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User Empowerment Instead of "Sweet Porridge"

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Book Chapter in “ Germany and the World 2030“, (2018)
User Empowerment Instead of
“Sweet Porridge
By Johannes Schöning
Digitalisation cannot be worked through with checklists,
but instead must be met with ideas and creativity. We
need to use the opportunities of digitalisation now and
not let them pass us by.
Such a massive transformation of all areas of our socie-
ty is unprecedented and is causing plausible uncertain-
ty for many people. This makes it even more important
not to let ourselves be frozen by this insecurity. As Rich-
ard von Weizsäcker already noted, it is “more impor-
tant to act ethically on a path of shared insecurity than
to lead dogmatic fights for allegedly definitive truths”.
But what strategies can we apply to utilise digitalisation,
which is fundamentally changing all sectors of our soci-
ety, in a way that benefits humanity?
From User-centred Design to User Empowerment
In my field of Computer Science, Human-Computer
Interaction (), it was recognised early on that peo-
ple are more than just ‘operators’ of technology. Build-
ing on this, the basic principles of user-centred design
() were postulated back in the s. In this ‘wave,
we started viewing technologies as tools for us to use in
order to help people ful-
fil their tasks in a better
way. We started rethink-
ing the development of
interactive systems. In
recent years, there have
been trends in  that once again demand rethinking.
These are referred to as the Fourth Wave of . Tech-
nologies are meant to empower their users, they should
open up additional possibilities and strengthen them,
not patronise them.
This approach leads to an inherent conflict between 
and empowerment. Designers and developers must al-
low users to adapt the technology and therefore avoid
both one single prescribed use as well as overwhelm-
ing the user with too many functions. Today, technol-
ogies are oen still developed in such a way that users
are not empowered, but instead are subject to a restrict-
ed user experience that is limited to one platform. The
‘sweet porridge’ of the Silicon Valley giants has made us
‘full and lazy’ and prevents a critical and creative use of
technologies. Our opportunities to freely move about
in the digital world are very restricted.
New Digital Social Models
We must conceive new models for the digitalisation of
our world. As responsible citizens, we can accept nei-
ther Silicon Valley’s liberal model nor the ‘digital so-
cietal models’ of some authoritarian states without
critical discourse. Politics and society are tasked with
devising an ethical and open model for the digitalisation.
The ‘Silicon Valley’ model supports the rise of compa-
nies pursuing the goal of assuming a sole market-dom-
inating position. In consequence, users on these plat-
forms are oen restricted in their possibilities by the
‘sweet porridge’. Totalitarian state regulation and con-
trol of citizens through digital means, as we are current-
ly observing in China, also contradict a democratic and
liberal society.
So far, Germany and other Western countries have not
succeeded in formulating counter-models to both of
these extremes. Leading this important and complex so-
cial discourse requires broad education on various top-
ics of digitalisation. Only when we understand digitali-
sation can we master it and use it to bridge existing gaps
in society.
PROF. DR JOHANNES SCHÖNING () is Lichtenberg
Professor and Professor of Computer Science at the Uni-
versity of Bremen. He researches and teaches in the eld of
Human-Computer Interaction (). His working group’s
research interest lies in the intersection between , geo-
information, and interface technologies. He earned his
PhD at the University of Saarland in  and completed
his degree in Geoinformatics at the University of Mün-
ster in . He is a member of the  Future of Comput-
ing Academy.
The ‘Silicon Valley’ model sup-
ports the rise of companies pur-
suing the goal of assuming a sole
market-dominating position.
“The ‘Sweet Porridge’ of the Silicon Valley giants
has made us ‘full and lazy’ and prevents the
critical and creative use of technologies.
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