Søren Kierkegaard famously pointed out that the only way we can understand life is backwards – we are compelled to…
New Philosopher‘s editor Zan Boag interviews Luciano Floridi, Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Information at the University of Oxford.
Zan Boag: Technology in various forms has been a part of human life for some time now, but, as philosophers such as Heidegger argue, recently there has been a profound change in the nature of technology itself. What’s so different about current technologies?
Luciano Floridi: What is different is that it is no longer just a matter of interacting with the world by other means: a wheel rather than pushing stuff, or an engine rather than a horse. We have this new environment where we are spending more and more time – a digital environment, where agency is most successful because the technologies that we have are meant to interact successfully in a digital environment. Think of a fish in a swimming pool or in a lake. Well, we are kind of scuba diving now in the infosphere, whereas the artificial agents that we have, those are the fish – they live within an environment that is their environment. The digital interacting with the digital – software, databases, big data, algorithms, you name it – they are the natives, they are the locals. We are being pushed into an environment where we are scuba diving. You can’t start imagining what it means for an artificial agent to interact with something that is made of its own same stuff. What an algorithm does to data is inconceivable for a human being that is a totally analogue biological entity. So one, they’re building a new environment and we’re guests in this new environment; second, all of a sudden, because they’re changing how we understand the world, how we conceptualise our reality, how we conceptualise ourselves, how we interact with the world, and how we interact among ourselves – those four things – surely that represents a huge transformation in our philosophical understanding. The result is that we are entering into what I like to consider a new chapter in the history of philosophy… Out of all this, why does digital technology make a difference as opposed to the engine, or the fridge, or the wheel? Well, this builds on the environment and transforms all of the interactions we have among ourselves with our environment, and how we conceptualise ourselves and our environment. That’s the foundation of any way of looking at the world, and that escalates into doing new philosophy. I’m not terribly keen on selling the philosophy of information as the only philosophy. If you know enough about the history of philosophy, you know that one day there will be something else. But today, it is the philosophy of our time, for our time. And we have pressing problems that we need to understand, and possibly solve.
What are the most significant positive and negative aspects of this ‘fourth revolution’, as you call it?
In terms of positive aspects, there is a sense of liberation and empowerment – at least in the 1990s with the honeymoon with the Internet we were enjoying it. You can be someone else, you can interact with people you could never dream of, you can do more with less, we can actually help the environment a lot. I mean it is a gambit because of course all we do costs energy, but thanks to the Internet and the Internet of things, and so on, we can do much better and more with our resources.
So it’s possible for us to do better, but whether we do this is another matter…
It’s possible… but if you think of how we entertain ourselves, our education, how we can do politics, how we can relate to conflicts, they are all positive stories that we can tell in all this from whatever revolution you want to pick up in the last ten years, to any wonderful communication that we’ve been able to implement, and so on. But of course, the honeymoon has kind of come to an end and we have grown up a little bit, and growing up has shown the limits of all of this. Things we could have done, or not done, or done differently. So back to the concrete examples… technologies these days they polarise a lot, they transform – search engines don’t make us stupid, but it does make our society more polarised. The stupid become more stupid, and the intelligent become more intelligent. It’s like the rich become richer, and the poor become poorer. And that polarisation that is part of the technological development – that is a sad outcome which we could have prevented, we can still redress, but about which we’re not doing enough. That’s perhaps one of the problems that I find most challenging. The other one is the transformation of the Internet into a control, monitoring, spying, surveillance tool – that’s kind of sad – and then the transformation of these wonderful technologies into technologies of mass distraction. We use them mostly to play, put cats on social media, chit chat with someone. Shame on us, to be honest, for having this wonderful stuff and that’s all we do.
There are very few whose lives haven’t been affected by digital technologies – not just in terms of distraction and entertainment, but also because of the sheer volume of information available. You write that every day, “enough data are being created to fill all US libraries eight times over,” that we’re in “the age of the zettabyte.” What effect is this onslaught of information having on the average person?
