THE INFOSPHERE


The Infosphere

Luciano Floridi, Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Information and Director of the Digital Ethics Lab, at the Oxford Internet Institute, talks about social media, infospheres, space, Newton, Einstein and the biosphere.

A NEW SPACE

We’re normally used to think of a space as a couple things. One is the space that surrounds us: the house, the street, the office; and then there's the space of the scientist, the space of stars and mysterious physics. The truth is that we are really leaving in a third kind of space. It’s not a space of Newton and Einstein, is not just the space of my house, your place, the cinema, the pub, the restaurant. It’s also the space made of information. When I'm on Facebook, when I use YouTube when I spend time reading tweets, where am I? Well I'm in this special space, that I label “the infosphere”. It’s a sphere a bit like the bio sphere, so the area of the world where life can flourish, but it's made of information. Now, what difference does it make to spend so much time in the infosphere? Well, maybe 2 points are important to stress: 1. Compared to other mass media, we live in the infosphere, in cyber space, online. Whereas when you watch TV, when you listen to the radio, or going to the cinema, reading a newspaper, you don't leave on the newspaper or on TV. This really is a new space, a new environment. Because it is a new environment, it has huge intersections, interactions and consequences for the other environments, especially the older one: my house, your office, the street. Think in terms, for example, of security or business: we used to go to the bank, today we don't go to the bank anymore, we bank online. Again, we visit a virtual space and we do what we need to do, interacting with a bank without moving from my house. Where am I? In the infosphere, back. Or security: is not just a matter of closing the windows, or making sure that is alarmed, is also a matter of who has access to my data, online, in the infosphere. So, the infosphere is now the space where we spend a lot of time, and more time, and when we are changing most of the things that we do automatic: education, health, security, interaction, jobs and so on.

 

BENEFITS AND SHORTCOMINGS

There are many benefits, but also shortcomings in a life spent increasingly among agents that are slightly artificial, in an environment that is increasingly made of information. Some of the benefits are obvious. Convenience, efficiency, the ability to reach almost any corner of the world, just one click away, the possibility of buying anything, if you have money, because it’s available there, in the catalog of the world. It doesn't depend on which village you are from, or which city you live in. All these benefits, conveniences, much easier life, a potentially richer life in terms of culture, in terms of information, in terms of relations. Well, all that is counterbalanced, unfortunately, by shortcomings. There are some risks. For example, fragility: all this systems are easily attacked and could put a whole nation on its knees. There's also the ability that we have of wasting so much time, maybe watching cats on Facebook. So, it's not just a matter of reading the New York Times or being more informed about the last elections. There's also a huge inequality building up in the background. Those who had created this infosphere and this space of information for us, are also the ones who are essentially taking most advantage, economically, from the new business. That risk, that shortcoming is something that we can do something about, socially speaking not yet, but hopefully in the future.

 

IRREVERSIBILITY

Our life in the infosphere, or what I've called in the past, this on-life, which is a mix between being online and offline, it's irreversible, probably. Not because we have no alternative, we have no choice, but because it's very difficult, it's unlikely. The whole world is moving towards this life in infosphere, on-life, being connected and on the same time not connected. It means for example driving a car by following a GPS, which is part of the infosphere, anyway. It means being able to download music when you want if you want, it means being able to stream movies through Netflix and so on. How likely is it that we will give up all these, for a life in a small village somewhere away? Maybe, a sort of an intoxication that we need to clean up and get away from all this digital intersections. It's unlikely, it's possible, there are places where people do this detox moments, but it's a matter of a general trends. Now, that does not mean that it will not change in the future, it's very unlikely that the we might be able to predict now what life will be on-life in 100 years. Just think of what someone could have said in 1917 or 18 about the world a century later. They would have not seen the II World War, the atomic, nuclear bombs exploding, the environmental crisis, exc. So, the digital will change, on-life will change, but is here to stay.

 

SKILLS

New skills or old skills upgraded are going to be essential, of course, as in any serious, significant technological revolution. We shouldn’t try too hard to import lessons from the past and adapt them to the future, for example. I suspect it might be a mistake to simplify by saying every kid today should learn how to code. Maybe, maybe not. But it might not be the most important skill that we need for future generations to exercise. More likely, it seems to me that we will need to learn the languages of information. Coding is one of them, but it's not the only one, and might not even be the most important. For example, music: if you can’t read music that is a whole world that is inaccessible to you. Or design, which is another language. If you can’t design, as in designing a video game for example, that is another job and world that would not be inaccessible to that particular person. A foreign language, the language of mathematics, the language of statistics, but also the language of history or politics. This are all forms of communication that are not just a matter of gaining information, but above all are ways about being critical about what one learns and able to produce new items out there. So, it's not just a matter of all we need to be able to understand, but we need to be able to understand critically and we need to be able to contribute critically to that understanding. So far all this is possible, the school has a huge task in front of itself. Education would not be the same any certainly would not be about acquiring information for that there is Wikipedia.

