Imagine today a new Marx or a new Aristotle or a new Kant being born. What would they be thinking about? I think they would be engaging in all the digital transformations, innovation and technologies. Prof. Luciano Floridi in conversation with Maciej Chojnowski

Maciej Chojnowski: Your research is about creating a new philosophical framework for the era of ICT technologies. Why is it necessary to have this new framework today?

Prof. Luciano Floridi*: There are several reasons. First of all, digital technologies create new environments and change the essence of a lot of things. By ‘a lot of things’, I mean concepts or phenomena that we inherited from modernity.

Personal identity, what we mean by our own experience, our vulnerability and ability of doing harm to other people – they are all being completely transformed. Next: friendship, love and interactions with people online. Death online, what happens to our digital remains once we are no longer here. But also business, entertainment, even the very sense of care and medical profile and health. Everything we can think of is being transformed in its essence by digital technologies.

Now what happens when the world changes so dramatically? People need better understanding of what’s going on to have a better plan of what they want in the future. But this radical change has generated a conceptual deficit: we do not have the usual framework in which we could think. In politics, in society, in economics, in cyber world etc., we need a philosophy to fill that gap. We need to think more and better about what is going on today, so that not only we understand what it is but also, which to me is very crucial, we can gain and shape a sense of direction.

So for all these reasons, that is a philosophical task. And I think it’s time for our own century to develop the philosophy of our time and for our time. Not just inherited things that we have seen working in the past. Imagine today a new Marx or a new Aristotle or a new Kant being born. What would they be thinking about? I think they would be engaging in all the digital transformations, innovation and technologies. And they would give us a philosophy of information that is up to our century. That’s why I find this very exciting. It’s a new enterprise we can engage with, worth all our intellectual efforts.

In your book “The 4th Revolution” you use the term ‘ethical infrastructure’ or in short ‘infraethics’. You say it’s constitutive for the right design of interactions in today’s world. Why is it so important?

I’m glad that you picked that up because I’m particularly keen on the idea. And I don’t think everybody understands that it is one of the important contributions of the book.

So I think in ethics we have concentrated a lot, perhaps too much, on human character and personal virtues: Who am I? Who should I be? Am I a good person? And on actions, like: What should I do? How should I react? With whom should I interact? Or what’s the right response?

Luciano Floridi

But what if we start designing the right circumstances which make us do the right thing easier and the wrong thing more difficult. That’s how I came up with the idea that what we need is the ethical infrastructure.

The idea here has a well-known analogy in economics. In economics, we don’t just speak about business. We also talk about an infrastructure that makes business flourish: communications, transports, the rule of law, fair competition, property rights, etc. So these are not business, but thanks to these circumstances business works. If you don’t have a banking system that is reliable and the rule of law business is blocked.

When we are shaping the environment around these technologies to make them work more successfully, we are also exposing ourselves in our fragility or vulnerability to machines that are very straightforward, rigid. Is that really the world in which we want to live?

That’s also true about ethics. The ‘infraethics’ idea is about an infrastructure that is not yet ethical, but facilitates the ethical development of the individual. So in the same way as roads and airports are the infrastructure which is not yet business, but it helps business, likewise ‘infraethics’ is all the conditions that make ethical actions easier.

For example, people in England queue at bus stops. You should get to a bus stop earlier, otherwise you don’t get on a bus. It’s a habit and it’s fair. There’s nothing ethical in queuing for a bus. But it makes good behaviour easier. So it’s a good ethical infrastructure.

A lot of the things that we think of as ethical are actually infraethical. Take privacy. Of course, there is a part of privacy that is about human dignity and I have argued that that part is a matter of ethics. But a lot of privacy issues are good not in themselves, but because they are used to achieve something else. That’s why I thought it was quite an important distinction to make in the book.

You often say that smart technologies of today are in fact quite stupid because they can only process data and analyse syntax while true understanding involves semantics and interpretation. However, although we are very far from reaching AGI or singularity smart machines become more and more successful. And all this due to ‘enveloping the world’, as you call it, which means transforming environment so that it allows machines to work. With the advent of IoT and edge computing ICTs are entering almost every corner of our world. Will we have to adapt to machines some day? Or maybe we are already adapting to them?

That’s a big concern which I think is not stressed enough. When we talk about AI, we often think about sci-fi problems: Terminator, singularity, machines taking over the world or going crazy. That is something that I dismiss as a distraction. It’s also a matter of responsibility: we have enough problems not to be worried about dystopian movies. I think we should focus on the erosion of human responsibility and autonomy instead.

