The Covid-19 pandemic has shown us all what was already certain: We find ourselves no longer in the age of globalization, but have long since arrived in the age of globality. In other words, we are in a state of worldwide interconnection, in which virus variants, technological innovations, political conflicts, financial market developments and ecological threats can no longer be viewed in exclusively spatial terms. We have become highly interdependent in terms of culture, finance, information technology and civil society.
From the second half of the 20th century, the globalization of markets, companies, of travel and trade opportunities offered chances for growth, innovation, participation for many. And indeed: Since then, the material prosperity of people worldwide has increased, the supply of goods has multiplied, and international cooperation has been strengthened. But the fact that globalization has not been able to deliver the hoped-for peace between nations and life chances for all, that it even has inhumane sides, has long since become obvious. For while supply and production chains, travel and trade routes have been extended ever further, it has not led to a globalization of shared ethical values.
This is particularly evident with regard to financial and economic policy, as well as the ever-increasing influence of technological innovations. On the contrary, tendencies toward division and conflict are on the rise again – and this despite (or perhaps even because of) increased technical possibilities for communication and cooperation. In a time when we are in the midst of a climate crisis. Does that mean hope for change is at a loss?
The Global Ethic Project – a source for orientation
Hopeful yet aware of the epochal planetary challenges, the internationally renowned Tübingen theologian Hans Küng raised the question of humanity’s survival in his 1990 book “Projekt Weltethos” (“Global Ethic Project”): How can we survive peacefully in the 21st century with different historical experiences, beliefs, and values? He answered the question himself with an appeal to develop a planetary consciousness, to recall the idea of humanity that has been formative for all religious, philosophical, and moral traditions at all times and places, and to use the potentials of cooperation instead of losing human civilization in a conflict of cultures. Since 1990, the Global Ethic Project has been inviting people to take global matters personally, transcending national, religious, or cultural boundaries, and thus to assume responsibility for their fellow world, the environment and posterity.
What started as a research project quickly became internationally renowned. Today, the Global Ethic conversation initiated by Küng, ranges from the World Parliament of Religions and the World Economic Forum in Davos to the United Nations General Assembly, from the UN Global Compact to numerous Nobel Prize winners and leaders from religion, business, politics, and science. More and more people take global challenges seriously and get involved in the Global Ethic Project in their everyday lives: in companies, schools, in the financial sector and in the field of technology. But what is the significance of ethics in practice, especially in the era of digitalization and globality?
Values-based governance – the EU AI regulation as an example
Putting people at the center of all considerations, protecting their life, liberty, and dignity is conceived as the core of Europe’s humanistic tradition. And even in times of global upheaval as well as intensifying economic and technological competition, corresponding ethical values such as pluralism, tolerance, solidarity, and equality are meant to be the basis of the European Union’s political and regulatory decisions up to the highest levels. By some, this might be viewed as a detriment, especially in terms of business. If new technologies are subject to a myriad of ethical regulations, does that not hinder innovation and the willingness to invest? Would it not be preferable to turn a blind eye if it gives European companies an edge in the ever-sweatier global race for technological supremacy?
The fact that an ethics- and people-centered approach does not necessarily have to stand in the way of technological progress and success, but can even fuel it, while at the same time mitigating its potential risks, can be seen in the recent example of the EU Commission’s artificial intelligence (AI) regulatory undertaking. In the “world’s first ever legal framework on AI”, the EU Commission plans to differentiate AI applications into different risk classes and to impose conditions or possibly bans accordingly. Those rules and restrictions are explicitly meant to provide for “ensuring that AI benefits people and is a force for good in society”, thus more or less imposing an ethical approach on this essential technology.
The global race for AI supremacy
AI had been the focus of attention for many decades, but during the last few years has taken a somewhat central role in terms of technologies that are seen as formative for mankind’s future, both in a positive and negative sense. Be it autonomous vehicles that save our cities from traffic collapse, facial recognition systems that remove any trace of privacy from public life, or Big Data systems, which increasingly influence or even determine political, professional, and private decision-making processes: Whatever the first association is, few will doubt that tools and systems with some form of AI will have a major impact on our private, professional, and public lives – or rather already do.
Naturally, global competition in this increasingly significant field has been heating up over the recent years, with the United States, Europe and China being the main competitors for global leadership in AI. And those competitors stand for widely different approaches to developing and employing technology: The United States, on the one hand, relies on a largely unrestrained, lightly regulated private sector in which individuals can quickly realize and monetize their visions and ideas; China, on the other side of the spectrum, has the concentrated power of an authoritarian state capitalism on its side, making collective decisions, e.g. to develop certain AI systems, easy to implement through all levels.