THE FOURTH REVOLUTION

Try to understand initially, maybe the nineties, what all these digital transformation was going to be about, a lot of people thought that it was an environmental transformation. I remember being told always about moving a bit rather than atoms, maybe. Some other people thought it was just more of the same, it was a communication revolution, it was in a way the grand children of Gutenberg, now playing with digital documents as opposed to print and press. Maybe. But it does seem to me in the past, that it was a deeper transformation, a transformation of now self understanding. Who we are, and who we want to be? And that made me realize that we had been there before. In the past, there were 3 fundamental revolution in our self understanding. We thought we were the center of the universe, with competitors that changed dramatically. It changed not just scientifically, but a change in terms of anthropology. Who we think we are, our self understanding. All of a sudden, we realized we went on a small planet in the middle of nowhere, going around in turn, going around in a galaxy and so on. It just diminish our self importance. We sort of retrenched implicitly and thought: well, at least we can now have a royal role of centrality in the animal kingdom. Now that was challenged by Darwin, in with the evolution we realized that we are much more similar to many other animals, we’re part of a bigger family. Who is central to what, becomes highly questionable. It’s more part of the same game, that involves not many other spaces. There was a third threshold, a third moment of a self importance we thought throughout: while we were thinking that we were at the center of the universe. While we were thinking that we are the center to the animal kingdom. We also thought we were the center of these mental space. There are beautiful pages by great philosophers who described this as “self awareness”: you look inside your mind, you know exactly what's going on and what ideas you have, what ideas you don't have. And in fact, nineteenth century economist still thought that way. The truth is with Freud, that we have lost this centrality, as well. The mind is not like a box, where you just open the lead and look inside. There are a plenty of hidden areas, dark corners, which we don't know and we don't want to know. The result is that when are not at the center of the mental life, either. As we say, goodness knows why I did what I did in the past. So, as a result, there was a final last area where we thought we were really the best in town. Where we were exceptionally good, like no one else. Playing chess, driving a car, parking that car, or piloting that particular airplane from here to there, or finding the best ticket for that concert on live. Well, you can see where we going here. The truth is that our digital technologies, autonomous, able to learn, able to change their own processing are better than us often, in doing what we thought we were uniquely positioned to do. In other words, the space of intelligent action is no longer the only space for us, where we are central. The truth is that today you can achieve what humans would require intelligence to achieve, by being totally stupid. The iPhone I play with plays infinitely better chess than I do, and yet he has the intelligence off my grandmother's fridge. The result is that I've been challenged once again. My special nature certainly does not lie in being able to play chess contrary to a machine. That's the fourth revolution in now self understanding. We’re not the center of the infosphere either.

 

DIGITAL DIVIDES

The digital is reshaping our society, in ways that at some point we kind of misunderstood. It was very easy, only a few years ago, to overlap the several divides, for example between north and south, between rich and poor, between those who leave downtown in those leaving suburbia, between those who can use computers and those who can not, those who have computers and those who don't; the mobile phone, the internet connection and so on. It was almost like too easy to draw a single line. A whole group of people one side, the other group on the other. That is definitely not true. You can be incredibly able and skilled and leave in suburbia, you may be incredibly dumb and not a aware of what’s going on, and yet be a billionaire. And the truth is that the digital is not really overlapping with the usual social device that we have inherited from the past. This is in a white good, in a way bad, as everything is a mix blessing. The good bits is that plenty of opportunities. You don't have to be from that family, from that social class, from that particular corner of town to be good at, or exploit, or use the digital technology that are available, not necessarily. There are more opportunities, for more people, all over the place. In respective of their social backgrounds, of their wealth, or even the education sometimes. The bad news is that we are not quite clear, in our minds, how exactly this digital divide is going to pan out. We have solutions from the past, we have been for example social engaged with poverty. But what do you do when there is a digital divide that involves, for example, the one not poor, who are perfectly happy not to be online, not to join the information society, not to take advantage of the wealth of information available online. We are seeing this in politics, for example. It is not true, and is important to realize that those who may be more populist, aren't necessarily the ones who are more aware of what the digital can do for your more informed choices. Sometimes is a better use of the digital sometimes is no use at all. In that we have a lot of work to do.

 

UNPRECEDENTED NEEDS

Philosophy in general and ethics in particular, which is a branch of philosophy that studies what's right and wrong, what I ought to do what I ought not to do, what is goodness and what is evil. Well as I said, philosophy in general and ethics in particular, seem to be quite an essential ingredient at a time when we need to understand what's happening. Think for a moment, this digital revolution is unprecedented. It doesn't mean that we haven't had similarly important revolutions in the past. Someone, at some point invented the alphabet. Someone, at some point invented the wheel. Well, these are fundamental transformations in human history, likewise at some point we started having digital technologies around us. But it does mean that this moment has never been experienced before. No one has seen the digital emerging, and then disappearing, and then well, we can just learn from the past. So, lessons need to be learned from scratch, from the very begin, which means the philosophy and ethics in particular can be of great help, not by themselves, not alone, but contributing to our understanding. Now, this means having a particular way of looking on philosophy. What kind of philosophy are we talking about here? Well, there are many ways of describing it and that it's not accidental. Philosophy is the place where we address the so called open questions. Questions open when you may have all the data in the world, all information in the world, all the rationality in mathematics and statistics in the world. Be very rational and open minded about the answer to that question, and yet still disagree. Imagine, should we wish we now have a party next Saturday. Plenty of information, plenty of reasoning, plenty of maths. Maybe money is involved, maybe there's a social event exc., and yet you and I could still disagree about. Why? Because ultimately is a philosophical decision. It's a balancing act between the pro and contra, what’s was right and wrong, what will be better and do we have an alternative, is this the best thing we can do, exc. Some other values, is a matter of convincing each other. So, when as we say, all the data in the wall, all the information so called “empirical facts” and all the maths, all the numbers or the feeders all the statistical calculations, so the maths, are insufficient to resolve the problem, well that problem is open. It’s open to a dialogue, a decision, a discussion among human beings. That's where philosophy starts. Somebody else's review, should I wear my hair long or short? Well it's a philosophical choice. The fact that it’s a silly question, is irrelevant. So is a 2+2 =4, it is still a mathematical point and yet, very simple. The point we would normally make is that philosophy addresses the most difficult open questions. Now, back to us, the digital is an extraordinary revolution that poses the most fundamental challenges in terms of open questions. Wouldn't you like to have a philosopher board in order to address them ?