NWO Spinoza Prize for media scholar José van Dijck

Highest scientific distinction in the Netherlands

José van Dijck
José van Dijck (image by NWO, Studio Oostrum)

Media scholar Professor José van Dijck has been awarded a NWO Spinoza Prize of 2.5 million euros. The Spinoza Prize is the highest scientific distinction in the Netherlands.  Van Dijck is University Professor of Media and Digital Society and is a top player in the international field of media studies. In her research, Van Dijck demonstrates the need to critically examine the influence of digital platforms, data and algorithms on our democracy.

According to the selection committee, her insights help to understand the social impact of new media and to open the discussion on public values in the platform society. The Spinoza Committee emphasises the impact of her work on society. She regularly provides expert advice on digital policy for politicians, for example on the Corona apps or the future of our media landscape.

I am extremely honoured and pleasantly surprised with this award. It is a wonderful boost for the interdisciplinary research on the digital society that we are doing with Utrecht-based colleagues from media studies, public administration, law and computer science.

The impact of digital media on our social life

What is the impact of digital media on our social life? And how can we use what we know of that impact to increase transparency and trust in society? These are the subjects of the research conducted by Van Dijck. She is a prominent figure in the relatively new discipline of media studies, which she herself has helped to shape. Her career has paralleled the explosive pace of developments in new media technologies, which she analyses in ground-breaking interdisciplinary research. Her insights help to create an understanding of the societal impact of new media and to promote the debate about public values in the platform society. According to Dean Prof. Keimpe Algra, Van Dijck's research is "a wonderful example of the role the humanities can play in external reflection on technological developments".

Most digital platforms are based on market principles, which leave little or no room for our public values.

Digital domain and public values

The public domain is becoming increasingly dependent on the digital products of a few technology companies. Take the CoronaCheck app, the corona passport which has to be downloaded from Apple’s App Store, or the use of Google’s online infrastructure by a great many primary schools in the Netherlands. The issue raised by Van Dijck in her research is that most digital platforms are based on market principles, which leave little or no room for our public values. Take a platform like Facebook: in exchange for the services it offers, it uses the data it receives about our behaviour. How can that be squared with values such as privacy and autonomy? In her research, books and lectures, Van Dijck makes a powerful argument for the need for critical reflection on the influence of the digital culture on our democracy. Within the university Van Dijck is co-leader of the focus area Governing the Digital Society.

Governing the Digital Society

Van Dijck wants to use the grant to further strengthen the Governing the Digital Society focus area with young researchers: "It has been running for two years now and is already starting to yield results. For example, we are working with the Utrecht Data School on responsible data practices for government agencies and developed the Ethical Data Assistant for governments; this assistant helps to answer ethical questions about data projects. We are also involved in PublicSpaces. This coalition of public organisations in media and culture wants to use digital tools responsibly, based on public values such as privacy and transparency. Hopefully, we will soon be able to help design, test and develop alternative (open source) tools for information and communication."

José van Dijck
José van Dijck (image by NWO, Studio Oostrum)

Bridge-builder

Van Dijck is known as a team player and a bridge-builder.  As rector magnificus Prof. Henk Kummeling puts it: "It is a joy to have José at our university. She is, of course, a star in her field, but she also looks for connections with other disciplines very naturally. She is a pivotal figure in a network in which all kinds of exciting ideas about the digital society and the role that the university has to play in it on the basis of public values are emerging. As a gifted teacher, she knows how to inspire many. In all of this, she is and will always be an extremely pleasant person.

This prize is a great recognition of José's scientific work, which focuses, among other things, on the enormous influence of social media platforms and what it means in the light of public values and the importance of a transparent and well-functioning democracy. I therefore congratulate her warmly. And with her the university, our faculty and the strategic theme Institutions for Open Societies, in which she plays an important role.

Award ceremony

The festive presentation of the Spinoza and Stevin prizes will take place on Wednesday 13 October 2021. During the presentation ceremony, the Spinoza and Stevin laureates will provide insight into the content of their research and make clear what they intend to use the prize money for.