This erosion is very quiet. But increasingly, we are subject to recommendations by automated systems that tell us ‘if you like this than you may like that’, like Tripadvisor, Amazon, Netflix etc. And of course, it’s very convenient. But now imagine someone who was born today and fastforward 21 years down the road. So it’s 2040 and Mary or John who are now 21 have been subject to the whole department of recommendations, everyday, every week, every month, every year for 21 years. Then who has shaped what? My concern is that the autonomy and the responsibility of the individual would have been deeply affected in the wrong way.

We need to remember that we are very malleable, fragile and lazy. We like to follow sometimes rather than lead. And these technologies exploit our laziness, malleability, the fact that we are easily influenced.

So, in essence, back to your point, when we are shaping the environment around these technologies to make them work more successfully, we are also exposing ourselves in our fragility or vulnerability to machines that are very straightforward, rigid. Is that really the world in which we want to live?

According to “The Onlife Manifesto” that you edited and co-authored, thinking and developing new forms of education are among the most pressing challenges of our time. And you say that the omnipresence of ICTs distracts our reflection from the real issue which is what to teach, not how to teach. I generally agree but we also know from McLuhan that the medium is the message. Shouldn’t we protect some forms of learning (like reading books) as constitutive for our intellectual formation? Are there any special areas of culture which we know are better than the new forms offered by digital technology?

I agree with you. We shouldn’t take the idea that it’s not the ‘how’ but the ‘what’ too literally. It would be silly. I don’t want to belittle the importance of ‘how’ at all. But I’m concerned about the fact that sometimes we think that what the digital revolution is really about is the Power Point or the massive online courses that everybody can access.

I mean it would be strange if the only real big difference in education today was how we teach people. We know that the digital revolution is changing our commitments, our jobs, how we keep ourselves busy, the working conditions change dramatically. And surely, you can imagine someone say ‘How should I teach?’ or ‘What kind of teaching relationship should I have with the next generation?’. And someone else would say ‘Look, all the problems will be solved by how you use the digital to teach them’. But not in my understanding. I could probably do an equally good job with pen, pencil and paper if the ‘what’ I teach is really good. That’s why I like to stress this other side.

Can you elaborate on that a little more?

This other side is crucial because it’s a question about the foundational elements of our society. I think that we teach a lot of students too much information and not enough “languages” and I’m talking about the early stages, elementary school, high school. The compulsory stage. We seem to teach them notions, things that they learn by heart, information. I don’t think that we should only teach them information. Of course, that’s also important but the real thing is to teach them the languages of information. So I don’t care whether a student knows all theorems in geometry. I care if that student has learnt how to demonstrate theorems. And I don’t care whether he knows when Napoleon was born because what I care is that he understands some of the logic of history, the language of history, so the importance of Napoleon, for example, in the transformation of legal systems in Europe. So all of a sudden, you’re shifting from the ‘how’ to the ‘what’. But the ‘what’ is not simply ‘what information’ but ‘what languages of information’.

I’m concerned about the fact that sometimes we think that what the digital revolution is really about is the Power Point or the massive online courses that everybody can access

We’re talking about 21st century education where people become conversant, fluent in the languages of information. It could be music, it could be the language of art, the language of composition. People need to absorb not just information but produce, create, design, improve, refine and criticise information. That’s knowing the languages. Once we get all the way down to what languages of information we should teach, then I think we are really on much safer ground for the future.

Because if you know the languages of information, it doesn’t matter if technology changes. If you know how to speak music or computer science or mathematics or ancient languages, you will always be fine. It’s like someone saying ‘Look, English is changing daily’. I know, I speak English. There are new words, new expressions, new sayings, new idiomatic expressions. That’s what language is, it never stops. But you are fluent in that language and that’s why you can keep up with the language, you are part of the transformations. That’s what we should really adopt.

Can we then say that what we need is more pragmatic approach instead of theoretical, academic approach?

It’s more in terms of the content versus the language. We still teach a lot of content and through that content. You don’t have to memorise all the rivers in France. You can find it on Wikipedia. But surely you need to know whether rivers are important in France or not, and why. That’s a different course and on the way you will also learn the names of the rivers.

So, going back to the medium is the message, I would say that the language is the information.

At the end of ‘The Fourth Revolution’, there is a passage about the need for the e-nvironmental approach to the world, which “does not privilege the natural or untouched but treats as authentic or genuine all forms of existence and behaviours, even those based on artificial, synthetic, hybrid and engineered artefacts.” On the one hand, it seems an objective and up-to-date approach. But on the other, it may cause doubts if it’s not too weak in terms of protecting our human condition. Let’s think of real sports versus e-sports. The former shapes both the mind and the body whereas the latter favours mental concentration and manual dexterity in a virtual world. Aren’t we losing some fundamental point of reference if we don’t privilege the natural approach.

