Why the Social Contract Must Become the Technosocial Contract


October 19, 2021 | by Tom Philbeck

The human condition is a technological condition. Technologies are at the heart of how we live together, understand ourselves, make meaning, know the world around us, recognize opportunities, and achieve goals. They emerge within a milieu that reflects the aspirations and imagination of the time. The root of the words technology and technique, techné, translates roughly from ancient Greek as “art” or “craft.” Technologies, in this sense, are craft – a shaping of the world in line with societal priorities – and this crafting of the world through machine learning, engineering choices, and technical parameters exerts a reciprocal influence on individuals and communities. Techné imitates life and life imitates techné, as it were.

Some experts are calling for a re-examination of the social contract precisely because of the ways particular technologies influence and challenge societal norms, from standards of equality to democratic principles and foundations. Considering the social contract as a social phenomenon alone, however, is not enough. The social contract today is, in fact, a technosocial contract – an agreement and compact made amongst peoples and authorities and the technologies that structure and reshape the rules of the world. Any agreement where societies must negotiate power and responsibilities among their members is, by default, a technosocial contract. It is only with and through technical means that power, responsibilities, and commitments between individuals, governments, and organizations can be issued, carried out, and observed.

Philosophers have discussed the social contract from many perspectives but, ostensibly, it is an agreement among groups of people wherein their wellbeing is preserved through their total commitment to the whole, thus establishing the basis for government.  

But what happens to such a contract when society is technologically mediated, not by tools owned freely by individuals, nor by assets held collectively by governments, but by virtual landscapes of data and information ultimately owned and managed by corporations? After all, corporations have very different obligations than governments. The technological mediation of society via corporate custodians of digital real estate and emerging technological capabilities means that these corporations belong in the conversation as well.

While politics and its ability to reshape public service priorities was the predominating influence on social structure, the social contract could be underpinned by an assumption that that government obligations included providing safety, basic utilities, and other services to citizens, on the condition that the citizen conformed to the rule of law.

Now that technologies and platforms are outpacing the capacities of governments to even comprehend them, while at the same time generating unparalleled economic power and ruling over their own virtual geographies, what happens to these assurances of safety, service, and measures of social care? With whom do we contract? And what measure of power exists to mediate such relationships?

If the last decade was about building awareness that technologies were driving deep structural change, the next decade must be about working together to craft the technosocial contract wisely, in a fashion that doesn’t diminish or degrade the hard-won foundations of rights and liberties that took centuries to put in place.

The questions left to us in this technosocial milieu are: What purposes, and whose priorities, will define this technosocial contract? What do the cascading effects of 21st century technologies mean in terms of, as T. M. Scanlon asked in his 1998 book of the same title, “What We Owe to Each Other?” In this era, with companies overseeing communities larger than entire nations, how will we proceed? Which principles will guide these technologies and virtual environments? Which priorities shall prevail when there is conflict between shareholder value and stakeholder value, profit maximization and societal wellbeing?

If societal wellbeing is to be a guiding star, changes need to be made with swift action towards responsible governance. As mentioned earlier, the difference between corporate and governmental obligations is at the heart of potential conflicts with governmental systems and democratic ideals. (The third installment of “The Technosocial Contract” blog series will examine the ways platforms create challenges for the enabling conditions of democratic society.)  It is essential to establish and clarify the rules for technologies and to prioritize the rights, liberties, and safeties, not merely of consumers, but citizens.

This is where the proverbial rubber meets the information superhighway, where we ask what government and governance is really for, while staring into a pervasive technological future. Are the current norms putting people at stake, allowing more fragility and greater precariousness, when the priority is to make our societies robust, resilient, and prudent? What type of society is being shaped by this technosocial contract?

Nearly 45 percent of the global population is under the age of 25. For them, there is no other experience with which to compare the current status quo – no experience where technologies were being built primarily to serve their needs and secure their opportunities rather than to co-opt their attention and time into enterprise needs for data, marketing, and economic growth.  

Deliberating the technosocial contract is an opportunity to examine the world rapidly being negotiated by technologies and citizens. It is an opportunity to discuss and choose how we live together as we expand our integration with and dependence on digital environments. It is an opportunity to examine the type of world being handed to the next generations.

Unlike the imagined moments of an unknown past that litter the preambles to social contract discussions, the last 30 years constitute a real moment in history when the world has collectively confronted the process of technological integration and dependency. It is clear that this process exerts a power greater than what each individual has at their disposal to resist.

The social contract is dead. Long live the technosocial contract.

The “Technosocial Contract” is a new content series curated by the Carnegie Artificial Intelligence and Equality Initiative (AIEI) that examines the 21st-century relationship between technologies and society. Join Carnegie Council’s mailing list to receive the latest Technosocial Contract articles, podcasts, and events.

Tom Philbeck

Tom Philbeck

AIEI Senior Program Advisor

Tom Philbeck is a managing director at SWIFT Partners, a Geneva-based technology and strategy firm.