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New Challenges to the Enlightenment: How Twenty-First-Century Sociotechnological Systems Facilitate Organized Immaturity and How to Counteract It

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 July 2023

Andreas Georg Scherer
Affiliation:
University of Zurich, Switzerland
Cristina Neesham
Affiliation:
Newcastle University, UK
Dennis Schoeneborn
Affiliation:
Copenhagen Business School, Denmark; Leuphana University of Lüneburg, Germany
Markus Scholz
Affiliation:
Technische Universität Dresden, Germany
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Abstract

Organized immaturity, the reduction of individual capacities for public use of reason constrained by sociotechnological systems, constitutes a significant pushback against the project of Enlightenment. Forms of immaturity have long been a concern for philosophers and social theorists, such as Kant, Arendt, Fromm, Marcuse, and Foucault. Recently, Zuboff’s concept of “surveillance capitalism” describes how advancements in digital technologies lead to new, increasingly sophisticated forms of organized immaturity in democratic societies. We discuss how sociotechnological systems initially designed to meet human needs can inhibit the multidimensional development of individuals as mature citizens. To counteract these trends, we suggest two mechanisms: disorganizing immaturity as a way to safeguard individuals’ and collectives’ negative freedoms (freedoms from), and organizing maturity as a way to strengthen positive freedoms (freedoms to). Finally, we provide an outlook on the five further articles that constitute the Business Ethics Quarterly Special Issue “Sociotechnological Conditions of Organized Immaturity in the Twenty-First Century.”

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Special Section
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© The Author(s), 2023. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the Society for Business Ethics

In seeking to define the existential condition of the modern human being, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century thinkers of the European Enlightenment (such as Locke, Hume, Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Kant) conceived of humanity as engaging in a new intellectual and sociopolitical project: if individuals were to claim their natural rights and have them protected by social institutions through which they could exercise democratic citizenship, then it would take enlightened citizens to achieve this project—that is, citizens whose intellectual maturity allows them individual autonomy of judgment, choice, and decision-making, without the dominance of an external authority; the ability to use their own reason and experience to reflect and judge critically and ethically complex or problematic situations; and the capacity to challenge given norms and institutions from a perspective that goes beyond private interests, defending the common good. In a nutshell, the project of the Enlightenment establishes the basic conditions under which citizens are both entitled and able to govern themselves (see, e.g., Bristow, Reference Bristow2017; Dupré, Reference Dupré2004; Fleischacker, Reference Fleischacker2013).

Since the contours of this Enlightenment project were first sketched, individuals (also as parts of groups and communities) have found themselves in a continuous struggle for their rights—including various forms of freedom. As thinkers of (post-)modernity (such as Arendt, Fromm, Marcuse, and Foucault) have cautioned us (in more or less explicit ways), the anti-Enlightenment challenges posed by the very sociotechnological systems that humans have created to protect and enhance their freedoms have been relentless. In this article, we argue that the sociotechnological systems of the twenty-first century are not only reinforcing challenges of the past; they are, in fact, taking them to a new, unprecedented level—in which individuals voluntarily contribute to the institution and entrenchment of sociotechnological conditions from which they could no longer break free (see also Zuboff, Reference Zuboff2015, Reference Zuboff2019). In the same context, we understand sociotechnological systems as relatively stable and influential modes of human–technology interaction.

Hence, as some authors celebrate today the overwhelming role of new technology in augmenting the conveniences of our lives (e.g., Varian, Reference Varian2010, Reference Varian2014; Smith & Browne, Reference Smith and Browne2021), it seems necessary to ask ourselves, what price are we prepared to pay for these conveniences? When submitting more and more of our decision-making processes to automation (e.g., through algorithms and artificial intelligence), how much are we ready to give up with regard to privacy, independence, and the ability to make autonomous and mature choices? For instance, when we search for specific information online and receive newsfeeds selecting information customized to our interests (from reading lists to potential employers), we need to keep in mind that these are in fact personalized advertisements generated by analysis of our past online preferences and set by “nudging” algorithms to influence our decisions and behaviors in both private and public realms (Gigerenzer, Reference Gigerenzer2022; Hansen, Reference Hansen2015; Mittelstadt, Allo, Taddeo, Wachter, & Floridi, Reference Mittelstadt, Allo, Taddeo, Wachter and Floridi2016; Tsamados et al., Reference Tsamados, Aggarwal, Cowls, Morley, Roberts, Taddeo and Floridi2022; Zuboff, Reference Zuboff2019). Similarly, when we accept becoming “passengers” of automatic driving or predictable “moving objects” in a smart city, we should reflect on the deeper kinds of knowledge and skills we are relinquishing, thus diminishing our abilities to exercise mature control over our own lives.

All these and similar bundles of trade-offs in privacy, autonomy, and independent thinking compound and place the modern human into an overall condition of immaturity, as increasing technological potential constrains and even thwarts human development instead of enhancing it (Scherer & Neesham, Reference Scherer and Neesham2022). Also, these trade-offs, induced and orchestrated by forces of humans’ own creation, tend to exceed human control. This phenomenon, hereinafter called organized immaturity, needs to be further examined—and so do the roles of organizations and organizing in facilitating it.

In line with Scherer and Neesham (Reference Scherer and Neesham2022), we define organized immaturity as the erosion of individuals’ and collectives’ capacities for public use of reason, facilitated by recent sociotechnological developments that simultaneously collect, analyze, and manipulate data on social exchange and have the capacity to normatively influence the behavior of individuals and social groups instantaneously. Identified by the authors as one of the most persistent and insidious threats to the Enlightenment project, organized immaturity can be regarded as a problem created by sociotechnological systems that are used to invasively influence and perpetuate normative behavior at various levels of society—be they private, commercial, or political. As further evidenced in this study, rational and mature thinking, which is arguably the most important component of the Enlightenment, is one of the main victims of this influence.

Consequently, we identify organized immaturity as a problem because it constitutes a form of counter-Enlightenment: in other words, individuals stop reasoning and delegate decision-making capacities to sociotechnological systems. Gradually deprived of opportunities to exercise autonomous, critical-reflective reasoning, individuals are more likely to unwittingly confirm, establish, and enhance this new “normality” (Galloway, Reference Galloway2017; Gigerenzer, Reference Gigerenzer2022). Thus safeguarding the basic liberties of individuals becomes a difficult endeavor, and the institutions emerging from uncritical forms of agency are likely to suppress rather than foster human and democratic development. In other words, instead of harnessing social and technological progress to create a propitious environment for human fulfillment and self-determination (Tegmark, Reference Tegmark2017) and a public sphere for collective decision-making based on reasoned argument (Cohen & Fung, Reference Cohen, Fung, Bernholz, Landemore and Reich2021; Habermas, 1962/Reference Habermas1989, Reference Habermas2022), most of us likely become complicit in engaging in systems that control and dominate individuals and groups in new ways (Zuboff, Reference Zuboff2019).

The threats induced by organized immaturity can be grouped into two overarching categories: 1) threats to liberties (mostly related to decisions in the private realm) and 2) threats to democracy (related to collective decisions in the public realm). In the first category, we note the following significant social changes over the past few decades: legitimate authority based on shared values; equal and mutual rights; democratic entitlement; and the rule of law being increasingly replaced by technology and, eventually, control from the “Big Other,” an emergent, opaque, decentralized, and “ubiquitous institutional regime” (Zuboff, Reference Zuboff2015: 81) to which individual citizens submit their liberties, giving up autonomy in both the private and the public realms. Conformity is no longer an action imposed from the outside but the natural effect of internalizing invasive technologies in our everyday decisions and actions (Gigerenzer, Reference Gigerenzer2022; Zuboff, Reference Zuboff2015), and by losing social control, in general, humans see their freedoms minimized.

In the second category, reason as a basis for informed individual and collective decision-making and action is increasingly replaced by algorithms that take (partial) control of human lives (for an overview, see Tsamados et al., Reference Tsamados, Aggarwal, Cowls, Morley, Roberts, Taddeo and Floridi2022). In this way, organized immaturity can lead to a disintegration of society as we know it: by designing sociotechnological systems in a way that is customized to the needs and preferences of the individual, contemporary Western societies face the problem of an increasing disintegration of the public sphere (Bennett & Livingston, Reference Bennett and Livingston2020; Cohen & Fung, Reference Cohen, Fung, Bernholz, Landemore and Reich2021; Habermas, Reference Habermas2022; McCoy, Rahman, & Somer, Reference McCoy, Rahman and Somer2018). Other threats to democracy are posed by the fact that suggestions or decisions made by these systems lack democratic legitimacy, which is also further eroded by social-institutional subject-construction processes led through these new technologies (e.g., big data).