It’s a very important point that you are raising. The passage that you read in ‘The Fourth Revolution’ is supposed to summarise the view that for too long we have focused only on ourselves, on humanity, on human nature. And in particular on humans as a special species. What I’m trying to do there is to say that there is so much more that needs to be done. So it’s not an attempt to diminish the extraordinary nature of humanity in which I still believe. I still hold what in philosophy we call an exceptionalistic view of humanity but it’s not the only thing that we need to take into account now. Today we need to be more environmentally-oriented.

Humans are both references of respect but also sources of respect. In other words, they are agents that can respect something else, but also the agents that need to be respected. In many cases in the world it doesn’t happen that way. For example, we can identify nature as something that is a target of respect, but not a source of respect. I’m not being respected by my dog, so to speak, or by a tree. I can be respectful towards a tree, a valley, the whole ecology. So that’s the first important thing.

Migration, massive transformations, coasts disappearing, water raising. We’re talking of dystopian scenarios of some biblical dimensions. In that context, technology can be a necessary part of the solution

The other thing is that there are different degrees. Am I a target of respect in the same way as an iPhone could be a target of respect? No. Why? Because I can be also a source that iPhone cannot be. Then of course, the iPhone is less respectful than a dog. There is a whole chain of being in ancient philosophy, where lower forms of life deserve less respect than the higher forms of life.

What I’m saying in that passage is that there is no threshold below which it is right to exercise no respect. Not even for a stone, not even for a beach made of sand. Our world is a better world if we respect a beach made of sand. Somebody will say ‘Well, we simply cannot act like that’. Yes, but the closer you get there, the better. So it doesn’t mean that just because it’s impossible to be respectful 100 percent, 360 degrees, it’s not a good thing. We are not God but the closer we get to a God-like approach, the better.

We should be more inclusive. Make room for the rest of the universe. If we concentrate only on ourselves, that’s exactly how we got here with a destroyed world, nature that is collapsing, and unsustainability.

I like to think that we can care for any kind of environment not just the biological one. What about the Sistine Chapel? What about my house, your house? Or the watch of my grandfather? I mean, everything in the end acquires a meaning. It’s part of our semantic capital. And it is important to refine our intuitions about how we behave towards this universe of ours.

One of the most pressing issues of digital age is carbon footprint. In “The 4th Revolution”, you say that the technological gambit could be a solution to this problem. The book was published in 2014. Do you believe there is a chance for this gambit to be successful? Are you still optimistic about this possibility?

I think we are still playing it. And I think we’re still playing it blindly, at least most of us. I think most people are not aware of what we’re doing. I still find individuals who are surprised to hear that Bitcoin is hugely consuming in terms of electricity. I think that we haven’t yet understood what a gambit we’re playing with the universe.

I think of the gambit as the way out of our predicament with the clock ticking almost like a bomb. This planet is becoming increasingly a place on which we cannot live without fighting badly against each other. It’s either I eat or you eat. I drink the water or you drink the water. Migration, massive transformations, coasts disappearing, water raising. We’re talking of dystopian scenarios of some biblical dimensions. In that context, technology can be a necessary part of the solution.

Of course, I’m not talking about technology as a saviour. But the human intelligent development, design and deployment of the right technologies is the way forward in terms of energy consumption, resources that are renewable and circular and fair economies. This is the way forward. We don’t have another one.

So, do I like the gambit? It’s the only game in town, right? Are we playing it intelligently? Not yet. And time is running short. Now we are 5 years later so we better hurry up. But do I believe that that is the way forward? Yes, I think so.

My recent book “The green and the blue” is an attempt to describe politics for the gambit perspective. To put together the green, environmentally friendly, sustainable, circular economy with the blue of digital technologies, innovation, powerful AI that can do much more with less, especially as a resource or agency that can tackle problems and solve them more effectively and efficiently. The green and the blue to me is the plan. That is what gets of the gambit and enables us to have a decent society on a decent planet. I don’t think anyone is listening but I shall keep saying it anyway.

*Luciano Floridi is Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Information at the University of Oxford, where he directs the Digital Ethics Lab of the Oxford Internet Institute, and is Fellow of Exeter College. He is also Turing Fellow and Chair of the Data Ethics Group of the Alan Turing Institute. His areas of expertise include digital ethics, the philosophy of information, and the philosophy of technology. Among his recent books, all published by Oxford University Press (OUP): The Logic of Information (2019), The Fourth Revolution – How the infosphere is reshaping human reality (2014), winner of the J. Ong Award; The Ethics of Information (2013); The Philosophy of Information (2011).

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