DOES using Facebook make you a better person?

What effect does this strange digital marketplace of ideas and opinions, where we can fire out our thoughts to the world from the safety of our sofa, have on our morals?

What about Twitter, Instagram, or indeed emails or even the comments section of the Oxford Mail website?

These were the kinds of questions behind a new manifesto published by a group of Oxford scientists with the aim of helping us all to be better people.

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They called their publication Citizenship in a Networked Age: An Agenda for Rebuilding Our Civic Ideals.

The academics, based in the Department of Materials at the University of Oxford, wanted to provide some 'fresh thinking' and 'a robust account of what it means to be a good citizen in a digital, AI age'.

Oxford Mail:

The authors argue that as we are finding in the current circumstances, digital technologies can help us communicate and carry out tasks together, but the danger is that in focusing on connectedness 'they increase the remoteness of our moral decision-making'.

In other words, if we are using machines to talk to each other, you can almost forget you're talking to another human being.

While efficiency is important, the academics warn there is a clear differentiation between the goals of machines and those of humans, 'for whom a broader sense of human flourishing and the 'moral whole' of the human community creates meaning, purpose and a sense of the common good'.

The report aims to open debate on the civic virtues that can guide humans through 'the networked age'.

With this in mind, the team concluded their report with seven key recommendations to help us all start to be better citizens:

1. Identify and protect human uniqueness for moral decision-making

2. Nurture the complementary skills of humans and machines for collective decision-making

3. Engage in consensus-building about civic ideals for a networked age

4. Teach listening as a civic virtue

5. Maintain distance between thoughts and speech

6. Promote the value of privacy for personal moral development

7. Revalue democracy in terms of the ability to bring about social unity and trust

The authors warn that these recommendations require 'strong collaboration between industry, government and citizens'.

Professor Andrew Briggs, who led the project, holds the chair in nanomaterials at Oxford University and was inspired to look at the implications for human flourishing of developments in digital technologies and artificial intelligence by the machine learning he uses in his own experiments.

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Lead author of the report, Dr Dominic Burbidge of Oxford University, says: "We are at a critical stage of greatly needing democratic input into the sorts of technological changes and solutions being put to our current challenges.

"This input is needed not just in terms of providing legitimacy to current solutions, but in terms of improving the solutions themselves.

"We believe there is a unique capacity for moral reasoning in every human being which makes citizen involvement in decision-making both necessary and enhancing."

Oxford Mail:

The researchers stress that, without common understandings of civic virtues that guide us through changes in society, a technocratic approach emerges that justifies practices on the basis of results only.

They argue that while these are important, they dry-up in the long term if moral debate does not happen alongside technological innovation: good results come about when there are good reasons motivating their pursuit.

Professor Andrew Briggs says: "We need robust discussion of our civic virtues – the habits and practices that both bind us together as a supportive community and direct us towards the common good.

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"In our research we found that the foremost civic virtue in need right now is listening well - a practice that has received precious little analysis in the social sciences and yet on which much of our togetherness depends.

"Current technological advances often split-up and divide our attention span, making the giving of undivided attention to others a precious resource."

Professor Sir Paul Collier of Oxford Blavatnik School of Government says: "Commercially-driven new technology has plunged us into a networked world that has huge implications for our societies.

"We urgently need advice based on scientific knowledge and impartial judgment, and with this report we have it."

Find out more about the project online at