Under such conditions, there is a possibility that the human individual may no longer be able to exercise freedom to construct and reconstruct her own subjectivity (see also Harari, Reference Harari2018). As a result, the human individual may become the victim of an enhanced form of capitalism that submits her liberty and autonomy to the control of a handful of social agents who escape public accountability while skewing mass preferences in favor of their private economic, social, and political interests. Under this predicament, such sociotechnological systems can become uncontrollable by democratic means and render public notions of fairness and justice meaningless.

In this article, which also serves as the introduction to the BEQ Special Issue “Sociotechnological Conditions of Organized Immaturity in the Twenty-First Century,” we describe how the new sociotechnological systems work and how they emerge, thus creating conditions for organized immaturity in contemporary democratic societies. We then define the phenomenon of organized immaturity from a Kantian perspective, explore it through a historical discussion of modern critiques of technology, and update the problem in the context of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, with the aim to develop solutions to which future research in business ethics and organization studies are particularly well placed to contribute. We suggest, accordingly, two main ways in which organizations and organizing could play a positive role in human emancipation—namely, by protecting individuals’ negative freedoms (freedoms from) and by enhancing their positive freedoms (freedoms to) (Berlin, Reference Berlin and Berlin1969; Fromm, 1941/Reference Fromm1969). In closing our analysis, we briefly introduce the articles selected for publication in this Special Issue and call business ethics scholars and organization theorists to further study organized immaturity and explore potential countermeasures.

CONTEMPORARY SOCIOTECHNOLOGICAL SYSTEMS AND THEIR ORGANIZATIONAL DIMENSION

Humankind’s love–hate affair with technology has always been complex. Coordinated efforts to use technology to produce human-well-being-sustaining cultures have morphed into sociotechnological systems (as defined in the introduction). In the modern era, sociotechnological systems have been studied in relation to work optimization in organizations and rationalization of society (Dusek, Reference Dusek1993; Emery, Reference Emery, Trist, Murray and Trist2016; Mumford, Reference Mumford1981; Trist, Reference Trist1971). Today we see an unprecedented development: such systems have evolved from the level of techne (i.e., knowledge about using artifacts and know-how to better achieve certain ends; Aristotle, Reference Bartlett and Collins2011) and technologies (i.e., knowledge embedded in tools, procedures, machines, and plants) to technological infrastructures interlinked with technology-enhanced communication (see Green, Reference Green2002), reaching a level of technological rationality that takes a life of its own. “The technical structure is medium and outcome of human agency, it enables and constrains human activity and thinking” (Fuchs, Reference Fuchs2005: 57) but also “produces new forms of domination and competition” (Fuchs, Reference Fuchs2008: 7) in global society. In a nutshell, the sociotechnological systems generated through the digital transformation of democratic society are becoming so efficient that escaping from them is becoming increasingly difficult.

The new sociotechnological systems that are now influencing contemporary democratic societies so decisively are based mostly on big data, machine learning, and artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms. They range from selecting information customized to individual consumers’ interests (e.g., via newsfeeds) and personalized advertisements (e.g., Amazon reading lists, food choices) to using algorithms to “nudge” consumers based on existing biases. Such practices are successful largely because they are not coercive or overtly oppressive but developed to serve humans’ most intimate desires, for instance, set to augment individual well-being (Cederström & Spicer, Reference Cederström and Spicer2015, Reference Cederström and Spicer2017; Harcourt, Reference Harcourt2015) by responding to enduring human aspirations to be healthier, faster, stronger, younger, and so on. We briefly outline the key features of these technological developments here.

Advances of sociotechnological systems in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (see Schwab, Reference Schwab2017) have consolidated globalizing information and communication technologies (ICTs) as driving forces of societal development. New big data– and AI-based systems (such as social media platforms, the Internet of Things, and smart cities) have been met with a mix of enthusiasm and fatalistic acceptance. Creative technological disruptions are observed as already shaping the future of work, for example (PEGA, 2020), and business leaders are advised to embrace the new technologies as reliable alternatives to capital investment and labor to generate increasing levels of economic growth (Purdy & Dogherty, Reference Purdy and Dogherty2016). However, they have also attracted new waves of criticism and anxiety (Kamishima, Gremmen, & Akizawa, Reference Kamishima, Gremmen and Akizawa2018; Khanna, Reference Khanna2018; Korinek, Reference Korinek2019; Sachs, Reference Sachs2016)—in particular, fear that these systems will deprive people, in subtle and almost undetectable ways, of individual autonomy, privacy, and other human rights (O’Connor & Weatherall, Reference O’Connor and Weatherall2019; Richards, Reference Richards2013; Trittin-Ulbrich, Scherer, Munro, & Whelan, Reference Trittin-Ulbrich, Scherer, Munro and Whelan2021; Zuboff, Reference Zuboff2015, Reference Zuboff2019).

An important, distinctive feature of these new sociotechnological systems is the pervasive manner in which they have emerged in democratic societies. Stimulated by market-based responses to consumers’ private interests, they have been generated in decentralized ways, via loose networks, not necessarily from intentions or plans to monitor and control human behaviors. Even more so, there seems to be a progression in control systems, starting 1) with voluntary connection to social media platforms, progressing 2) with fragmented surveillance (e.g., via the Internet of Things), and culminating 3) into integrated external surveillance systems, such as smart city projects that embrace individual decision-making and behavior in their totality (see Scherer & Neesham, Reference Scherer and Neesham2021). However, as we examine the evolution of new technologies through these three stages, we note that these multiple-origin developments seem to converge toward complementarity and integration into systems that induce immaturity in increasingly coordinated (i.e., organized) ways. The following section outlines earlier warnings about technology-induced immaturity, in its organizational dimension, from Kant to (post-)modernity, to help us acquire a more profound understanding of historical developments and lessons learned.

CONCEPTUALIZING ORGANIZED IMMATURITY FROM A KANTIAN PERSPECTIVE

According to Kant, intellectual immaturityFootnote 1 is an individual’s lack of development of capabilities required to effectively exercise autonomy in judgment and decision-making, to apply reason and experience for the public good, and to challenge existing institutions to change them for the benefit of the wider community. Here we are especially concerned with the propensity of humans to embrace intellectual immaturity voluntarily, in certain conditions. Kant himself described this kind of immaturity as being “self-inflicted” (Kant, Reference Kant1784: 481).Footnote 2 Although what he observed was occurring in the eighteenth century, the phenomenon is still enduring—albeit with different manifestations in different periods of human civilization. Disruptive technological advancements create new opportunities for such self-inflicted immaturity, and this is a problem for or about not only individual actors but also collective actors. Contemporary technologies, organizations, and institutions can perpetuate such immaturity in the very ways they function, and it is in this sense that we examine here how immaturity becomes “organized,” that is, how it manifests in structured and systematic ways, and what impacts it has on the human condition today.

In sum, we understand “immaturity” as a characteristic of individuals or social collectives that arises when individuals defer or delegate autonomous reasoning to external authorities, including the authority of sociotechnological systems (Fromm, 1941/Reference Fromm1969; Marcuse, 1964/Reference Marcuse1991). Organized forms of immaturity have been addressed (although without explicitly using the term) in the analysis of bureaucratic organizations and capitalist society, where the individual is subject to domination and control (Clegg, Reference Clegg1990; Hilferding, 1910/Reference Hilferding1981). Today, many new forms of such immaturity are possible when technologies advance and autocracies rise while democracy and individual liberties decline, and each of these forms impacts individual or collective autonomy (Bradshaw & Howard, Reference Bradshaw and Howard2018; de Jonquières, Reference de Jonquières2017; Eatwell & Goodwin, Reference Eatwell and Goodwin2018; Taplin, Reference Taplin2017). Despite modernity’s endeavor to advance liberty as a natural right of humans, contemporary society, assisted by technological revolutions, creates more complex systems that place the individual under increasing external surveillance and control instead of promoting emancipation and freedom (Gorton, Reference Gorton2016; Richards, Reference Richards2013; Zuboff, Reference Zuboff2015). In what follows, we propose a history or genealogy of organized immaturity—from Kantian ideas to thinkers of (post-)modernity who critically explore the effects of sociotechnological developments on the formation of the individual: Arendt, Fromm, Marcuse, Foucault, and, more recently, Zuboff.

