The way ahead

Luciano Floridi, Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Information and Director of the Digital Ethics Lab, at the Oxford Internet Institute talks about onlife, digital governance, diversity, rules, frameworks and sovranational entities as EU, Nato and the WEF.


The Infosphere is this new environment in which you spend an enormous amount of time and is becoming as familiar as the surroundings: the house, the street, the office, the school, the hospital. The places we inhabit as bodies have been joined by places we inhabit as users, agents, customers online, or as I like to say onlife--partly online partly offline. It takes some probably two major transformation now society to transform this infosphere or this digital environment into something that is friendly towards creatures like us. The first one is a change in our sensitivities. Imagine a past in which it was normal to smoke in a cinema. That was the past in which my parents used to leave. It is not in any way evil in any possible way or that people were insane, it just was a different kind of sensitivities. Imagine a remote past in which it was normal to treat animals with less than kind approach. Again, it was not that we were evil in the past we just didn't have that sense of what's right and wrong at that level. Today kicking a dog for no reason, smoking a cinema will probably be considered insane. What's your problem, are you out of your mind? Well then again, what has changed, is the sensitivity. The problem is that not that evil things don't happen but when they happen, they are surprising. So, when you walk into a park, you know that you should not throw your chewing gum in the park or walk on the grass etc. of all places or pee in the corner. It is not that people don't do it but when they do it they know that that's not the right thing to do and most of us just behave accordingly. Now this is the first trend that I hope we'll see taking roots in the Infosphere. It will seem improper, abnormal, strange, out of the ordinary to place fake news on a social media, to share the wrong kind of pictures on a social media, to use the kind of wrong words on a social media hopefully one day, maybe not too far away. So good behavior will become a different sensitivity of what's right and wrong, even in an environment to which at that point we'll be quite used to. The second point is slightly different. It is not a matter of our own self-development but it is a matter of social rules. Again, if you go to the park there are rules about how to behave in that park and it is not just left to self-regulation. And if you do something wrong you might get a ticket and in fact a steep one. So what does that teach us in terms of an analogy? That we need some regulations to make sure that the normal and the accepted becomes ordinary. That what is life online or onlife is a special way of sharing analog and digital experiences through the infosphere is regulated in a way that is socially acceptable to most of us that doesn't get the worst of us out there: the shouting, the hating, the confrontational, the my win you lose or vice versa but the ordinary stuff that happens every day. Think of traffic downtown: we don't bump into each other, we don't kill each other. We might be annoyed by the extra traffic. We might not be pleased by someone who doesn't accept the rules as anyone else but most of us just behave and take a bit of extra time to get where you want. Now, likewise I am hoping the infosphere will find that our behavior will have improved because we have a different set of standards, sensitivities, but also different sense of rules--what's right and wrong and we'll get punished because it is not the right thing to do in that social space.



It is almost paradoxical that the same technologies that have brought us together in this small village called Earth, are also the technologies that have made us realize how different we are from each other. So, think of the far distant past. It was a big place--this earth of ours. And what was happening say in Japan will not bother anyone in Brazil and what was happening Brazil might take days or weeks to reach say Portugal. So, it was a big world, it was not connected, and yet the sense of universal values was there because we didn't know better with all that anyone was like us anywhere else simply because we hadn't met each other so to speak. So, bringing us together in a sort of globalized single unity that is this world of ours now, digital technologies have contributed to make us realize that we are also quite diverse from each other. So, it's almost a counterbalance by saying oh look we now so much on the same boat and yet we may not like each other that much. Now what is the positive constructive lesson to extract from here? Is it possible to have some general universal rules or legislation, or some sort of a framework that puts everybody happy on the same side of the divide? There is a missing factor in this picture. We speak of these big companies as companies that reach every corner of the world for a reason. Whereas a single state, a single nation, say France, Italy, Spain, the UK, the United States, Canada have only that sort of geographical reach, and sometimes also influence, but they're not certainly global. Multinational are called multinational for reason. They reach everywhere, and they may actually have an influence everywhere. So, I would expect that if there is any general minimal common denominator in a sort of regulation about life, online or onlife in the infosphere, it may more easily come from these big companies which are multinational rather than national governments that are by default local and geographically limited. In all this picture one more element makes it even more complicated: there are sovereign national entities. Things like Europe and the European Union or NATO or organizations like the World Economic Forum and so on. Things that put together more agents in a variety of geometry, so to speak, more points joined by different lines and those can also have a role to play when it comes to a minimum decent standard of regulations that everybody is sufficiently happy with. So multinational sovereign national organizations, a refinement of all our sensitivities all over the place and some pressure--economic pressure--because nothing like incentives and disincentives make business change its mind.