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Invisible Hands

Do we use digital assistants (invisible hands) for the benefit of people?


David Hesse and Stephan Sigrist have summarized their many years of research on this topic in 109 pages. As the author of the book "Life Engineering", which deals with the same questions, I was eager to read it and, after reading it, I am pleased about this exciting contribution with countless suggestions and the invitation for discussion.


With many vivid examples and generally understandable language, Hesse and Sigrist make the opportunities and dangers of digitization accessible to a broad readership. It is particularly pleasing that they attempt to assess each digital service in a balanced manner, i.e., to evaluate the advantages and disadvantages for the individual and society in each case. In this sense, it is also to be welcomed that they do not just label the Chinese social scoring as an instrument of power of a totalitarian regime, as is usually the case in the Western media, but point to parallels with nudging and other instruments in our multiparty democracies.


On the other hand, the widespread fear of the loss of the human, or the loss of the importance of humans, is evident in many places. The authors address the typical values of progressive intellectuals: self-realization, freedom, privacy, equality, creativity, human competence, tradition, individuality, and sustainability. It is a fundamental question if the pursuit of these goals promotes or hinders the quality of human life, and the extent to which life engineering could and should substitute ethical values for human needs. Hesse and Sigrist also argue that individual and economic freedom must be limited for the good of society.


From the possibilities of digital assistants and the postulated values, Hesse and Sigrist derive a number of recommendations. For those affected, they call for transparency of machine decisions, private spaces (dark zones) without data collection, the use of invisible hands to guide society into desirable behavior (sustainability, fairness, etc.), but also the strengthening of people's competence in the use of digital services.


It is hoped that "Invisible Hands" will help to identify the challenges of digitalization and, above all, to develop concrete measures for the benefit of people. These include not only the proposed certification of digital services, but also how to deal with monopolistic providers, how to avoid overburdening individuals, the opportunities for innovative service providers, protection against the misuse of data and service monopolies, or the rules for dealing with freedom of expression and manipulation.


Hesse and Sigrist's book is a highly valuable contribution to a rational discussion and should inspire concrete action.


Hesse, David; Sigrist, S. (2021). Invisible Hands. Wie Algorithmen die Gesellschaft von morgen ermächtigen und entmündigen. NZZ Libro.


Österle, H. (2020). Life Engineering. Machine Intelligence and Quality of Life? Springer Nature.

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