TOWARD A GENEALOGY OF ORGANIZED IMMATURITY

Concerns about sociotechnological advancements causing loss of rights and liberties have a long history—although morphed to respond to different challenges at different times. Humankind has always strived to advance its knowledge to improve its condition. The most popular technologies owe their success to their ability to respond well to this desire for better living. Deleuze and Guattari (Reference Deleuze and Guattari1983), for example, have explored the role of desire in driving social development and conceived of individuals as desiring and desire-producing machines that seek an assemblage of sensations, pleasures, and physical or social experiences. Today, individuals are confronted with machines and other technologies that promise to meet these desires all too easily (e.g., smart phones, tablets, social media). The lure of technology consists in its impressive capacity to provide immediate solutions for our most private and intimate concerns, for instance, to be more attractive, more knowledgeable, more powerful—and, daring further, to stop aging and—why not?—to become immortal. Our implicit expectation is, therefore, that technology has an instrumental value, that its vocation is service to our human needs and unconscious desires (Harcourt, Reference Harcourt2015).

However, we note that sociotechnological systems (at both societal and organizational levels) tend to slide from the originally intended service to pervasive forms of control, in a subliminal reversal of subject authority between humans and machines. It is this effect that should give us increasing concern. With the advent of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (Schwab, Reference Schwab2017), as technologies tend to exceed human capabilities, human deference to the processing performance of algorithms is increasingly apparent, especially in the interpretation of data processing and machine “learning” power as suprahuman intelligence (Bostrom, Reference Bostrom2014; Harari, Reference Harari2018). As the seductive powers of these new systems (social media platforms, the Internet of Things, smart cities—as previously discussed) are induced, maintained, and enhanced via organized environments, this deference is particularly harmful to the human condition, as it has the potential to undermine human consciousness and decrease freedom in society. Therefore the phenomenon of interest here is not just immaturity but organized immaturity. The impacts of technology on individuals and collectives are mediated to an increasing extent by deliberate human organizing, and human-led organizations constitute a fundamental part of the problem.

But, in essence, the phenomenon of organized immaturity is not new. The social effects of technology, as well as human complicity in accepting them, have been steadily critiqued since the age of the Enlightenment. In what follows, we spell out what predecessors have observed about immaturity, its variously organized forms, and humans’ attempts to deal with this condition. In doing so, we seek new lessons to learn from the past in order to better understand humankind’s contemporary challenges and to suggest new contributions that organization studies could make to tackle these challenges.

The Legacy of the Enlightenment

The role of the Enlightenment in crystallizing aspirations of maturity was recently addressed by Scherer and Neesham (Reference Scherer and Neesham2022). In summary, in contrast to an enlightened state is a condition that Kant (Reference Kant1784: 481) describes as “self-inflicted immaturity” and that results not “from a lack of understanding, but from the lack of resolve and courage to use one’s reason without the guidance of another.” During the European medieval times up until the Renaissance, the human being was determined by its fixed role in premodern society, where the individual was subordinated to the needs and forces of the collective:

A person was identical with his role in society; he was a peasant, an artisan, a knight, and not an individual who happened to have this or that occupation. The social order was conceived as a natural order, and being a definite part of it gave a feeling of security and belonging (Fromm, 1941/Reference Fromm1969: 41).

The European Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries enabled the individual to break off the chains of these traditional roles, to gain some freedom from external social pressures, to form individual identities or change his role in society. However, the development of bureaucratic organizations and capitalist societies in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries submitted individuals to social and economic systems of dependence and control, which largely restricted individual autonomy and self-determination in new ways (Clegg, Reference Clegg1990; Hilferding, 1910/Reference Mumford1981). Even more so, the majority of individuals “have not yet acquired the maturity to be independent, to be rational, to be objective” (Fromm, 1941/Reference Fromm1969: xvi). Individuals are, on one hand, overburdened by the liberties that our contemporary forms of enlightenment offer (Pinker, Reference Pinker2018) and, on the other hand, largely unprepared to fill the space created by negative freedoms with a vision for, and a practice of, positive freedoms (Berlin, Reference Berlin and Berlin1969). In other words, there is a lag between “freedom from” external social and economic pressures (negative freedom) and “freedom to” pursue the good life (εὐδαιμονία) along values of one’s own choosing (positive freedom).

Yet, Fromm (1941/Reference Fromm1969: 36) argues that the imbalance in the development of negative and positive freedoms and the unpreparedness to determine one’s own destiny motivate individuals to a “flight from freedom into new ties or at least into complete indifference.” Thus pessimistic perspectives on the future of human civilization, emphasizing the perverse effects of new technology, have also been proposed, suggesting that complex uncertainty is likely to deprive humans of their natural capabilities for empathy (Bridle, Reference Bridle2018). The promise of the Enlightenment project may again be diverted—unless human beings are prepared to learn from past errors and develop radical solutions not only to how we as individuals relate to technology but also to how we organize.

Individuality as “Automated Functioning”: Arendt’s Critique

In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt (Reference Arendt1958/1998) warns against the dangers of individuals voluntarily relinquishing their judgment and decision-making spaces and freedoms to the comforts and conveniences offered by technology (see also Zuboff, Reference Zuboff2015). She foresees the world of work as developing into a “society of jobholders” whose lives are filled by automatic responses to system-set stimuli, devoid of any individuality and responsibility for the “trouble of living”:

It is quite conceivable that the modern age—which began with such an unprecedented and promising outburst of human activity—may end in the deadliest, most sterile passivity history has ever known (322).

Today human beings seem to be drawing closer to Arendt’s dystopic vision. Her analyses of the laboring society in the automation stage of the Industrial Revolution anticipate our contemporary concerns about the unwitting conversion of technology-as-servant into technology-as-master:

To design objects for the operational capacity of the machine instead of designing machines for the production of certain objects would indeed be the exact reversal of the means-end category, if this category still made any sense (152).

The phenomenon Arendt describes here appears eerily similar to the realization of computer scientists today that AI is increasingly developing, not into a means of augmenting or extending human intelligence to comprehend the world, but into a means of digitizing the world to make it machine processible (Broussard, Reference Broussard2018). Driven by such rationality, human beings tend to follow the imperative of sociotechnological systems and give up on human individuality and freedom in favor of an automated functioning within the system. A similar effect is analyzed in the work of Erich Fromm, to which we turn next.

“Escape from Freedom”: Fromm’s Critique

To make sense of the entrapment experienced amid rational systems of capitalist control, on one hand, and increased civic liberties (for which they are not prepared), on the other, individuals tend to resolve this dissonance by seeking to “escape from freedom” altogether, as the title of Fromm’s (1941/Reference Fromm1969) seminal book suggests. According to Fromm, there are two “principal social avenues of escape” (133).Footnote 3 The first is submission to an authority, that is, submitting oneself to autocratic leaders and ideologies in the political sphere. At the time of Fromm’s writing, this concerned the rise of fascist and communist leaders in Europe and the Soviet Union; today, however, we see an emergence of “new” autocratic leaders even in democratic countries (De Matas, Reference De Matas2017). Fromm explains this phenomenon as

the tendency to give up the independence of one’s own individual self and to fuse one’s self with somebody or something outside of oneself in order to acquire the strength which the individual self is lacking (140).

The second principal avenue for escape is compulsive conforming (Fromm 1941/Reference Fromm1969: 133), which Fromm describes as a person’s propensity “to seek his identity by continuous approval and recognition by others” (203) “in his private or social relations,” for example, “by success in business, or by ‘making contacts’” (133). Seen from this perspective, the individuals tend to adopt the identity that is imposed on them by cultural patterns:

The person who gives up his individual self and becomes an automaton, identical with millions of other automatons around him, need not feel alone and anxious any more. But the price he pays, however, is high; it is the loss of his self (184).

Today, in the digital age, we recognize these symptoms in the practice of connections or “likes” on social media or in the adherence to social groups and movements, leading to the subordination of the individual in favor of collective identities (Brünker, Deitelhoff, & Mirbabaie, Reference Brünker, Deitelhoff and Mirbabaie2019). This includes imitating role models in the social or economic sphere or, as a modern form, adapting to social media “influencers” or group identities (e.g., based on social attributes like nation, class, or gender). Contemporary automata are human beings reduced to immature desire holders who cannot escape the dominance of their networks over their lives (Harcourt, Reference Harcourt2015). This has a significant oppressive impact on the multidimensionality and complexity of human beings—a phenomenon discussed in detail by Herbert Marcuse.

