Sense and Sensibility of the Digital Transformation. Interview with Andrea Lisi

Andrea Lisi is a well-renowned Italian lawyer who specializes in ICT law. In addition to the Lisi Law Firm, he coordinates the Digital & Law Department and D&L NET organizations; on top of this, he is the Secretary-General of ANORC (National Association for Operators and Managers of Digital Preservation, a nonprofit organization founded in 2007) and the President of ANORC Professioni and as well as being the creator of the DIG.Eat, a large convention that is held every year in Italy.

Which are the challenges and the pitfalls of the digital transformation in Italy?

As I have been explaining again and again these years, the biggest pitfall today is to adopt an overly techno-centric vision. The digital paradigms must be perceived as tools in the hands of the Country as a whole and cannot become the precinct of self-appointed gurus. Otherwise, the risk is that of a two-track system within the public sector: on one hand, the world of ICT professionals who possess the keys to digitalisation, and on the other the world of bureaucrats for whom it is not welcome. On the contrary, they go to extreme lengths in order to “close the door” again. And paradoxically, it is the latters that are “right”. The digital paradigm as an instrument of innovation must be embedded in a transparent process of simplification of administrative procedures. This is especially true for the public sector, but even in the corporate world the success stories are those where processes and procedures are transformed first and foremost.

As an example, the electronic invoicing is transforming the entire procurement process, both for the public sector and for businesses: and this reaches far beyond the invoice itself changing format. And obviously supporting these changes we need a cultural revolution that generates widespread awareness not only for ICT professionals, but for everybody involved in the process: lawyers, archivists, accountants, and so on and so forth. The real challenge is not technological in nature, but in spreading digital literacy and in building specialized training paths.

Last but not least, our policymakers ought not to be tricked by the widespread feeling of urgency into choosing cheap shortcuts, such as putting certain “top players” in charge of the digital transformation of the Italian public sector, under the pretence of helping it to do something that it is supposed to be incapable of. The low-cost solutions that let our Country be beguiled by chimeras offered by the big IT players are risky and end up entrusting those behemoth corporations (that already hold immense power) with the whole of our digital assets. Perhaps we should pay more attention to these pitfalls.

There exist tools (such as the Digital Transaction Management systems) that can help the public sector to migrate at an easy pace from a classic document management model to more advanced paradigms that are increasingly becoming more and more commonplace for businesses. For its part, the corporate world is nowadays interested in controlling the end-to-end “supply chain” model that enables document management.

Which are the sectors of our Country that are still enslaved to analog paradigms?

We already know the answer. The more a department is bureaucratised and depending on cumbersome rituals, the more it is reluctant to digital disruption. This happens because “going digital” makes processes more transparent, thus exposing the document management model and opening those drawers that were previously closed. And what lurks inside the padlock of those drawers is quite often a way of exercising power with which we can hardly ever engage a fight.

If the digital transformation really wishes to reform the public sector, then it must aim at destroying these incrustations at their origin, abolishing the deep-rooted alibis of those who have had a great ally in the analog world. The digital disruption, provided it brings about a transparent action of simplification and standardisation of the administrative processes, can be the most important and most effective tool to fight corruption in our country. Let us never forget it.

Which is the strategic and cultural importance of preserving our “digital footprints”, our digital heritage?

In order for digital data to fulfil a documental function they must guarantee correct identification (authorship or legal attributability), integrity, and non-modifiability (i.e. authenticity) over time. Only under such conditions is it possible to guarantee reliability of digital archives. We should never forget that the very fabric of modern democracy depends on our ability to ensure reliability, and hence authenticity over time, of our archives.

You are the founder of an association which is a landmark for hundreds of highly-skilled professionals in Italy. Do you believe that artificial intelligence will ever make our jobs, as we know them, a thing of the past?

I believe that innovation must always be guided and fostered by human intelligence. What I am afraid of today is the decay of human intelligence, not of our jobs. Every revolution has been frightening and has triggered fears that have always proved unfounded. The digital revolution will lead us to live better lives, but it is up to our intelligence to understand and govern the change.

The frontiers of AI are still unexplored and fascinating. Somebody speculates that they will free us from lawyers. But as a matter of course there are no unambiguous or exact sentences (at least not in an absolute sense): they must always be analysed with creativity in the given context. The (human) interpreter, the hermeneut serves precisely this purpose. As far as data analysis is concerned, an AI will perhaps replace us; but the interpretative and “strategic” capabilities of human mind will not be emulated by machines anytime soon.

I recall Renato Borruso [a judge and a computer scientist — Ed.] warning me during a dinner. «Everything is interpretable and context-dependent, even an “I love you”», quoth he. Depending on the context and to whom it is addressed (a person? an animal? …), indeed, the same sentence can mean completely different things.

Last but not least, we cannot not mention your work as populariser of the digital transformation. How did the idea of DIG.Eat come about? How do you balance content and entertainment?

I want to connect this question to the previous one. Creativity should enliven any disruptive change or innovation process. It goes without saying that “behind the scenes” there must always be a thorough research effort and a multi-disciplinary approach (much needed nowadays); but we can “enlighten” ourselves only through creative processes, which machines have been so far incapable of doing. After all, Pink Floyd [the 2019 edition of the convention has been inspired by The Dark Side of the Moon — Ed.] managed to “pack together” sound quality and a multidisciplinary approach to arts and media, through a creative effort. In this way I hope that the dark side of digital age (which is a fact of life, and we know that) will be flooded with light thanks to transparent processes and guided by a sound awareness.

First published on Eventual Consistency