Could Technology Be Used to Create an Open Society?

Future Jobs to Create an Open Society with Technology


From the coming autumn, Tallinn University will offer an English-Language MA programme “Open Society Technologies” that will develop open society technology experts in co-operation with the lecturers, researchers and experts from the School of Governance, Law and Society, and the School of Digital Technologies. 

We asked the curator of the programme Kai Pata to describe Open Societies and the new programme.

The curriculum will create a synergy between open society specialists, human-computer interaction and technology specialists by using the Tallinn University Open Labs. The focus of the programme is on developing open society technologies. The ultimate goal is to create new professions in the information and technology societies – open society system designers and developers, open data analysts, open society digital policy consultants, entrepreneurs applying social algorithms, civil society curators, and others that can use technologies to create a new generation open society.

What is an Open Society?

In his book “The Open Society and its Enemies”, Karl Popper separates the open society from the state and the government. He saw that it is not a perfect society, but the openness comes as a general description of the critical and/or rational attitude of the society. The critical stance is led by the understanding that we must always live in an imperfect society. Popper says we should ask ourselves the very liberal question: who will watch the watchdogs? How should institutions eliminate the misuse of power, and how to best defend the freedom of the individual? His second important hypothesis is that the foundation to an open society lies in the dignity of the individual, rather than a nationalistic, religious or ideological tribal collective that assumes the right to press on toward a “perfect” society according to some leading theory. Thus the definition of the open society must encompass the conflict between the individual and the rulers.

Professor Mart Notturno has claimed that democracy in itself is not an open society. Democracy is a tool that can ensure freedom, but only when the society already values freedom and tolerance. An open society has thus more to do with the individual and their freedom – a civil society with the task of ensuring the freedom of the person, and a platform for their criticism. The freedom to say what one thinks is true is a vital part of an open society.

Value-based Technology Development

To reach the values of the open society, we must bring these values to the core of the process of creating the technologies used in e-governance. The main challenge in developing technology based on these values is bringing these values to light in the society, and keeping them in balance. Values such as initiative, entrepreneurship, responsibility, inclusion, social justice, freedom to act vs. intervening control and hidden pressure; ownership vs. acquiring, misuse and profiting from data; valuing individuals vs seeing them as a mass; happiness and well-being of members of the society; safety and trust vs. vulnerability and observation; sustainability and adaptability of the society; usability of technology, etc.

In an open society, we must simultaneously think about solutions that promote social justice and equal opportunity, but in doing so we must ensure that the initiative, inclusion and freedom of decision of the individual are not diminished nor brought under state control. Nor can we dismiss the freedoms, self-identification and rights of the more vulnerable members of the society.

What are the dilemmas that need solving via technology in an e-state that has the goal of becoming an open society?

An e-state with an open society faces multiple dilemmas that must be solved via simultaneous decision processes in both up-down and down-up directions. Can technology help create more openness to individuals, when the technologies used to govern are ordered and approved by the state? How to avoid the situation where manipulating the e-state technologies would create strict limitations and a homogenous system that creates a mere illusion of citizen freedom? How to prevent the inclusion technologies created to promote citizen freedom from becoming toys for the society, with no actual output in law, values, and governance, and a link in the governance technologies used to control the citizenship?

An open society values the initiative and inclusion of its members in law and economy. Is the ability of the open society to be open to change and reactive to challenges only possible when the state sets as little limits as possible and gives its members the freedom to use social entrepreneurship to create proactive technological solutions directed toward equality, diversity and individual support? An open society is often seen as a liberal democratic citizen society run along the “thin state” principle. An example would be a state that works due to free citizens creating citizen organisations and societies that can solve a wide range of problems without the state’s help, and where the state would only intervene to promote such activities. In a liberal state, the actions of the third sector in implementing digital technologies in creating and supplying new services to the society are supported by the state, which in turn would only offer the vital services via digital platforms.

The antonym to a liberal “thin state” would be a social state that develops an inclusive democracy based on representative democracy, and uses digital technologies, such as algorithms for ensuring social equality, to redistribute social benefits equally. The big question in this case is who decides what the values and principles the algorithms need to use in this distribution be. A new strategy in quietly directing the masses is the application of digital technologies designed to nudge people toward deciding, designed based on the behavioural economics theory created in 2008 by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sundstein. In an ideal society, this nudging should help the people toward the choices beneficial to themselves. However, the ‘nudge’ can be used by the state to promote their goals, accept new laws and form opinions. A nudge is not a prohibition, order or duty, but an action pattern passed either down from the government or up through the citizens. Examples of this can be found in the default end user licence agreements in digital documents used in communication with the state. Nudging can be used both in the real and the digital world. It can only be avoided through recognition and raising awareness. Open societies regard nudging as manipulation of the society by the state. Then again, the civil society could use nudging to attract more people to their respective causes.

One of the characteristics of an open society is the public distribution of knowledge. The core of an open state is the awareness of its members and the availability of information to all citizens. At the same time, the state would keep some parts of data closed. Who will decide what should be easily accessible, the state or its citizens? For example, when data concerning risk groups within the society is not available, there would be no possibility for social entrepreneurs in a liberal state to create technological solutions for helping these groups. There is a possibility that a vulnerable group become the focus of the state’s vital services, according to the algorithms of equal distribution, and thus become more controlled by the state. How to bring the use of public data in an open society to a new level so that NGOs and social entrepreneurs can use analytical tools and data visualisation to find and present their research-based views?

The new General Data Protection Regulation gives people to control their own data, which is a big step toward the values of the open society. On the other hand, the state still decides which data is collected and how this data is used. How do we ensure that the intelligent digital systems that predict our future have used the principles of equal representation when collecting data on all members of the society and their needs? In this respect, NGOs should be included in creating the algorithms used by these systems.

And finally, could an open society exist next to other societal orders without the open society becoming vulnerable to terrorism and cyber-attacks? To what extent do we need to monitor data and people to ensure the safety of the society, while not limiting the people’s rights to freedom?

What are the main strengths of the Open Society Technologies curriculum?

The courses within the curriculum will give you a wide-based view of the civil society and open society governance. The courses will also give you the base knowledge for technical thinking that focuses on the values of open society and open data. The technologies development module will give you practical development skills for developing your own digital civil society technologies. The curriculum will also give you the chance for cooperation as part of the LIFE programme in Tallinn University, internship in Estonia or abroad, and the academic skills needed to write a good MA thesis.