“Containment of Social Change”: Marcuse’s Critique

Concerned about the controlling effects of the global technology emerging in the 1960s (with the growth of TV and advertising, for example), Marcuse (1964/Reference Marcuse1991) diagnoses the problem in his book One-Dimensional Man in the following way: it is not just that individuals’ increasing dependence on all-encompassing sociotechnological systems reduces their ability to exercise personal reasoning and reflection; in fact, such freedom, to the extent of fundamentally challenging the existing systems, is no longer available. All possible dissent is already co-opted into the given premises.

In response, Marcuse advocates for critical-dialectical analysis as an approach that adequately captures the dominance-resistance dynamic (see also Harracá, Castelló, & Gawer, Reference Harracá, Castelló and Gawer2023, in this issue) as the foundational principle of social change. A politically salient result of this critical-dialectical thinking should be, he argues, the “Great Refusal” (Marcuse 1964/Reference Marcuse1991: 63ff.), namely, the individual act of resisting the insidious forms of oppression propagated by globalized sociotechnological systems. Today the individual refusal often culminates with subordination to collective refusals embodied by social movements that oppose systemic disciplining forces and form a collective identity. An example of this phenomenon is the Fridays for Future movement (see Brünker et al., Reference Brünker, Deitelhoff and Mirbabaie2019). Although oppression of individuals by social institutions is not new, the extent and voluntariness of individuals’ participation in their own oppression reach new heights:

our society distinguishes itself by conquering the centrifugal social forces with Technology rather than Terror, on the dual basis of an overwhelming efficiency and an increasing standard of living (Marcuse, 1964/Reference Marcuse1991: xlii).

Therefore the promise of a more comfortable life can, and does, attract individuals into a vortex of subordination to ever increasing technological complexity. The social and political context of the twenty-first century emerges naturally in the horizon of Marcuse’s diagnosis more than five decades ago.

Although his critique is radical, the emancipatory premises resulting from it are fundamentally optimistic: human life is valuable, and it can be improved through social organization, mainly by increasing individual autonomy rather than reducing it. But the advent of technologies that claim to generalize precisely individual freedoms, in the form of freedom of choice, by facilitating access to enhanced lifestyle options poses an unprecedented challenge: the incorporation of all social change, actual and potential, within existing sociotechnological systems ensures the co-optation of all destabilizing possibilities, with profound consequences for individual autonomy. Accordingly, individuals are often unable to find any space for radically challenging the existence and rationale of these systems (Marcuse 1964/Reference Marcuse1991: xliii–xlviii). This social change containment phenomenon is the main outcome of the conversion of service into domination that Arendt describes. A historical-genealogical explanation of how this conversion has emerged in modernity is provided by Michel Foucault.

“Pastoral Power” and the Refusal of the “Subject”: Foucault’s Critique

Foucault (Reference Foucault1982: 778) explains that the focus of his work is “the way a human being turns itself into a subject.” In this context, he also offers an original interpretation of the Enlightenment, describing Kant’s philosophy (and philosophy in general) as having the role of keeping in check “the excessive powers of political rationality” (779). Foucault observes that anti-authority struggles are not only about obtaining freedoms for individuals or communities but also struggles against the “government of individualization,” namely, the authoritarian pressure of social institutions to confine the existence of individuals into socially constructed subjects with fixed identities (781). The Great Refusal (Marcuse, 1964/Reference Marcuse1991) thus becomes a refusal of social-institutional subject-construction processes,

a refusal of … abstractions, of economic and ideological state violence, which ignore who we are individually, and also a refusal of a scientific and administrative inquisition which determines who one is (Foucault, Reference Foucault1982: 781).

Furthermore, its targets are not specific institutions, groups, or classes of people but a particular form of power that, in Foucault’s view, has specialized in constructing individuals as subjects, namely, subjects of the state and of society, as well as subjects for themselves.

Using genealogical analysis, Foucault (Reference Foucault1982) identifies a crucial aspect of the power of the modern state, in the historical context of Europe, and of France in particular. He names this peculiar form of power “pastoral power” and finds it to be specific to modernity. What is distinctive about pastoral power is that it engages the “totalization procedures” of the state in serving human well-being via “individualization techniques.” Thus both individualization and totalization are played out within the same political structures. In this “tricky combination,” the modern state is called to recognize, protect, and enhance the natural rights of individuals—but it does so by engaging “an old power technique which originated in the Christian institutions” of premodern eras (782; see also Fromm 1941/Reference Fromm1969, chapter 3).

In Foucault’s (Reference Foucault1982: 784) historical interpretation, the power of the Christian Church looking after the souls of its flock has been secularized into “salvation … in this world” rather than in the afterlife; and the indicators of this salvation are now health, well-being, security, safety, and so on. In the new state—which is the same state that designs and governs integrated national systems for wages, pensions, and welfare services of all kinds—the “globalizing and quantitative” study of populations, through the development of statistics-supported national policies, is intertwined with customized concern for individuals. Pastoral power is no longer confined to a centralized institution but flows “into the whole social body” and is exercised by a wide range of social institutions, such as “medicine, psychiatry, education, and employers.”

Foucault’s (Reference Foucault1982: 783) characterization of the modern state as an expression of pastoral power articulates, in general terms, the defining aspects of social systems’ orientation toward individual welfare with which we are so familiar today. The interest of the state in serving its people must be acknowledged—but one must also recognize that the integration of individuals into the requisite social structures comes at a price: the paternalistic construction of the individual as a subject by the system itself.

Inspired by Foucault’s interpretation, we note that, in the twenty-first century, big data–based technologies are now gradually taking on the role of the state, particularly with regard to the social construction of individual subjects. When using big data to know a person more than that person knows herself, as Harari (Reference Harari2018) puts it, an algorithm does not respect individuals’ freedom to construct and reconstruct their own subjectivity: it does in fact precisely what Foucault describes about subject-constructing social systems, such as the state exercising pastoral power. It imposes on individuals identities that they themselves may not be prepared to freely accept. At the same time, as individuals more readily relinquish the exercise of their intellectual maturity for the convenience of being served by technology, this creates increasing distance between power and responsibility in system-wide decisions affecting individuals in society. As Foucault (Reference Foucault1982: 783) describes, pastoral power

cannot be exercised without knowing the inside of people’s minds, without exploring their souls, without making them reveal their innermost secrets. It implies a knowledge of the conscience and an ability to direct it.

We infer from Foucault’s analysis that sociotechnological systems are not only taking over control and restricting the human socialization and individualization processes but are also becoming deeply embedded into the institutions of the state as they shape the conditions for the formulation and execution of collective rules. This problem reaches a new level of complexity in contemporary capitalism, as Shoshana Zuboff has argued.

“Surveillance Capitalism” as an Unprecedented Challenge: Zuboff’s Critique

In her critical analysis of today’s computer-mediated society, Zuboff (Reference Zuboff2015, Reference Zuboff2019, Reference Zuboff2022) takes issue with the emergence of what she calls surveillance capitalism, defined as a new social order that generates and relies on information capital to influence individual behaviors and market exchanges. In this context, the “Big Other,” an emergent sociotechnological system driven by the rationality of multiple societal actors seeking power and profits from digital technology, is far from a monolithic, central authority and yet, through its pervasive influence on individual behaviors, manages to impose dominant logics on the lives of individuals in society, co-opting and transforming human experience into marketable data, in opaque and undemocratic ways.

Following an overwhelming wave of enthusiasm around the potential of digital technologies to improve human life, Zuboff’s (Reference Zuboff2015, Reference Zuboff2019, Reference Zuboff2022) critical account of their less desirable, corrosive effects on the foundations of democratic society is a powerful wake-up call. Her critique of digitalization apologists like Varian (Reference Varian2010, Reference Varian2014) shifts attention from technological conveniences to loss of social values (see also Lanier, Reference Lanier2018; Pal & Crowcroft, Reference Pal and Crowcroft2019) like trust, autonomy, and transparency. Her analysis also outlines how a new global economic oligopoly is emerging as a result, also supporting a new social oligarchy (Zuboff, Reference Zuboff2022).

Contemporary digital technology is characterized by its power to convert any human activity into data, which is in turn sold by ICT firms (West, Reference West2019) to other corporations, mainly for commercial purposes. Although this commodification of human life via datafication (Mejias & Couldry, Reference Mejias and Couldry2019) may appear well intended or benign, its grip has grown so powerful that individuals face difficulties in extracting themselves (and their lives) from it.

