The Digital Good Network is an interdisciplinary, social science-led research network centred on the urgent question of what a good digital society should look like and how we get there.
The Digital Good Network’s objectives are:
- To build and sustain an interdisciplinary network of diverse researchers and stakeholders that produces new insights into how to achieve the digital good and addresses urgent normative questions in digital society research.
- To produce a step change in digital society research, so it is centred on the major societal challenges of equity, sustainability and resilience.
- To build research capability, upskilling future digital society research leaders in methods, leadership, interdisciplinarity and stakeholder engagement, and ensuring the expansion of representation from currently underrepresented groups.
- To engage effectively with policy, industry, practitioners, communities and civil society to co-produce research with them, align activities with their needs and ensure outputs have impacts.
- To position UK social science as a leader in global digital society research, by influencing and informing future ESRC and UKRI policies and strategies.
Digital technologies mediate, shape and are shaped by relationships. These include our relationships with ourselves, with intimate and institutional others, and with digital agents. The digital is also where people relate to each other. Research into digital relationships spans from the micro-behavioural to the macro-institutional, the individual to the global, the interpersonal to the cultural, the personal to terabytes of data.
Disciplines differ in their view of what constitutes good digital relationships. Diverse, often contradictory conceptualisations of the good underpin digital society research. This results in a lack of consensus on how to evaluate or advocate for technologies that support the social good. Scholarship on the good draws on diverse disciplinary traditions, including philosophical reflection on the good lie, and computing and design ethics. Political economy research shuns the concept of the good, preferring justice or rights as lenses through which to envisage positive social change (Sen 2009). Citizens’ understandings of whether, how, when, where and for whom digital relationships are good (Kennedy 2018, Ong 2019) are rarely central to research, policy and practice. This limits efforts to ensure that digital technologies benefit people and societies. The Digital Good Network aims to bridge these differences. We think this is essential for advancing digital society research and improving technology design and policy.
Government policies seek to mobilise digital technologies for the social good. In the UK, the National Data Strategy emphasises responsible, fair and ethical data uses; the National AI Strategy focuses on protecting publics and values; and the Online Safety Bill aims to minimise digital harms. And yet the good remains ill-defined and contested. What was deemed by UK regulators to be a good algorithm for determining exam results performed badly, with biased outcomes. A social media company’s perception of a good policy for reducing self-harm might, in fact, be more likely to increase it (Gerrard 2018). Digital-for-social-good initiatives abound, in data, statistics, government, drones. But because the digital good is ill-defined, their consequences can be harmful. In research, policy and civil society, there has been far more attention to digital harms than to the digital good (eg Eubanks 2019).
The Digital Good Network addresses the urgent question: what should a good digital society look like and how do we get there? This question is pressing across current and emerging technologies, including social media, MedTech, FinTech, climate tech, wearables, AI and machine learning, automation, AR and VR, IoT and beyond. To address this neglected normative question, the network brings social science together with STEM and arts and humanities, putting distinct conceptions of the digital good into interdisciplinary dialogue with one another, surfacing and bridging differences. The ultimate aim is to enable societies to realise the digital good.
The Digital Good Network focuses on three societal challenges that are crucial to envisioning good relationships with and through digital technologies: equity, sustainability and resilience.
Decades of structural inequality have created an urgent need for greater social equity (United Nations 2015). We use the term equity to acknowledge the need for situated analyses of how different individuals and groups have digital relationships and of the related, multiple configurations of the digital good. Digital technologies mediate, sustain and challenge inequity, eg in social movements like #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo, where hashtag prefixes connect people across digital networks, or when digital donor recruitment initiatives exclude racially minoritised communities, as CoI Williams (2022) has found. Alongside race/ethnicity and gender, age, geography, language, socioeconomic status and dis/ability and their intersections shape uneven technology uses, literacies and vulnerabilities, sometimes leading to digital exclusion (Hale 2014, Kennedy et al 2020). Myriad examples of the interconnections between the digital, relationships and inequality confirm that understanding how good digital relationships can be achieved requires thinking about equity.
Nor can we ignore the environmental impacts of our digital relationships and the pressing question of whether they are sustainable. People harness digital tools to address sustainability challenges, eg in pandemic-accelerated, video-call meet-ups instead of more damaging travel (Lenzen et al 2020), and digital technologies support network- and relationship-building in environmental activism and advocacy. However, our current digital relationships have environmental effects on a planetary scale (Williams et al 2022). Manufactured obsolescence, energy demands for cloud computing and training large AI models (Brevini 2021) and lithium and bitcoin mining have enormous environmental and social costs. These include uneven geographic flows of toxic e-waste (growing at 8% each year (Frick 2021)) and the impacts of sea cable networks (Starosielski 2015, Reddy 2016). The rapid pace of digital change is a global sustainability challenge (Gomes et al 2019), and a challenge for sustainable relationships between the technology-rich Global North and digitally-divided Global South. Research into the digital good must consider how digital relationships should adapt to meet global sustainability challenges (Stead et al 2021).
Digital technologies are increasingly central to wellbeing, mental health and recovery (Bennion et al 2017, 2019), which we collectively call resilience. Resilience influences and is influenced by social relationships (Millings et al 2012), in everyday life and in crisis conditions like pandemics, political conflicts and environmental disasters. Digital innovations seek to provide support and infrastructure for individuals’ wellbeing and creative coping strategies, and for collective, humanitarian forms of crisis recovery in which communities seek to play an active role (Trepte et al 2018). Resilience requires security, and both are shaped by inequities (Slupska at el 2021). Resilience is ever more vital, but digital resilience initiatives need critical investigation, because different and contradictory conceptualisations of the good can mean they result in unexpected harms. One example identified by Ong (2021) is the surprising connections between digital wellness, far-right ideologies and conspiracy theories, a linkage which has consequences for digital relationships and our understanding of the digital good.
Focusing on these societal challenges, the Digital Good Network will advance understanding of how to ensure that digital technologies have good societal outcomes. This will simultaneously advance digital society research and deliver benefits to society. We will grow research capacity, bridge disciplines and institutions, be global in outlook, and support research which has positive impacts on policy, industries and communities.