It makes the environment in which we move an environment where only survival skills count. Once you are submerged by this enormous amount of data, information of all kinds, sources grabbing your attention – because that’s what they’re all about, they want a piece of your time and attention for them – once that pulling of your attention is constantly there, then we know that only those who can survive that kind of temptation will move forward. Most people will be tempted, will spend three hours on social media and wake up and say, “Wait, what, the whole Sunday morning went.” So I know there’s a lot of emphasis on this, “Oh my god, there’s information about so many things, there’s so much noise, it’s confusing,” and I think it’s a problem, but it’s not the main problem. It’s a typical research-oriented epistemological view about the tsunami of information, but most of this data is not about science and knowledge, it’s about trivialities, trillions of pictures that people put online, or videos of the last band they saw.
But for a moment forget about the epistemological side and think about the social side – every item there is calling for your attention. It’s a crying baby. And you have trillions of crying babies. That is distracting to say the least. So, do I take care of the last video a friend sent me, or the holiday photos, or what my mum put there when she was talking to her friend? That distraction has got almost nothing to do with science and epistemology but is actually a social amount of information that is distracting us, and that seems to me the fundamental problem that we face. Unless you can fight it, but very few people can.
It’s like food. We have so much food around us that it’s very hard to be on a diet. And it’s not because you want to be an athlete, or super-fit, you just know that if you keep eating all that junk, well, it’s going to kill you. And it’s the same with all this information out there – and every bit is calling for our attention. Every chocolate bar is calling, “me, me, me.” Most of it is junk, and even of the stuff that isn’t junk, there’s just too much. Even of the best quality food – you can really have a hard time if you eat too much of the best possible food. I don’t think it’s so much about junky data, but what we need to realise is that there’s an enormous amount of good information out there that we just have to give up. And that is the first time in the history of humanity we’ve had to do that.
If you put all these things together like dot points on a picture: mass distraction, attention being pulled, a society that likes to use the Internet also for monitoring and surveillance – these are all connected.
With the creation of virtual identities, the use of avatars, the ‘safety’ of the screen between them and others, people behave differently online than they would face-to-face. What has this development meant for relationships and interaction in general between humans? What are the problems we face with this shift? Are there any benefits?
I think there are some benefits. Going back to the good and bad things about the Internet: the benefit is that we have an extra opportunity to construct our identity. And that’s really priceless. If you think of the constraints that you may have in a small village like the one in which I live – there are 500 people – it’s hard to present yourself any differently than what they think you are, and that’s the end of the story. They know you, they have a view about you, and that’s you. Online, there is a little bit more scope. Of course, there are skills we have to learn, opportunities that we still don’t take full advantage of, but at least the space is more malleable, so there’s a sense in which you can be a little bit more in charge of your identity, and this includes the people that you want to meet. I mean, you want to join a group in New Zealand or in Canada that is keen on that particular band, and you can do it. I remember the frustration of being in a small place in the middle of nowhere and thinking, “I’m the only one interested in this stuff.” So that’s the wonderful thing in terms of the malleable nature of this.
There’s also more space. If you think of space as almost like a physical thing, if people are too close to each other then there’s friction and elbows touching each other. With the online world, well, there’s as much space as you want.
But is there something missing when there isn’t that physical interaction, the fragility of being next to someone else – do we lose that with online interaction?
We’re losing one side of that. Because we don’t have the physical experience of interacting with someone online, say with social media – it’s not this kind of interaction where I can see your face, whether you’re smiling, moving your hands; it’s a very sensory-deprived context in which people are interacting. And because of that, we have to have a lot of other clues which we are not yet attuned to… Yes, we are losing the feeling of being next to the other person, of being in the same room, but at the same time maybe we will develop a sense of being in this online environment where other clues make the difference. I don’t want to be too trivial, but emoticons go in that direction. There’s a need for being a little more present than a few lines or a picture.
I’d like to move on to memory. In this edition, philosopher Patrick Stokes – your former colleague at Hartfordshire – writes about how we’re ‘forgetting how to forget’ as we increasingly outsource our memory to our phones and computers – storing and sharing every moment. As Kierkegaard puts it, “we’re remembering the experience while we’re still having it.” Do you think this is a concern, or are we simply finding new ways of communicating and recording, a different way of being?