Initially hailed as a new era of improvements in human well-being, digitalization has been criticized for its far-reaching negative impacts on liberal democracy as we know it (Eubanks, Reference Eubanks2018; Harcourt, Reference Harcourt2015; West, Reference West2019). Zuboff’s comprehensive research monograph of 2019 offers detailed examples of how giant ICT firms collect vast amounts of data from individuals and then use these data for purposes of which their original owners are largely unaware. Her examples refer to automated data capture as well as digital surveillance devices (both private and public), and her critique is directed especially at the lucrative practice of selling personalized data to advertisers in search of potential consumers. Zuboff refers to this new phenomenon, which proliferates the selling and buying of information-based opportunities for influencing purchasing behaviors, as the appearance of “markets in behavioral modification” (323).

It can be said that the nontransparent and undemocratic use of algorithms to predict, direct, and control individual and collective behaviors has wider and deeper impacts on human lives and freedoms than class-ridden social structures and technologies of the previous century (Habermas, Reference Habermas and Habermas1970). The key power of digitalization, which consists in determining the range and structure of choices available to users, lies in confining the latter to conformity under the guise of free choice and voluntary action (see, e.g., Ruehle, Reference Ruehle2023, in this issue). Thus an impersonal Big Other generates forms of organized immaturity by distorting the very meaning of human freedom and inducing subliminal forms of paternalism.

THE PROBLEM OF PATERNALISM AND GOVERNANCE BY DECENTRALIZED SOCIOTECHNOLOGICAL SYSTEMS

Our historical examples show that organized immaturity does not need to be (centrally) planned. It can emerge simply as an effect of more or less subtle versions of paternalism. No matter how much more effective it is in deploying superior expertise to protect an individual’s interests, paternalism remains, in a political sense, a form of interference with one’s liberty to make one’s own decisions (Mill, 1859/Reference Mill, Colini and Mill1989), thus suppressing one’s rational will (Cholbi, Reference Cholbi2017). Paradoxically, however, the most difficult problems of paternalism seem to occur precisely in those social orders that are organized around valuing human freedoms the most, namely, democracies. As early as 1840, Alexis de Tocqueville (1840/Reference de Tocqueville1945: 318) commented on the tendency of the democratic system to keep people “in perpetual childhood: … it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures” (see also Harcourt, Reference Harcourt2015: 336). Thus democratic societies, where individual liberties are assumed or expected to be paramount, are vulnerable to paternalism in a specific way. They feed on the complicity of human subjects with the technologies of their less abstract, more immediate desires.

But this is not all. Under the technological paternalism specific to data capitalism, namely, value extraction based on data commercialization (West, Reference West2019), the meaning of democracy itself has taken a new turn. While inheriting Enlightenment values of reflection and independent reasoning as foundations of meaning, knowledge, and informed action, modernity has also adopted technological advancements as a means to maximize efficiency and to centralize the administration of society through systems that constrain and act against the individual self-determination and freedom ideals that the Enlightenment had originally been engaged to promote. Crouch (Reference Crouch2004) reminds us that, today, democracies are characterized not so much by the self-governance of the people but, owing to the complexity of the steering task, by the governance of technocrats and technocratic systems. As a result, reason as a basis for informed individual and collective action is increasingly replaced by intelligent machines and algorithms that can influence our decisions (including nudging measures; see also Ruehle, Reference Ruehle2023, in this issue). Furthermore, even in democratic societies, we have recently witnessed digitally enhanced practices that have empowered autocratic and populist politics against scientific truth, responsible media, and adequate protection of the rights of minorities (Eatwell & Goodwin, Reference Eatwell and Goodwin2018).

Digitalization puts forth sociotechnological systems that influence citizens’ consciousness in the absence of an identifiable agent centralizing the power and control. Although the loose-network aspect of such systems may suggest potential for democratic spaces, the AI dimension in particular increases the possibility of human creators losing their grip on machine-learning processes that they may no longer be able to comprehend (Bostrom, Reference Bostrom2014), while algorithms themselves may misunderstand humans, with significant and far-reaching consequences (Broussard, Reference Broussard2018).

As a consequence of widespread digitalization, the governance of contemporary society has to include different categories of actors, beyond the governments of nation-states. Such actors may be international organizations, multinational corporations, nonprofit organizations, mass media organizations, and even social or civil movements. Importantly, the public accountability that characterized democratic societies of previous eras (Habermas, 1998/Reference Habermas2001) is not evenly distributed across these categories, with some (such as transnationals) escaping it almost entirely. In this context, digital technologies support ways to avoid (rather than enhance) accountability, making it even more difficult for less powerful social groups to identify the forces against which they should be struggling to secure their emancipation.

COUNTERACTING ORGANIZED IMMATURITY: THE ROLE OF BUSINESS ETHICS AND ORGANIZATION STUDIES

Acknowledging that organizations are part of the problem, we argue that business ethics in particular and organization studies more generally can and should deploy research capabilities to critically diagnose the current challenges of organized immaturity and to forge new paths toward effective solutions. Between disorganizing immaturity and organizing maturity, we are not the first to suggest that the risk is worth taking (see Clegg & Higgins, Reference Clegg, Higgins and Clegg1990; Urry, Reference Urry and Clegg1990). In this sense, we propose to examine social mechanisms (Hedström & Ylikoski, Reference Hedström and Ylikoski2010) as leverage points in inducing social change. Building on Bunge (Reference Bunge1997), yet without subscribing to his epistemology of scientific realism, we understand a social mechanism as “a process in a concrete system, such that it is capable of bringing about or preventing some change in the system as a whole or in some of its subsystems” (414).

Accordingly, we consider two social mechanisms for enhancing individual freedom and autonomy: first, disorganizing immaturity, and second, organizing maturity—both at individual and collective levels. We invite scholars of business ethics and organization studies to critically explore the potentials of these mechanisms to liberate individuals and collectives from the seductive effects of organized immaturity. Both mechanisms can be related to the multifaceted concept of freedom as it has been discussed in political philosophy. Specifically, political philosophers distinguish between negative and positive freedoms (Berlin, Reference Berlin and Berlin1969; see also Arendt, Reference Arendt1959/1968; Fromm, 1941/Reference Fromm1969). The former deals with the freedom from external restrictions and pressures (as suggested earlier in this article) and has been the main focus of philosophical and political analysis. In contrast, the latter is concerned with the freedom to pursue an agenda or endeavor in the public arena and has been emphasized mainly in the development of citizenship rights and specific systems of democratic governance.

In this context, the social mechanism of disorganizing immaturity makes use of various forms of resistance, at individual and collective levels, that sidestep or weaken the restricting and controlling forces of sociotechnological systems. The aim is thus to protect or increase negative freedom (freedom from) of individuals by pushing back structural restrictions on individual and collective reasoning and weakening the totalizing effects of these systems on individual consciousness and maturation. In turn, the social mechanism of organizing maturity emphasizes the strengthening of positive freedom (freedom to) of individuals (and finally also of social groups and collectives) and makes use of various forms of enabling individuals to exercise autonomous reasoning in processes of deliberation, that is, “debate and discussion aimed at producing reasonable, well-informed opinions in which participants are willing to revise preferences in light of discussion, new information, and claims made by fellow participants” (Chambers, Reference Chambers2003: 309).

Disorganizing Immaturity

Disorganizing the phenomenon of organized immaturity becomes possible using critiques by authors who propose various forms of resistance to its effects on human autonomy (Foucault, Reference Foucault1982; Fromm, 1941/Reference Fromm1969; Harcourt, Reference Harcourt2015; Marcuse, 1964/Reference Marcuse1991). Resistance can be mobilized at individual, organizational, and collective levels when, for example, individuals avoid or break entrenched systemic rules, social activists counteract the control machinery, or social movements destabilize and change the prevailing (albeit subliminal) repressive order. The mechanism works by curtailing the negative effects of sociotechnological systems to loosen the restrictions on individual freedom and autonomy. In organization theory, this option has also been discussed as a form of “anti-organization” (Burrell & Morgan, Reference Burrell and Morgan1979: 310–25), where the disciplining effects of bureaucracy and the capitalist order are taken under scrutiny and replaced by forms of inclusive and democratic decision-making and control in small collectives rather than in large, anonymous corporations and social systems (Clegg, Reference Clegg1990; Hilferding, 1910/Reference Hilferding1981). Whether such forms of resistance are justified and under what conditions is a matter of debate (see, e.g., Fromm, 1941/Reference Fromm1969: 177–83, on “destructiveness”).

To address the problem of hegemonic subject-constructing systems, Foucault (Reference Foucault1982: 785) proposes the refusal of externally imposed individuality:

Maybe the target nowadays is not to discover what we are but to refuse what we are…. The political, ethical, social, philosophical problem of our days is not to try to liberate the individual from the state and from the state’s institutions but to liberate us both from the state and from the type of individualization which is linked to the state. We have to promote new forms of subjectivity through the refusal of this kind of individuality which has been imposed on us for several centuries.

