We need to advance our positions – Head of Department Helena Lindholm

Helena Lindholm, Head of the Department of Applied Information Technology, gives a peace researcher’s perspective on digitalization in times of war, conflicts, and increased surveillance.

Porträtt av prefekt Helena Lindholm
Photo: Johan Wingborg

Helena Lindholm is the Head of the Department of Applied Information Technology (AIT), since a little more than a year. In this interview, she reasons about the utilization of new technology as well as its downsides and argues why the department’s research plays a key role to maintain the democratic and ethical values in the march of digitalization.

If you would briefly summarize your time so far as the Head of Department, what would you say?

”It has been very enjoyable. It is a fun, exciting and dynamic environment. A lot of exciting things are going on here, both within research and education, that I have learned a lot from.“

Helena Lindholm highlights the mix of both breadth and focus. At the department, research and education is carried out around a wide range of subject areas, all of which in one way or another relate to digitalization, information technology, communication, and cognition.

”I don't think you can see this particular composition anywhere else. This means that there is an opportunity to develop new things at the intersections between different subjects.”

How have events taking place in our surrounding world put their stamp on the IT area in the past year?

"From my perspective, I am a peace researcher, it is very noticeable how wars and conflicts are more and more characterized by digitization. I think how this happens is an interesting, important and ethically multi-faceted question."

Helena Lindholm refers to hacking, cyberattacks and social media being used in influence campaigns in connection with elections, or to produce images and perspectives from for example Ukraine and Russia.

Security and surveillance

In parallel with information technology developing and creating more opportunities for us, the issue of security and surveillance is also being discussed more and more. Helena Lindholm points to the importance of having research that focuses on the issues and sheds light on them in a critical way.

A society that relies heavily on surveillance, risks going hand in hand with more authoritarian forms of governance and exclusionary principles, for instance that certain groups of people are monitored more than others.

Drawing on her own research in global studies, where she studied migration processes among other things, she says she can feel concerned about the way surveillance technology is sometimes used to exclude people.

”I feel very secure with the research we have, but perhaps not with the development of society in that respect. Because a society that relies heavily on surveillance, risks going hand in hand with more authoritarian forms of governance and exclusionary principles, for instance that certain groups of people are monitored more than others.”

Socially useful or privacy-violating technology?

Helena Lindholm believes it is important to problematize the idea of the social benefit of digitization.

"Who owns the definition of what is social benefit? What does it mean for the individual's privacy if, for example, camera surveillance is to be increased as a way to tackle gang crime? What does this mean for the individual's integrity in a larger societal perspective?"

She believes that digitization is an important factor in all societal processes, but she also sees that there is a downside, a problem with how the technology is used. Social media platforms can be democratizing in the way that more people can express themselves and communicate, but at the same time a lot of hate speech and polarizing and anti-democratic values are spread. Here, AIT has an important role, she believes.

"We need to advance our positions and make ourselves visible and show how important the competence is that is available at this department."

Is there anything exciting going on right now for AIT?

"On the one hand, a new master's program in Human-centered AI has been developed. It is something that is unique in a Nordic context and there are not many equivalents in Europe. So I find that very exciting.”

Recently, a new vision and strategy was also developed at the department. In the work of taking on them, Helena Lindholm believes that it is crucial that all parts of the department feel involved, and that goals and ambitions must both be reached and anchored in the operations.

"I think that is important. It is about some type of identity creation for the department as a whole. I think we can do more to consciously build a common identity, while at the same time taking advantage of the subject areas' differences."

Leading knowledge-centre in digitalization

In the department's vision and strategy document, it is said that ”In 2030 AIT will be the leading knowledge-centre in Sweden in terms of innovation in societal digitalization”.

"On the one hand, there are many who say within the department that we already are. And that might be. But I'm not sure that people are completely aware of it. And even if we were to be the leading center, one must never settle," says Helena Lindholm.

She has a clear view of where the focus needs to be in order to reach the goal and become a national and international node, where various actors seek to share knowledge about society's digitization and the individual's role in the development. She points at things like applying for more external grants, investing in larger educational programs, thinking about which are the best pedagogical tools and a number of other points.

“We are certain that we possess a great deal of knowledge and competence that could benefit both government organizations, the private sector, civil society, and the public in how to use digitization in governance processes, for example. There, I think we have a challenge in showing how relevant we are and trying to create more of such collaborations with other actors."