Maxim Februari

Writer, philosopher and columnist



Give us a break / Doe Zelf Normaal
recently Published
Give us a break / Doe Zelf Normaal
About Februari

Human justice in times of data-driven decision-making and natural disaster

In liberal democracies, human behaviour is regulated by the justice system. This way of establishing and maintaining norms is now being replaced with data-driven technologies in the rush to meet simultaneous crises. Written with erudition and wit, Give Us a Break, by judicial philosopher Maxim Februari, examines how this digitalization is rapidly transforming democracy, basic rights and the rule of law in practice.

The question is whether, in our techno-enthusiasm, we are losing the ability to publicly contest these norms and determine our own behaviour. For Februari, a democratic society exists by virtue of public debate, and yet with the innovations of digital technology, the idea of political representation has come under pressure. The ability to communicate instantly has empowered citizens but also exposed them to manipulation. Governments, meanwhile, are handing power to tech companies whose technologies – and moral assumptions – they have little insight into. The danger is that we turn to intelligent technology that eliminates disagreement entirely by viewing people as data. We’re not far from a future where public decisions are made for us, based on data about our preferences.

Digitalization is also transforming our justice system in unprecedented ways. More and more we are being forced to obey rules rather than encouraged to follow them. Take technology that prevents cars from speeding. Handy, sure, but one can also wonder whether laws are still laws if it’s impossible to break them. We must think critically about how such technologies can be repurposed, especially when algorithms are being used to detect and predict crimes. One of the main challenges of digitalization, and its application here, is that the law is ultimately about justice, not administration and efficiency.

Far from pessimistic about the future, Februari describes a historic transition which requires us to rethink fundamental philosophical questions – and preferably, together: ‘Too much knowledge about the future threatens to get stuck with experts and at universities; I think it would be good to retrieve that knowledge and have a timely public conversation about the changes awaiting us.’

Give us a break

It depends a bit on your temperament how you describe the advent of digital technologies.  You have a variety of registers to choose from, different styles you can use to make it clear  how you look at the technology that is shaping the future. For example:

Agitated. ‘Everything is changing exponentially,’ you say. ‘It’s unprecedented.’ The twenty first century is bringing a revolution, a crisis, a fundamental transformation, ‘an exponential  advancement of technology that is distorting the boundary of our biological, digital and  physical worlds.’ Turbulence! Transition!  

Numerical. ‘Seven ways in which AI will change the world,’ you write. ‘Fifty ways.’ ‘A  hundred and eighty-nine ways.’ Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee of MIT said in 2014 that we are living through the ‘Second Machine Age’. At the World Economic Forum in 2016,  Klaus Schwab said that we are experiencing the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’.  

Anecdotal. A man in the American state of Ohio told the police and the insurance that he had  quickly grabbed a few possessions and escaped from his burning house in the nick of time,  but the data recorded on his pacemaker showed that his story did not add up.2 By 2028, we  will probably all have a telephone implanted in our heads, you predict.  • Psychedelic. Artificial intelligence systems will soon flee the Earth as quick as they can,  leaving us behind with only a dustbuster. All our intimate conversations will float around in  space forever: future generations will use digital technologies to play them back and listen to  them.  

Commercial. Data are the new gold. Max Levchin, co-founder of PayPal, says ‘The world is  being flooded with data and we can see consumers much more clearly.’

I myself am a little more phlegmatic by nature. Fine, fine, fine, I say. Let’s assume that we’re  in a great hurry to find new ways of interacting because life is changing exponentially. And  that we have a telephone implanted in our heads to make sure that, in the future, we no longer  mess up our economy and our ecosystem. All fine with me. You won’t hear me complaining.  

But what will all this actually mean for our lives as citizens, as European citizens,  accustomed to the tradition of basic rights and human rights? What effect has our coexistence  with technologies that affect our behaviour on the future of our legal system? If we want to  live together justly in a large network with ecosystems and animals and technological components, all of which make their own demands, we may need a new, all-encompassing  ethical theory. In short, I’m very interested to know what law is going to look like and how  our legal rights are going to be protected.  

This book is an essay, what the old philosophers would call a Versuch, a hook on  which to hang different coats. Or, in more modern terms, an open source text, a programme  that you can help to write by removing one argument and replacing it with another. Too much  knowledge about the future is in danger of getting stuck at universities and in the minds of  experts; I think it would be a good idea to go and pick it up and to hold a public debate on the  changes that are coming our way, before it’s too late.