Foucault also provides a list of elements that need to be analyzed to deconstruct an individualizing-totalizing political order and initiate an effective anti-authority struggle, namely, the system of differentiations (by which “one can act upon the actions of others”), the types of objectives (to be “pursued by those who act upon the actions of others”), the means of bringing power relations into being, forms of institutionalization, and degrees of rationalization (Foucault, Reference Foucault1982: 792). Yet, the particular form of political order (or, in our context, of sociotechnological systems) rests on some elements that are emergent and on others that are deliberatively created.

We note, however, that today we are already at least one level of complexity above Foucault’s social and political realities of the twentieth century: the gradual replacement of state paternalism by big data technologies—or, in sum, what Zuboff defines as the Big Other—is having new systemic effects on the life of human communities. We do, however, learn from Foucault (Reference Foucault1982: 791–92) that between power and anti-authority struggle there is a dynamic relationship that can be reversed—and that recovering human freedom against totalizing systems is “a permanent political task inherent in all social existence” (see also, more recently, Lindebaum, den Hond, Greenwood, Chamberlain, & Andersson, Reference Lindebaum, den Hond, Greenwood, Chamberlain and Andersson2022: 1864–66, on “world-making” in their relational concept of freedom).

This conclusion should give us hope that, in the twenty-first century as well, the potential is there for individuals to adopt certain (perhaps yet to be conceived) strategies to protect themselves from the new forms of organized immaturity facilitated by the sociotechnological systems specific to the Fourth Industrial Revolution. For example, one such strategy could be refusing (and confusing) the individual identities assigned to us through algorithm-generated profiles, and another strategy could be to challenge and unsettle the profile-generation processes themselves. The challenge now, however, is that responsibility for the consequences of decisions and actions undertaken within the new systems is increasingly elusive.

Considering the case of social media, we note their ability to collect and track individual data and to microtarget individuals and social groups with their feeds, while optimizing the manipulation system with the help of algorithms. This concerns not only commercial decisions of potential or actual consumers but also political decisions when citizens are influenced in their political behavior. Lanier (Reference Lanier2018) considers this a serious threat for the democratic institutions and political culture of contemporary society. As an immediate remedy, he recommends to any individual to immediately disconnect from social media to avoid their influence. This resisting behavior could force social media companies to change their business model and loosen their focus on manipulative objectives.

Others propose a less rigid, more fine-grained approach. Harcourt (Reference Harcourt2015) suggests that there is already a range of new “weapons” available for avoiding visibility, transparency, and thus surveillance and control of individual behavior. These rely on a combination of education, awareness building, self-help, and technical devices (both hardware and software based) that enable individuals to scrutinize, encrypt, and protect their personal information or to surf the internet anonymously.Footnote 4 Yet, even more radical strategies of digital disobedience, such as whistleblowing or distorting personal information, can counteract the surveillance apparatus—all of which aim to restore the negative freedom of individuals.

Organizing Maturity

Organizing maturity is a social mechanism that aims to strengthen positive freedoms of individuals and social groups. Therefore one can speak about organizing individual and/or collective maturity. In modern liberal societies, individuals are considered as bearers of equal and impartial liberties—that is, civil, social, and political rights that, when fully developed, make them autonomous members of society (Marshall, Reference Marshall1965). Civil rights, such as the right to exercise freedom of speech, the right to own and inherit property, or the right to conclude contracts with other social actors, are largely negative rights, as they establish the individual’s right to be protected from or free from unjustified interference by powerful third parties, be they governmental or private actors (Berlin, Reference Berlin and Berlin1969). By contrast, social and political rights are considered positive rights, as they entitle individual right bearers with the freedom to participate in the public sphere as full and equal members of society (Berlin, Reference Berlin and Berlin1969). Social rights provide the preconditions for such participation. These are the rights to education, health care, and social welfare—because only when these basic capacities are developed can individuals act effectively as citizens in liberal society. Even more so, political rights provide individuals with the ability to engage in collective will formation on public matters. Some examples of such political rights include the right to vote and to be elected, the right to engage in social movements, the right to form collectives and political parties, and the right to hold public office.

As Scherer and Neesham (Reference Scherer and Neesham2022) argued, such rights have to be supported not only by public institutions but also by a political culture maintained by citizens who know how to claim and exercise their rights autonomously. However, under the prevailing sociotechnological conditions described earlier, this socialization process seems distorted, and the result is a restriction of individual rights and the facilitation of organized immaturity. In the same context, the role of the state, the media, social movements, and organizations in general in strengthening positive freedoms of individuals and social groups deserves further attention.

The Role of the State

In the liberal conception of society, the state is the actor that is responsible for providing public goods, such as basic and higher education; creating the requisite institutional environment; and protecting the equal and impartial private, social, and political rights of individuals and social groups (Rawls, Reference Rawls1993). Organizing maturity, accordingly, means strengthening these basic functions of the state. A number of public policies are helpful in this regard: 1) strengthening basic, higher, and continuing education by informing citizens of all ages and preparing them to confront and manage the dark aspects of social media and ICT influences (Carmi, Yates, Lockley, & Pawluczuk, Reference Carmi, Yates, Lockley and Pawluczuk2020); 2) developing legal regulations, procedures, and institutions that effectively protect individuals from surveillance and manipulation by the sociotechnological complex, for instance, using informed consent provisions, the right to be forgotten and effective appeal processes, and control mechanisms as established in the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) of 2018 (see, critically, Schade, Reference Schade2023, in this issue); 3) granting and protecting property rights over personal data to benefit those who produce them so that, for instance, internet users receive compensation any time their data are used by third parties (Lanier, Reference Lanier2013; Pal & Crowcroft, Reference Pal and Crowcroft2019; see also Harcourt, Reference Harcourt2015: 274); 4) providing regulatory and financial support to NGOs that exercise a watchdog function upon and within the sociotechnological complex; and 5) providing and protecting public forums, including conditions for a viable and plural media landscape (see later), for open public debate, so that citizens can effectively exercise their political rights or deliberate on issues of public concern (Buhmann & Fieseler, Reference Buhmann and Fieseler2021; Cohen & Fung, Reference Cohen, Fung, Bernholz, Landemore and Reich2021; Habermas, Reference Habermas2022; Lundgaard & Etter, Reference Lundgaard and Etter2022; Picard, Reference Picard2016).

The Role of the Media

News media are essential for the proper functioning of the public sphere in liberal democratic society (Cohen & Fung, Reference Cohen, Fung, Bernholz, Landemore and Reich2021; Habermas, 1962/Reference Habermas1989, Reference Habermas2022). They generate and distribute news, reports, and information on issues of public concern—and this is an important basis for individual and collective decision-making in both private and public realms (Schwoon, Schoeneborn, & Scherer, Reference Schwoon, Schoeneborn and Scherer2022). Furthermore, they inform citizens about critical issues and developments in society, thus enabling citizens to develop their own views and to take corrective action where they consider it appropriate. To strengthen positive freedoms of individuals and social groups, organization studies need to explore how media organizations can and should take responsibility in providing accurate information, applying transparency, delivering sound critique, and offering multiple perspectives and food for thought, rather than manipulating audiences or imposing definitive answers (see, e.g., Castelló & Lopez-Berzosa, Reference Castelló and Lopez-Berzosa2021). This means we need to study, for example, the effects of media policy on media organizations and public discourse, and explore how and under what conditions open public discourse is facilitated by proper media regulations and incentives (Cohen & Fung, Reference Cohen, Fung, Bernholz, Landemore and Reich2021; Habermas, Reference Habermas2022; Picard & Pickard, Reference Picard and Pickard2017). In addition, organization studies need to research how news media can and should uphold and develop the ethical standards of their profession (Ward, Reference Ward2019), for example, by installing proper quality management systems and investing in proper human resource management policies so that high standards are being applied in selecting, training, evaluating, and compensating democratically engaged journalists (see Ward, Reference Ward2019: 121). Social media have become important players in the news media ecosystem. As much as they are part of the problem, some argue that they should become part of the solution (Napoli, Reference Napoli2019). Yet, self-regulation seems just as insufficient as the sole reliance on technical solutions. A smart mixture of personal and automated moderation, combined with elements of self-regulation and governmental regulation, is more promising (Napoli, Reference Napoli2019; Ward, Reference Ward2019).

