This week, I spent a fascinating day at HIIG, the Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society (HIIG). I have been on its advisory council since it was founded in 2011, as I was then the founding director of the Oxford Internet Institute (OII), Britain’s centre for research on society and the internet – increasingly broadly defined. There is a growing number of centres focused on information and communication technologies like the internet, social media, AI, and related digital media, but HIIG and the OII stand apart from most others by being anchored in the social sciences and multi-disciplinary research.
Discussions ranged across key topics. The morning focused on implications of the war in Ukraine for the study of media and information networks, including concerns over what some are calling the cognitive war over what people believe. AI was of course a key topic around its societal implications, including work, but also the wisdom of proposed regulation. And much discussion focused on the governance in the public interest of everything digital, from data, internet platforms, and other information infrastructures, such as the Augmented Soldier, built on connecting humans, AI and robotics.
As a break before dinner, we toured an area of Berlin where part of the Berlin Wall still stands to memorialize the tragedy of the Cold War, captured by this barrier. I had visited Berlin for 10 days in the 1980s, when I was a Fulbright Scholar in Britain, and spent time with my family in East Berlin, when the wall and the German Democratic Republic was still standing, before the GDR’s dissolution in 1990. While I had been back to Berlin since the wall was torn down, this week’s tour in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the spectre of another Cold War made this trip to Berlin far more meaningful than before. It remains so relevant and symbolic of the insanity of the wall.
The visit also highlighted for me the central importance of the human chemistry of any institute or research centre. HIIG colleagues have a wonderfully creative approach to their research with a group that has a delightful sense of humour balancing their serious mission. Research centres need smart academics and practitioners but also the personalities that make their work fun and collaborative as well as productive of original ideas. With their intelligence and spirit, they are certain to thrive.
An inspiring visit for me.