Our research profile

Existential media studies

As a home for existential media studies the Hub applies and updates classic phenomenological resources in existential philosophy to contemporary stakes of digital culture and automated media technologies.

The overarching aim is to explore what it means to be human in the digital age, in light of the fact that digital media are both ontologically the infrastructures of our being and anthropological sites of the limit-situations of human life where groups explore, tackle, and cope existentially (Peters 2015, Jaspers 1932/1970). The approach aims to answer questions such as: How do these environmental and increasingly automated and autonomous technologies co-shape and transform our existence? And what are the benefits but also the potential risks of automations of deep-felt existential necessities and needs? Hence, the existential approach implies the exploration of ‘eternal’ or timeless issues in the vital and timely contexts of our current digital age. But by bringing classic themes and key concepts from existential philosophy – such as death, time, being there, being-in-and-with the world and thrownness – to bear on our contemporary technologized culture, research within EMS also enters into a productive conversation with various forms of new materialism and the environmental humanities.

On the one hand our research seeks to understand the material and embodied dimensions of human–data assemblages through contemporary phenomenological explorations of ‘living with automaton’ within sociology, anthropology and non-representational media studies, and other new materialist studies of how humans encounter their data. The Hub subsequently seeks to understand automated data services as everyday “mundane data,” in line with these approaches, while also acknowledging the roles of playfulness and creativity within digital existence. On the other hand, human existence is conceived as an ongoing moral project involving both profound responsibility and the capacity for anticipation. In this reading living with automation may involve anxieties before the power of a future that appears at once our moral responsibility and out of our hands. To be a digital human is, therefore, to be thrown into new vulnerabilities: it is to be a “(co)exister” faced with the task to navigate these new digital-human vulnerabilities (Lagerkvist 2017, 2019). Hence, EMS simultaneously examines automations as fresh sources for embodied disharmony, friction, and vulnerability. Here we are drawing on range of critical scholars who have levelled warnings against the impact on society of AI, algorithms and machine learning, cautioning through the lenses of race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, and citizenship, how AI technology co-shapes social injustices. The approach maintains that the towering existential and ethical task of our time is to reflect upon the technologies that we develop and embrace, and how that embrace raises new affordances and limits; the new resources and risks of modern human life.

AI and the human sciences – a holistic approach

To date, the field has placed a particular but not exclusive focus on the classic humanistic question of death and finitude, and studies have been conducted on online mourning and commemoration, communicating with the dead on the internet, the digital afterlife and the transcendence industry. The existential media analysis thus pushes beyond the mandatory focus in media studies on the social, cultural, political, and economic dimensions of digitalization. Paying attention to other keywords such as ontology, ethics, and transcendence, EMS provides an original and fresh perspective on the question of our digital existence, and in particular on how digital and human vulnerabilities intersect in the face of increased automation. In sum, existential media studies thus theoretically intersects critical data studies, phenomenology and existential philosophy, and brings them into conversations with various forms of new materialism and posthumanism. The objective is to offer a holistic understanding of AI and automation as part of society, culture, history and futurity, to highlight how these technologies have implications for our existence as relational humans belonging to the biosphere. The aim is to open up dialogues with engineers and those who invest in this major societal transformation.

The Hub now aims to explore how these environmental and increasingly automated and autonomous technologies co-shape and transform our existence. We will also address how we can, as coexisters, act on, take ethical responsibility for and co-shape the future of technologies, and the technologies of the future

The Hub will seek to redress the fact that in increasingly conspicuous ways, the scientific world community, as well as designers, investors, and policy makers, are currently short of a pivotal knowledge base about the realities of living with automation; knowledge needed for stimulating sustainable innovation, and well-founded ethical policies in this area. The Hub recognizes that the global efforts to define ‘beneficial AI’, or as in the EU policy of December 2018: ‘human-centric AI:’ are in effect a call for a state-of-the-art humanities approach to automation. The Hub offers a holistic approach to AI and automation, by examining three themes, and by raising the following subsequent research questions:

What overall values and ideals both guide and are shaped by AI—and how do those values, once traced through its histories (both told and untold), cash out in the present-day anticipation of the future horizons of AI?

How do humans experience automation—and how can we empirically describe those new experiences in terms of opportunity and vulnerability, playfulness and navigation, social injustice and strife? How can we refresh understanding of what it means to live a data-driven life as a digitally-vulnerable human?

What are viable paradigms for ethical AI—and what should they be, and why? How can we design AI for existential and ethical sustainability, and how can we—designers, engineers, policy-makers, and above all, everyday media users—forge automated lifeworlds that are truly human-centric?

Our foundation

”Existential Terrains: Memory and Meaning in Cultures of Connectivity” (ET) (2014-2018), was a research programme headed by Amanda Lagerkvist, who as Wallenberg Academy Fellow founded the international research field of ‘existential media studies’.

The programme was the first media studies project in the world that researched the existential dimensions of digitalization, both empirically and theoretically. In a unique way, it problematized ‘what it means to be human’ (and mortal) in an age of digitalisation and automation, by drawing inspiration from the existential philosophy for approaching digital culture.

Lagerkvist’s work provides for an empirically founded and theoretically original perspective on digital technologies as both resource and risk. It submits that our lives are increasingly digitally “thrown” (to borrow the language of Martin Heidegger and Søren Kierkegaard before him) into a highly connected, fast changing, increasingly automated and quantifying world that threatens to leave us displaced and vulnerable, but also with the fundamental task to navigate these new terrains and make them meaningful. 

Amanda Lagerkvist. Photo.