The Role of Social Movements

Organization studies also need to further analyze the role of NGOs, social activists, and movements, which play an important role in organizing individual and collective maturity. They function as watchdogs for the national economy and politics, providing spaces for social and political exchange outside and above the institutionalized political arenas, and contribute to the proper functioning of the public sphere by supporting citizens in exercising their public and/or collective responsibilities (Habermas, 1962/Reference Habermas1989). This applies particularly to juveniles who earn their first merits in political engagement, as the Fridays for Future movement has impressively shown (Etchanchu, de Bakker, & Delmestri, Reference Etchanchu, de Bakker, Delmestri, Teerikangas, Onkila, Koistinen and Mäkelä2021). Aside from well-known global NGOs with a broader social or environmental agenda, such as Greenpeace, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch, some NGOs have focused on the challenges of digitalization. For example, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Tactical Tech, and the Chaos Computer Club have earned a reputation for alerting, informing, and educating citizens about the dark sides of digitalization and pushing government officials to assume concern of these issues (however, see, e.g., Lovink & Rossiter, Reference Lovink and Rossiter2018).

The Role of Business Organizations

Finally, business organizations also have a responsibility to contribute to organizing individual and collective maturity. This has already been emphasized in the discussion of corporate citizenship and political corporate social responsibility (Matten & Crane, Reference Matten and Crane2005; Scherer & Palazzo, Reference Scherer and Palazzo2007, Reference Scherer and Palazzo2011). The responsibility of corporations is not only to avoid harm by restricting manipulation and the mechanisms of surveillance capitalism but even more so to do good for society by providing enabling conditions for the maturation and liberation of individuals, taking social responsibility when other actors, such as state agencies in oppressive or fragile states, are unwilling or incapable of doing so (Scherer & Voegtlin, Reference Scherer and Voegtlin2020, Reference Scherer, Voegtlin and Lyonin press). As a consequence, corporations can administer citizenship rights by various means (Matten & Crane, Reference Matten and Crane2005). Extending Matten and Crane’s ideas, for surveillance capitalism contexts, this could mean 1) enabling civil rights by acknowledging property rights of individuals, for instance, granting property rights to internet users who generate data in the first place; 2) providing social rights by informing and training citizens in the appropriate use of social media and the pitfalls of manipulative algorithms; and 3) operating as a channel for political rights, whereby individuals are provided with opportunities and training in argumentation processes and collective will formation (see, e.g., Pek, Mena, & Lyons, Reference Pek, Mena and Lyons2022).

These are only a few illustrations of how (and in what capacity) public, private, and civil society actors can jointly contribute to organizing maturity, by strengthening positive freedoms and thus potentially counteracting the detrimental effects of organized immaturity under the sociotechnological conditions of the twenty-first century. The field of organization studies can be mobilized to further explore such mechanisms and their outcomes.

THIS SPECIAL ISSUE’S CONTRIBUTIONS TO THE STUDY OF ORGANIZED IMMATURITY

This Special Issue of Business Ethics Quarterly brings together five articles that feature a broad range of conceptual and empirical inquiries into phenomena of organized immaturity. More specifically, the Special Issue includes three articles that are primarily on the diagnostic side of organized immaturity, covering topics as diverse as power dynamics on digital platforms (Harracá et al.), standards of digital data protection (Schade), and digital workplace nudging (Ruehle). In addition, the Special Issue includes two articles that emphasize the therapeutic side, either by nurturing maturity through craftwork, ascesis, and self-care, exemplified here with an empirical study in the vinyl industry (Holt & Wiedner), or by mobilizing ethics of care in the context of socially engaged arts (Alacovska, Booth, & Fieseler). Both are offered as ways to counter technology-induced trends of organized immaturity. Also, the articles in this Special Issue fruitfully mobilize and employ different philosophical and theoretical traditions to study organized immaturity, ranging from Bourdieu (Harracá et al.) and Forst (Ruehle) to Heidegger and Foucault (Holt & Wiedner) and Stiegler (Alacovska et al.). Together, these articles also point to theoretical connections that reach beyond the initial set of authors and perspectives discussed in this introduction or in other outlets (e.g., Scherer & Neesham, Reference Scherer and Neesham2021, Reference Scherer and Neesham2022). In the following, we provide a brief overview of each article in this Special Issue and point out what we see as its main contribution to the study of organized immaturity.

The article by Harracá et al. (Reference Harracá, Castelló and Gawer2023) is focused on the rising power of digital platform organizations (such as Facebook, Amazon, and Uber) over the last two decades. The authors argue that platform organizations foster phenomena of organized immaturity (e.g., through technologies of algorithmic filtering and customization that ultimately lead to an informational disintegration of society), which are also driven by platform owners’ efforts to protect and defend their privileged power positions. The authors mobilize Bourdieu’s notions of field, social capital, and (digital) habitus to develop a fine-grained explanation of the power dynamics that typically unfold between platform owners and users. In this way, the Bourdieusian lens allows Harracá and his colleagues to differentiate not only between different forms of power that the platform owners utilize but also between practices of resistance and hacking that allow users to (re-)gain “platform power.” So, even if organized immaturity needs to be seen as a largely decentralized and multipolar phenomenon (as argued earlier), the article contributes to the study of organized immaturity by directly addressing digital platform organizations as one of the main catalysts of this development (see also Whelan, Reference Whelan2021). At the same time, drawing on Bourdieu, Harracá and his coauthors add to earlier works that have critically scrutinized the role of digital platforms in contemporary capitalism (Zuboff, Reference Zuboff2015, Reference Zuboff2019) by providing them with a processual framework that can explain platform-based power dynamics over time.

The article by Schade (Reference Schade2023) critically engages with the GDPR standard, a European Union regulation that aims to protect individual citizen-users’ data and privacy rights. The author convincingly argues that, even though the standard is intended to foster transparency, to protect individual freedoms, and to enable individual users’ capacities for using their own reasoning (i.e., maturity in a Kantian sense), the design principles and technological affordances of this particular standard lead, paradoxically, to intransparencies and an infantilization of users (e.g., when one has to click through myriad detailed GDPR settings before being able to access a web page). Although most of the article focuses on diagnosing and analyzing this conundrum, the author also proposes some remedies—for instance, by pointing to the need to develop more complex ethical vocabularies that can more adequately reflect the complexities and paradoxes inherent in regulating digital (in)transparencies. In this regard, Schade has identified an important processual pattern that may also be relevant for tackling other phenomena of organized immaturity beyond the particular case of GDPR.

The article by Ruehle (Reference Ruehle2023) is concerned with the growing literature on nudging, that is, efforts by governments or other organizations to influence individual and collective behavior indirectly and “gently” via the design of choice architectures (see Thaler & Sunstein, Reference Thaler and Sunstein2008). Whereas the vast majority of works on nudging originate in law and economics, and are focused primarily on how (nation-state) governments can influence citizens’ behaviors in desirable ways (e.g., toward more healthy eating habits), Ruehle focuses instead on the smaller and more specialized research area of the intraorganizational use of (digital) nudges in workplace settings (see also Bohnet, Reference Bohnet2016). In this context, her article sheds light on the dark side of nudging by advancing the argument that digital workplace nudging, in its paternalistic impetus, runs the risk of fostering tendencies of organized immaturity. To counter such tendencies, Ruehle develops a theoretical model that combines contract- and deliberation-based ethical approaches and allows for the ethical balancing of workplace nudging.

In contrast to the previous three articles, the article by Holt and Wiedner (Reference Holt and Wiedner2023) is concerned primarily with the therapeutic side by pursuing the question of whether and how craftwork can help foster maturity despite powerful digitalization trends that can induce organized immaturity (as argued earlier). The authors locate their inquiry in the empirical context of the global vinyl manufacturing industry that has been facing severe challenges of declining demand over the last decades, especially caused by the digital revolution, but that has survived nevertheless in a niche of committed craftwork. By drawing on works by Heidegger and Foucault, the authors use this empirical context to show how craftwork is deeply grounded in ascesis as a form of self-care. Their study contributes to research on organized immaturity by unpacking how maturity, as its opposite, can constitute social resilience in the wake of seemingly inevitable trends of digitalization.

