AI, Digital Culture & Media: Social Engagement for Inclusion and Autonomy
The ELSA Lab “AI, Digital Culture & Media” in Utrecht strives to find answers to complex questions about the impact of data-driven technology, automation, and digital communication on social interactions and cultural production in a deeply mediatized society. With a focus on the media sector and creative industries, the main goal is to harness social and economic benefits of emerging technologies for an inclusive digital culture. The interdisciplinary approach connects academia, applied sciences, and professional sectors. The main goal is to generate knowledge and develop practical solutions that allow media organisations to offer value for diverse social groups and to empower their audiences with emphasis placed on equality and inclusion. “Social engagement” through AI technology is the key concept here: how individuals can interact in novel and meaningful ways with each other and with private and public organisations.
The Rise of Artificial Intelligence in the Media Sector and the Need for Social Engagement
Artificial intelligence (AI) triggered fundamental transformations across digital society. This includes the media sector and creative industries. They are pillars of culture – and they also stand at the forefront of innovation. The promises and pitfalls of AI are part of many media organisations’ daily routines and have a tangible impact on culture. The growing adoption of AI across the media and creative industries raises important questions about the role of public values such as inclusion and autonomy: How does increasing automation change the ways humans interact with each other and with technology? How can we ensure ethical applications of AI in the media sector that foster an inclusive culture and create value for diverse social groups? Ultimately, citizens need to feel free, connected, included, and safe. A view on AI as an enabler for social engagement is the starting point for pursuing this goal.
Three Research Themes
To explore how the use of AI can foster inclusion and autonomy in culture and avoid harmful effects, the ELSA Lab “AI, Digital Culture & Media” proposes three interconnected research themes that centre around distinct challenges in need of specific solutions:
Universal Access to Digital Culture: Access to digital culture through digital media is not a given and some demographic groups may feel excluded (e.g., the elderly, migrants). AI and big data can create new digital divides that keep certain people “locked out”. However, use of data-driven technology holds the potential for broadening access and inclusion but only if it avoids discrimination and neglect. Ethical AI solutions include diverse social groups and protect them from exploitation. How we can build such systems is the main goal here and Universal Access is considered a pre-requisite for social engagement.
Empowerment in Digital Culture: Digital culture is largely driven by “users” who interact with each other on digital platforms to exchange creative output, ideas, opinions, and virtually any content imaginable. However, the algorithms that govern digital spaces can delimit freedom and users may become targets of data monitoring/surveillance and manipulation by private and public organisations. Public and private organisations look at their target groups through a ‘data lens’. AI plays a key role in the distribution of content in form of e.g., recommendation-systems that largely determine what users may encounter in their “media menus”. Ethical use of AI can provide users with orientation, enrich their experiences, broaden personal horizons, and promote autonomy. It can be an antidote to the harms that tech bears for individual freedom. How we can provide users with autonomy in the digital media- ecosystem and build trustworthy systems takes centre stage here. Empowerment in algorithmic systems shapes social engagement and aims at giving control to the individual user.
Identity- and Community-Formation in Digital Culture: People display and assign identities in digital culture via diverse media technologies. They form communities of interest and share their views in digital networks. How they present themselves and represent others (including organisations) is often a polarising question in these digital discourses. Performing digital culture is a collective experience that is increasingly shaped by data and AI: how groups connect, interact but also confront each other. Social groups use digital technology to gain visibility and articulate their viewpoints. However, ethical challenges arise when they clash with each other and/or organisations that they disagree with (e.g., hate speech, “flame wars”/“flaming”, “cancel culture”). These conflicts are not confined to “classic” politics and election campaigns but often ignite around cultural topics as well (e.g., brands, videogames, movies, and other cultural output). AI technology has become part of the digital media-ecosystem within which these discussions take place. This raises important questions: What is the impact of AI on how social groups interact? How does is affect opinion formation and discourses on cultural issues? And what are the roles and responsibilities of the media sector? Identity- and Community Formation emphasises that social engagement is a group-oriented process, and this research line aims at better understanding how AI shapes the collective performance of culture.
In combination, the three research lines aim for promoting the use of AI to facilitate and broaden social engagement in digital culture for the context of the media sector and creative industries (incl. entertainment, advertising, marketing).
About the Lab
Following the “Quadruple Helix” of collaboration, the ELSA Lab “AI, Digital Culture & Media” unites partners from research/higher education, business, government, and citizens, such as the University of Utrecht, Hogeschool Utrecht, PublicSpaces, Instituut voor Beeld and Geluid, Media Perspectives and the AI Hub Midden-Nederland/ROM.