Ethics and the Techno-Social Dilemma


As part of our collaborative research into the evolution of social change, it is imperative that we explore the ethical implications and potential solutions to this unprecedented global challenge. Deeper understanding of this paradigm shift will enable humanity to tap into our full potential and ensure the flourishing of our species and our planet.
Dr. Francis Heylighen addressing the audience at Human Energy's N2 Conference, held at U.C. Berkeley in November 2023.



Dr. Francis Heylighen and Dr. Shima Beigi have published a new paper giving a comprehensive overview of the techno-social dilemma. Its abstract is as follows:

We define the Techno-Social Dilemma (TSD) as the growing prevalence of anxiety, depression, and despair in technologically advanced nations. It has taken epidemic proportions over the past decade in particular among young Americans, culminating in a mental health crisis. Its symptoms are a pervading sense of gloom and doom, meaninglessness, and pessimism about the survival of civilization. Some of its social consequences are suicides, deaths of despair, burnouts, distrust of institutions, populism, polarization, radicalization, and conspiracy theories. We briefly review proposed causes of the TSD: social media use, competitive pressure, complexity and information overload, loss of meaning and social connectedness, bad news bias, reduction of play, and an unnatural lifestyle. We analyze the TSD as a loss of our “sense of coherence” in the Information Age, meaning that people no longer experience life as comprehensible, manageable, and meaningful. The spectacular growth of ICT has made the world more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA), while increasing the pressure to consume, produce and distribute information. As explained by the SUCCENS criteria for meme virality, the most commonly encountered information erodes our sense of coherence by reducing complex developments to a barrage of disconnected, extreme, emotionally charged, and (typically) negative messages. We conclude by suggesting measures to contain the TSD: compensating the bad news bias by publicizing objective global improvements together with a positive narrative of further progress, while implementing rules of information hygiene and ethics to reduce the barrage of addictive, pressuring, and disconcerting messages.

The article can be accessed in full here.

Ethics Study Based on the Prosocial Approach

Professor David Sloan Wilson is heading an ethics research project based on his Prosocial approach. Prosocial is based on the work of Nobel Prize winning economist Elinor Ostrom and grounded in contextual behavioral science, evolutionary science, and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), Prosocial presents a practical, step-by-step approach to help energize and strengthen organizations based on evolutionary principles. The Prosocial model allows the design of groups that are more harmonious and target the characteristics that foster cooperation and collaboration—key ingredients for any effective group. The project envisions extending the current Prosocial work into research and development of ethics for the Noosphere.

Ethics Study Based on Cybernetics, Systems Theory and Complexity Science

The formation of the Noosphere is an unprecedented global event where humans have a critical role to play, and we may fail without the appropriate vision and ethics. The current state of ethics is unprepared for the transition towards the Noosphere. Indeed, standard ethical frameworks, even when they are updated to deal with our techno-scientific age, have focused on fixed rules by which one operates (deontic ethics) or the consequences of one’s actions (consequentialist ethics). These foundational assumptions are not ready to deal with the current major Noosphere transformation where rules change, and consequences are unpredictable. Instead, this project aims to start with evolutionary theory-based policy and guidelines (e.g. by D.S. Wilson or Ostrom) and further develop and propose methods, principles, and strategies from cybernetics, system theory, and complexity science to provide foundations for an ethics of the Noosphere. The work will be conducted by Dr. Clément Vidal under the supervision of Professor Francis Heylighen. A first paper “Ethics and Complexity: Why standard ethical frameworks cannot cope with socio-technological change” is already available.

Techno-Social Dilemma Study

A study of the contemporary Techno-Social Dilemma will begin soon with two research tracks focused on different types of data collection. The first will be a meta-study of quantitative and qualitative research in the social sciences that explores the pressures and effects of technological and scientific change on psychosocial development. The second will be a targeted study conducted through one-to-one interviews as well as focus groups of college students and faculty which will investigate how students experience and understand the impacts of technology and science on their daily lives. SMC Professor Ellen Rigsby will act as the principal investigator with Dr. Carolyn Peterson serving as an associate consultant.

Key Temporal Dimensions of the Techno-Social Dilemma

A study and re-formulation of the key temporal dimensions of the techno-social dilemma, namely the lack of a global story in a period of accelerated change against a disorienting deep-time evolutionary background, has been completed by Dr. Boris Shoshitaishvili. This research has resulted in a scholarly publication, “Deep time and compressed time in the Anthropocene: The new timescale and the value of cosmic storytelling,” in the academic journal The Anthropocene Review.
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