The article by Alacovska et al. (Reference Alacovska, Booth and Fieseler2023) also contributes to the therapeutic dimension, that is, how to counteract organized immaturity. The authors develop the argument that contemporary societies need to find new ways of coexisting with toxic technologies by creating means to detoxify them and render them curative or at least benign. Inspired by Bernard Stiegler’s philosophy of technology, the authors propose a pharmacological approach to living with (and through) digitalization that focuses on engaging with the same media to use their “venom” for socially “therapeutic” rather than harmful effects. In this context, the authors elaborate on the distinction between disorganizing immaturity and organizing maturity explained in this article. They add to and enrich this distinction by exploring how the socially engaged arts can provide solutions that preserve and enhance (rather than undermine) human abilities for savoir vivre (in particular, how to live with technology) and savoir faire (in particular, how to create “better technological worlds”). Alacovska and her colleagues argue here that immaturity can be disorganized through forms of “artivism,” such as anti-surveillance art, which channels techniques for confusing and defusing surveillance systems into socially militant aesthetic pursuits. In turn, maturity can be organized through arts-based hacking, which takes new ownership of digital technologies to promote social justice, emancipation, and empowerment.

CONCLUSION: A CALL FOR FURTHER RESEARCH

To conclude, the emergence of new forms of organized immaturity and the problematic role of organizations in turning these into systems of dominance and control prompt us to call business ethics scholars and organization theory researchers to engage in further conceptual and empirical studies of these phenomena. Only from a nuanced and sophisticated knowledge base can we build the critical responses needed to protect Enlightenment and self-determination qualities that are so fundamental to mature human beings and to democracy. The proposed theoretical and philosophical lenses are only a few initial suggestions for analyzing how and why the phenomenon of organized immaturity emerges within the sociotechnological conditions of the twenty-first century.

In addition to the individual-focused organized immaturity and related subphenomena addressed by the further articles in this Special Issue, we see particular merit in further exploring the collective side of organized immaturity (the collective side is also emphasized in relational concepts of freedom based on interactions of individuals with others; see, e.g., Arendt, Reference Arendt1959/1968; Lindebaum et al., Reference Lindebaum, den Hond, Greenwood, Chamberlain and Andersson2022). This is also where our conceptualization moves beyond Kant’s (Reference Kant1784) initial notion of immaturity as a property of the individual and seeks to contribute a consistent sociophilosophical explanation and critique of the phenomenon. Attending to the collective dimension of immaturity can help to reveal the very mechanisms that constitute its widespread, systematic, and thus “organized” character. The post-Kantian critique and analysis of surveillance capitalism undertaken by Scherer and Neesham (Reference Scherer and Neesham2022) uncovers, for example, three such mechanisms, namely, infantilization (as a systematic source of ally-producing behavioral reflexes of seeking external protection from responsibility and uncertainty), reductionism (as a propensity to reduce human complexity to technology-digestible material), and totalization (as exhaustive co-optation of human life and experience into the logic of the sociotechnological systems).

More specific examples abound in the rising tide of disinformation and fake news, as powerfully distributed via digital media (Bennett & Livingston, Reference Bennett and Livingston2020), and in some cases even facilitated and multiplied by AI technologies (Floridi & Chiriatti, Reference Floridi and Chiriatti2020). Such cases foster tendencies of organized immaturity that affect entire collectives, because disinformation and fake news can endanger individuals’ and collectives’ capacities to distinguish facts from fiction (Knight & Tsoukas, Reference Knight and Tsoukas2019). In other words, as private and social learning no longer helps in distinguishing between true and enlightened false, or right and wrong, neither individuals nor the collectives they form are any longer capable of building up the capacities needed for making such distinctions. This, in turn, increases the likelihood of a polarized society where citizens struggle to share a joint social reality, to find common ground, and to use reason to agree on collaborative solutions (McCoy et al., Reference McCoy, Rahman and Somer2018; Schoeneborn, Vásquez, & Cornelissen, Reference Schoeneborn, Vásquez and Cornelissen2022; Schwoon et al., Reference Schwoon, Schoeneborn and Scherer2022).

Again, it is the use of sociotechnological systems, including algorithmic management, filter bubbles, and echo chambers, that provides the preconditions for organized immaturity and societal disintegration to emerge (Kitchens, Johnson, & Gray, Reference Kitchens, Johnson and Gray2020). Our Special Issue could only scratch the surface of some of these developments; we thus encourage scholars to examine more thoroughly, in future research, the intricate interplay between organized immaturity and “posttruth” streams in the public discourse (e.g., Knight & Tsoukas, Reference Knight and Tsoukas2019)—not least because these phenomena tend to be united in their impetus against the Enlightenment project, thus undermining the very foundation of democratic institutions and capacities for public deliberation.

Beyond this issue, and more generally, business ethicists and organization scholars are called on to focus on actual and potential countermeasures and to explore the upsides and downsides of such measures as tools for disorganizing immaturity. In the same context, we invite scholars to study the role of the state, the media, social movements, and organizations in general in strengthening positive freedoms of individuals and social groups. This may involve studies on the capacities of state and nonstate actors to educate individuals and collectives to critically deal with digital technologies—which is sometimes also referred to as digital literacy or data literacy (Carmi et al., Reference Carmi, Yates, Lockley and Pawluczuk2020). Importantly, scholars will need to study the causes of these developments and advance knowledge on how to disorganize immaturity or organize maturity, at both individual and collective levels. In this way, researchers will explore the conditions under which sociotechnological systems contribute to the Enlightenment project in the twenty-first century and will help humankind to escape being controlled by technologies and to (re-)gain control of their future development.

Acknowledgments

We acknowledge Tom Donaldson for his input and encouragement in the early stages of this project, former BEQ editor-in-chief Bruce Barry for his confidence and remarks, and current BEQ editors-in-chief Frank den Hond and Mollie Painter-Moreland for their mentoring and comments that helped us realize this BEQ Special Issue and our article project. Thank you all! This article has been further developed and expanded from an initial paper by A. G. Scherer and C. Neesham, “New Challenges to Enlightenment: Why Socio-technological Conditions Lead to Organized Immaturity and What to Do about It,” SSRN working paper, 2021, https://ssrn.com/abstract=3753612.

Andreas Georg Scherer (, corresponding author) is a chaired professor of business administration at the University of Zurich, Switzerland. He does research in business ethics, CSR, international management, and organization theory. He has published more than twenty books, monographs, and special issues. In addition, his work has been published in research outlets like the Academy of Management Review, Administrative Science Quarterly, Business Ethics Quarterly, the Journal of Management Studies, Organization Science, and Organization Studies.

Cristina Neesham is an associate professor in business ethics and corporate social responsibility at Newcastle University, UK. Her research focuses on the role of technology in ecological society, sustainability theories of human organization, theories of value for sustainable business models, and philosophical methods for management and organization research. Her work has been published in journals including Business and Society, the Journal of Business Ethics, Accounting Auditing and Accountability Journal, and Financial Accountability and Management.

Dennis Schoeneborn is a professor of communication, organization, and CSR at Copenhagen Business School, Denmark, and a visiting professor of organization studies at Leuphana University of Lüneburg. Germany. His research is focused on the constitutive role of communication for phenomena of organization, organizing, and organizationality. His work has been published in the Academy of Management Review, Business and Society, Human Relations, the Journal of Management Studies, Management Communication Quarterly, and Organization Studies, among other journals.

Markus Scholz is a chaired professor of business administration, esp. responsible management at TU Dresden, Germany. His research interests include business ethics, international management, and organization theory, with a particular interest in better understanding how businesses can live up to their political responsibilities. His work has been published in journals including the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, Business Ethics Quarterly, Business and Society, and Organization Studies.

Footnotes

1 In the German original, Kant uses the term Unmündigkeit, not Unreife. Although the latter would be the standard translation for “immaturity” in German, the meaning of Unreife is connected to age and aging, which has connotations that largely depart from our concerns here. By contrast, Unmündigkeit is a state of mind, “a lack of understanding,” that is (at least for adults) independent of the individual’s age and does not simply go away by aging but results “from the lack of resolve and courage to use one’s reason without the guidance of another” (Kant, Reference Kant1784: 481). This better reflects the key feature of the organized immaturity phenomenon analyzed here (see also Fleischacker, Reference Fleischacker2013).

2 All original quotations taken from Kant have been translated from German to English by the first author.

3 Aside from these two main roads, Fromm (1941/Reference Fromm1969) mentions other mechanisms of escape, such as “destructiveness” (177), “withdrawal from the world” (184), and “inflation of oneself psychologically” (184). These other mechanisms may be relevant to further discussions of various forms of resistance needed for disorganizing immaturity (see later).

4 See, for example, the tools and information displayed on websites such as “I Fight Surveillance” by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (https://www.eff.org/pages/tools) and “Security in a Box” by the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) Front Line Defenders and Tactical Tech (https://securityinabox.org/en/) (Harcourt, Reference Harcourt2015: 270ff.).

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