Our research area is undergoing rapid and radical changes

Maxim Februari is one of the keynote speakers at Synergy 2019

15 November 2018

The multitalented Maxim Februari is mainly known among the general public for his books, weekly columns in the NRC Handelsblad newspaper and other media appearances. Februari is unique in his ability to unite the social sciences and humanities. He is therefore an eagerly anticipated keynote speaker at Synergy 2019. ‘We are in the middle of a revolution that is far more radical than the Industrial Revolution was.’

Maxim Februari photo: Hollandse HoogteMaxim Februari photo: Hollandse Hoogte

Maxim Februari (55) – author's pseudonym of Dr Max Drenth – studied philosophy, Dutch law and art history at Utrecht University. In 2000, he gained his doctorate from Tilburg University for a thesis about the limitations of economic rationality. Besides newspaper columns, he also writes novels and essays that have won him several literary prizes, including the Frans Kellendonk Prize for his entire oeuvre and this year the Heldring Prize for his columns.

‘There are two main questions concerning technological developments that merge with the social sciences and humanities’, contends Maxim Februari. ‘The first question is: what can social sciences and humanities researchers contribute to technology? The second is: how do technological developments effect the fields of social sciences and humanities research in particular? I am especially interested in that last question.’

The first question has already gained a prominent position in the debate, according to Februari. ‘And I suspect that a lot of attention will be devoted to this during Synergy 2019: what do we have that we can contribute to technology? Meanwhile, technologisation proceeds apace. What does this trend mean for the development of our research fields; that is where my interest predominantly lies at the moment.’

Independent decisions

Februari can still remember that he was the only philosophy student in his year at Utrecht University at the beginning of the 1980s. ‘Ethics is a centuries-old, well-developed discipline. Nowadays you hear companies and organisations claiming that moral considerations are anchored in a digitised system. But ethics is more than a particular moral opinion in software. Take, for example, a weapon system that can make independent decisions. Such ethical tasks are still taken far too lightly. You therefore need to explain to society exactly what ethics is and I can tell you that that is anything but easy.'

To ensure that policymakers do not blindly run after each new technological invention, warns Februari, researchers in the social sciences and humanities must attentively observe what is happening and how. ‘Our research area is undergoing rapid changes. What does digitisation mean for jurisprudence, if we can use large data collections to find suspects – a legitimate question that we need to consider carefully. Does digitisation constitute a danger here or does it offer possibilities? I think both answers are correct. It is not a development that we should label as positive but negative. We must take it as a given instead.’

What does digitisation mean for our democracies? After all, you can govern an entire society using big data. The "datafication" of society, as Maxim Februari stated in an interview, can lead to all data that public bodies have about you being linked. The worrying consequence of that could be that, based on this information, you may or may not gain access to something. For example, in the future, you could no longer receive child benefit if you are caught cycling on the pavement. And perhaps you will no longer be granted the right to vote either. Do we really want that?'

Lost influence

Do you have another example of changes in the social sciences and humanities domain? ‘We can interpret rules that have been committed to paper. In "our" analogue world we are used to sitting around the table with a law book in the middle and discussing it. We maintain an independent relationship with the law: we can adjust it or breach it. Now, if we place the rules of law in the environment, in the infrastructure of the city or in our pacemakers, then the law lies beyond our reach, and we lose our influence on it. That turns the world of the social sciences and humanities upside down. If we want to maintain a controlling say, then we will need to understand that our society is changing rapidly.'

If you do not want to be made obsolete as humanities and social sciences researchers, then you will have to adapt. ‘Ultimately, the social sciences and humanities benefit from the technology and the natural sciences from the knowledge developed… We are in the middle of a revolution that is far more radical than the Industrial Revolution: we need to combine forces.'

Maxim Februari, who is also a member of the advisory council of “privacy watchdog” Bits of Freedom, is widely acclaimed for his fresh analyses and critical writing. But is he an all-round talent? He would not give himself this qualification. ‘Nowadays you hear Dutch young people use the term "slashy"; in my case, that makes me a romanticist slash novelist slash legal philosopher… all at the same time. So I was ahead of that trend. Ha ha! I’d rather describe myself as somebody who jumps from one ice floe to another, from one discipline to another. Someone who never stands still.’

Source: NWO