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  • Writer's pictureHubert Österle

Social Informatics - Life Informatics - Life Engineering

Hubert Oesterle

50 years ago, “Betriebsinformatik” became “Wirtschaftsinformatik” (Business Informatics). At that time, the enterprise (“Betrieb”) view was considered too narrow. Should business informatics now become Society Informatics? Or, from a human perspective, Life Informatics? Or a design-oriented Life Engineering?

Quantum leap in sociotechnical evolution

Technological and societal changes urgently require repositioning. Hundreds of thousands of digital services are changing all areas of our lives as well as how we live together and how we do business. They collect so much data in the process that many authors are already using the term “human digital twin”. Machine intelligence algorithms and the power of specialized processors make it possible to analyze, predict and influence human behavior based on this data. This knowledge provides the basis for offering people ever new and better services.

Risks and opportunities

If all this digitalization serves people's quality of life, we are on our way to a digital paradise. In fact, there are opportunities AND risks for the individual and society associated with most services. The revenue and profit orientation of companies is a prerequisite for competitiveness in an unstoppable technical and social evolution. However, it also reinforces consumerism and thus places us in the hamster wheel of money acquisition, self-expression and entertainment (fear of missing out). It ensures an insatiable consumption of resources, refines the surveillance of the individual, creates powerful tools for influence or reinforces extreme political positions. It increases the complexity of life, which creates a sense of being overwhelmed and deprived in many people.

These risks are to be weighed up against an unprecedented prosperity. Which of the achievements do we voluntarily want to do without: the cell phone, navigation, email, telecommuting, online games or search engines? Or future innovations based on machine intelligence: victory over cancer, accident-free mobility, stable power grids, etc.?

Like biological evolution, sociotechnical evolution follows the principle of survival of the fittest. Its criterion is not physical health, but largely capital and the power that comes with it. Knowledge, appearance, and social communities are means to that end. Of the millions of apps and competing platforms, only the most commercially successful survive.

Pressure to act

Academia, policymakers, civil society, and the media are increasingly concerned with aberrations, such as monopoly power, filter bubbles, and radicalization or the replacement of humans by artificial intelligence, and are developing regulatory proposals and visions for human well-being. Examples include the IEEE's efforts around Ethically Aligned Design, the EU's High-Level Expert Group on Artificial Intelligence, the private initiative Re-State Global, or the vision of technology providers such as Huawei's "Intelligent World 2030." Legislation in the European Union and the U.S., as well as China, is already implementing much of this into daily life. However, knowledge of the impacts is only emerging. The GDPR, for example, aims to protect privacy, but consumers all too easily sacrifice it for the sake of convenience. Therefore, if the megaportals (FANGMAN) continue to collect all the data, but the services of small new entrants are not given sufficient access to it, this could run counter to the noble goals of the lawmakers. Leaving the permission to use data to consumers is downright dishonest, as even highly educated users cannot assess the consequences of disclosing their data.

The demand for autonomy of states and individuals must probably be seen as political buzzwords when considering possible alternatives to the dominant chips, operating systems, internet browsers, cloud services, social networks, search engines and other services.

Quality of life model

According to the Economist of May 7, 2022, there are 400,000 health apps with access to 8,000 physiological and behavioral data from 1,200 digital sensors. A large proportion of these services aim to improve quality of life in the same way as Microsoft Viva or Apple Screen Time, for example. Longevity research doesn't just want to extend life, it wants a high quality of life. However, neither psychology nor neurology nor philosophy tell us in any tangible way what determines our quality of life in the long term. We therefore have a rapidly growing toolbox, but little idea of what we want to build with it.

Vote for a Life Engineering discipline

Information technology, together with other technologies such as medicine, materials, and energy, is triggering a quantum leap in sociotechnical evolution in which technology is increasingly interfering with the lives of individuals and society. A discipline of Life Engineering should provide us with the concepts to manage this change. To do so, it must answer questions about the following areas:

  • Technological development: Which technologies will change life in the coming years? Metaverse, sensorics, mobility, opinion formation, autonomous weapon systems, etc.?

  • Personal digital assistants: Which services support which areas of life? Navigation, depression therapy, private administration, communication, etc.?

  • Digital image of the human being: What data is created and who has access to it? Finances, health, work efficiency, leisure activities, political opinion, etc.?

  • Individual and societal behavior: What patterns of behavior do we know from neighboring sciences and from analysis of digital twins? Purchasing behavior, school system, opinion formation, voting behavior, criminal activity, etc.?

  • Quality of life: What factors determine quality of life and how can they be inferred from data collections? Income, friends, convenience, power, knowledge, etc.?

  • Shaping real life: How do we apply what we know about quality of life and technology to daily life ofindividuals, enterprises and society? Usage reports, behavioral recommendations, coaching, nudging, scoring, regulation, etc.?

Ethical and humanistic guiding principles are currently shaping the discussion. They are based on dogmatic notions such as autonomy, equality, dignity, right to work or self-actualization, without specifying the connection between such values and quality of life. If we want to shape life for the benefit of people, we need to develop these value concepts into a resilient model of quality of life. Which discipline is best suited for this: computer science, anthropology, life science, psychology, sociology, business informatics, or social informatics? Business informatics has good prerequisites for such a field of teaching and research, since it has always dealt with sociotechnical systems, i.e., the integration of different disciplines. It is more likely that a new, independent discipline of Life Engineering will be able to provide answers to the upcoming challenges of digitalization than is possible in a science with firmly anchored patterns of thought and assessment.

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A comment on Lars P. Reichelt

Privacy always sounds ethically superior, for most of us health is even more important. It is hard to understand the ongoing discussion.

The essence of timing. A comment on Florian Schweitzer

Timing is 50% of success. Excellent examples, thank you, Florian. In one point I would like to modify your statement a bit: APIs are to be seen as part of an ecosystem. Most of the time, a dominant


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