The EU meanwhile sits somewhat in the middle, having a private sector with far-reaching freedom and agency to innovate, research and develop, but also strong public institutions that regulate the former’s power to act. Overall, however, there is no doubt that the US is in a strong pole position in terms of new technologies such as AI, with the Silicon Valley alone being synonymous with IT and high-tech innovation and American mega-corporations such as Amazon, Apple, Google, Meta, or Microsoft being at the forefront of shaping the AI landscape with resources that are second to none.
Human-centered regulation as a competitive edge
While German business newspaper Handelsblatt expressed concerns in an article titled “New EU rules for AI could be a disadvantage for Europe”, even European businesses affected by the planned AI regulation do not necessarily agree with that line of thinking. Dr. Tilman Dralle, legal specialist and data protection expert at a major German provider of internet services, even sees a competitive advantage for EU companies as a plausible result of the planned regulation of AI products: “This has the potential to increase trust among consumers, many of whom are still skeptical towards AI technologies, which may result in greater acceptance and sales for AI products stemming from the EU or complying with its regulation.”
According to his assessment, this could even earn Europe a kind of pioneering role: “There are already plans in the Council of Europe to draw up a convention that would be binding under international law. Then, not only European providers of AI systems will have to comply with this new regulation, but also foreign providers if they want to offer or operate their product on the EU market. This would give European companies the advantage of already having experience in the practical implementation of the relevant requirements.” This does of course not mean that the EU’s approach in this context is the only valid one. But the argument can be made that such an approach that commits technology specifically to human benefit can become a strong basis for business models that enjoy broad acceptance and thus become more sustainable.
Trust as a guarantor of social cohesion and the responsibility of communication:
This example shows how ethical foresight can not only translate into a technological and economic advantage, but also build the foundation for public trust that, in the context of AI, is imperative, seeing the profound impact the technology will have on our society. And this element of trust, as important as it already is, will become even more important, the more urgent the great tasks facing humanity become. Combatting climate change presents us with a prisoner dilemma-like situation where everybody must contribute as much as they can while assuming anyone else does as well. Digitalization requires a far-reaching exchange of data, including highly personal information. In short: A lot is demanded from societies, and successful mastery of those challenges will require social cohesion and – once again – trust. Trust that everyone else has similarly good intentions as me. Trust that my vis-à-vis does not play with a loaded deck to gain unilateral advantages.[JG|S1] [AT2] [JG|S3]
Regulation, e.g. for technologies such as AI and data protection, is an essential pillar to build such trust on. But another increasingly important one is responsible (corporate) communication: It falls to professional communicators in public institutions, PR and marketing departments and agencies to explain challenges, technologies, and interrelationships to the public, breaking down their complexity, providing orientation for informed decisions, but also to actively foster open dialogue and to establish an innovative corporate culture of constructive criticism and debates. In this situation, short-term successes such as attracting attention can no longer be the main goal, especially if they come at the expense of the quality of the corresponding content. Instead, long-term accomplishments such as recognition and credibility need to become the focal point of communication professionals as well as leaders and the organizations they are active in. [JG|S4] [JG|S5] [AT6]
This is where ethics – the approach to do good for the sake of doing good – and ethos – the virtuous character of an individual – come together not only as key factors for gaining and securing public trust but for the continued existence of humanity under at least acceptable conditions in our VUCA world and the success of our collective ventures in our VUCA future. Fortunately, for orientation we are given shared universal principles and values of human coexistence and interaction such as the Global Ethic Project proposes: the principles of humanity and the “Golden Rule” of reciprocity as well as the values non-violence, justice, truthfulness, ecological responsibility, and equality. They offer an important guideline for implementing Ethics by Design in business, politics, and technology. For what lies ahead, it is thus necessary that individuals in business and politics embark on the learning journey of how these ethical principles can be implemented in various practical fields. Because if we want to preserve hope, we must learn to walk the talk. Where the world is headed, we cannot afford not to.[JG|S7]
The ResCom Academy is a learning institution for responsible corporate communication – an initiative in association with the Global Ethic Institute at the University of Tübingen. The goal of the Academy is to offer training courses and tools for people in companies and organizations that promote ethical, dialogue-oriented, and thus sustainable communication both for inside and outside the company. It provides a variety of learning modules that give participants insights into topics such as responsible PR, marketing and design, sustainable communication, dialogue-oriented crisis and stakeholder communication, intercultural dialogue, as well as responsibility and AI. By helping to increase transparency and dialogue about the values, goals and decisions of companies, the ResCom Academy aims to contribute in this way to a more reliable and sustainable communication culture – within companies and beyond.