Esther Keymolen - Philosophy

Esther Keymolen wondered:

Why is it that we put so much faith in social networks and online businesses?

Philosophy begins with wonder, as Aristotle once said. PhD candidate Esther Keymolen wondered why it is that we have embraced the internet so easily, and en masse, even though we know there are many things that can go wrong. “Belief in the internet is almost religious.” The central question in her research is therefore: “How come we trust, when there are clear reasons not to?” 

Esther’s route towards her PhD research was remarkable. She moved from Belgium to Rotterdam to become a singer. She received her Bachelor’s degree from Codarts, a highly reputable music school. “But nowadays I only sing in the shower. I wanted an intellectual challenge, so I started studying philosophy at Erasmus University. It turned out that my passion lies in the philosophy of technology.”

"Trust is acting as if we are sure about our affairs, while we at the same time are also aware that we will never be sure about our affairs."

“Investigating the ways in which the relationship between man and technology takes shape is the focal point of this kind of research. Currently, our lives are profoundly mediated by the internet, which has become omnipresent. We let it into almost every domain of our lives, with incredible speed and ease. This surprised and fascinated me, so I decided to make it the subject of my PhD research.”

Our default setting is trust
Why is it that we put so much faith in social networks and online businesses? After all, there are so many examples of ‘failure’. Esther: “Just think of fraud, hackers, the Snowden affair, and the trade in personal data. What I found is that this seeming contradiction is actually what trust is all about. Trust is acting as if we are sure about our affairs, while we at the same time are also aware that we will never be sure about our affairs.”

"When it concerns the Internet, our default setting is trust."

“In the end, trust is a fiction – but a very productive one, enabling us to deal with the uncertainties we encounter online. Because of the slick design of our gadgets, their user-friendly interfaces, and the fact that surfing the internet is simply fun, we are eager to dismiss possible negative outcomes. When it concerns the Internet, our default setting is trust.

Meanwhile, Esther handed in her thesis and hopes to defend it in April. “I enjoyed my time at the EUR. So many disciplines come together here, and that is very inspiring. It can be tempting to hold on to your own area of research. But my advice would be to profit from the opportunities here to approach your research from a different angle. I believe interdisciplinary research to be the future. And yes, indeed, my PhD research is a good example of this.”

Four magical C’s
Esther – who is on Facebook herself – is still optimistic about the possibilities the internet has to offer and the scope we have to steer its development. “We need to be more alert, though. Big tech companies such as Apple, Google and Facebook have, just like governments, a lot of power. However, they are not just the problem, but also part of the solution. The results of my research can be summarised in what I call the four C’s: context, code, curation and codification.”

"By nature, philosophers are not used to delivering 'bite-sized chunks', but these four C's are applicable in practice."

“Users should be aware of the downsides and impact of certain websites and communities; the government has a role to play in legislation, and curators such as Google and Facebook also have a responsibility to play fair. Code, finally, stands for the specific techniques used. Some websites or communities operate more aggressively then others when it comes to data storage. All four Cs should be taken into consideration. This conceptual framework is innovative.” Laughing: “By nature, philosophers are not used to delivering ‘bite-sized chunks’, but these 4 Cs are applicable in practice.”

Friends for life
Soon Esther will say goodbye to Erasmus University. Last year she became a lecturer at the eLaw Centre for Law and Digital Technologies at Leiden University. “My advice to future PhD candidates? Working on your research is a very solitary thing. When you spend four years behind your desk in a little office, it can get lonely. That’s why I joined the PhD council. Social interaction is very important and the graduate school offers lots of activities. I have made friends for life here!”


On April 21st 2016, Esther Keymolen successfully defended her PhD thesis on 'Trust on the line. A philosophical exploration of trust in the networked era'.