This problem raises several issues that are crucial – there are so many things here that are of absolute fundamental philosophical value. The first thing is a misunderstanding about ICT – digital technologies – we’ll call them technologies of memory, but they actually wipe our memory. What they do is they are constantly presenting memory as an over-extended eternal present. That’s typical of search engines. In the past, you would have some of the memories sediment into blocks and it’s important to stress that you really would have the memories, but you would not be recalling those memories. That’s a definition I provided recently of ‘closure’. Closure is not forgetting – it’s remembering without recalling. You don’t want to forget what happened, on the contrary history needs to be remembered. But at the same time you don’t want to refresh that memory all the time because otherwise you never move forward. Say two friends who have had a fight, or you and your spouse, something didn’t go well, but we put it in the archive. It’s not cleaning or erasing things… These technologies, by nature, they constantly regurgitate everything we have, all on one single front page.
Therefore the art of remembering, forgetting, recalling, closure, all those things that we skilfully developed over millennia have been completely disrupted. Think of personal identity and how much memory is actually you and me. Classic thought experiment: I wake up tomorrow morning and I have zero memory of any kind. I don’t know how to play squash, I don’t know how to speak English, I don’t even know my name, nada. Blank slate. Am I still me? We can spend an endless amount of time discussing it, but there is a commonsense idea that you have lost yourself.
Let’s piece all this together… there’s a sense in which we are our memories, and then we develop technologies which handle memories. These are technologies that are handling personal identities, that’s what it is. So this adds to the previous strand of the conversation 20 minutes ago – why this is making such a difference to our lives as opposed to the engine. Well, an engine doesn’t change me. It’s not supposed to handle my personal identity – well, some people do identify with their car, poor them. These technologies are meant to handle and transform and process your memories. Therefore these technologies are handling your personal identity. You’ve got to be careful about how you handle these memories… You’ve got control over information, you’ve got control over personal identity.
Have we lost something fundamental by being as reliant on technology as we are today. Are we missing out on life as we’re fiddling with the dials on our pieces of technology?
You might have guessed from what I have said and what I write that I tend to be on the Pollyanna optimistic side of things. What we’re missing is an opportunity. The online-offline forces interacting with each other, they could make each other a better experience, a richer experience, we could add new sides, new aspects to our lives – or it could actually collapse into each other and constrain and limit our lives. I think to some extent, it’s a polarisation. For the majority of people, it’s a collapse. I have the impression that for many people the digital and the analogue – the online and the offline – are kind of a supernova collapsing into a smaller and smaller and less and less rich world of experience. But for some other people – and maybe it’s a minority, I don’t know, they are actually expanding. You can do more, you can enjoy life in a variety of different ways, and that is to some extent up to the individuals and also up to our society and our education.
What you want to have is where you have the two options where the online and the offline are collaborating to make things better. This is moving towards a mature information society where we’re not just chasing the next app or the new start-up, but we’re thinking about the human project we want to build. That’s something that I find highly disappointing at the moment – there is no conversation going on about this. Not much, at least.
That leads me to a point that you raised in another interview – you said that, “We are, literally, on the brink of making this planet uninhabitable. Maybe it’s time for a change.” What form should that change take? What is to be done?
We know that this is a problem. Anyone who thinks that we have more pressing problems than each other’s intolerance and the destruction that we are causing to the environment, they should get out of their office more often. Fundamentally, it’s how much we’re destroying the environment and how much we’re destroying each other – that is the challenge we have. And I see this as two sides of the same problem: vandalism. Vandalism which is called ‘terrorism’ in one case, and ‘environmental destruction’ in the other case. But it’s about destruction. With this vandalism, we have a good chance – but it’s getting late – of reversing what we’re doing at the moment and technologies can really help a lot with this. They can help essentially by providing a much more intelligent way of living on this planet. Now I know that this sounds a bit utopian, but if you think of how technologies can decrease our consumption and make us use whatever we consume way more intelligently – basically, do more with less. Technologies can be a fundamental player in all this. But the trouble is that we don’t have enough time, so even on the vandal/terrorist side, we’re using technologies in the wrong way, we’re using them for surveillance, to check on people, whereas we could actually use them to talk to each other.
And that’s the only way forward. Sooner or later we’re going to sit at that table – the question is: how much pain is it going to take to get there? If it’s 100 years, then that’s 100 years of pain that we’re going to inflict on each other, bombing this, bombing that, pointlessly because at the end of the day we will sit at that table. Northern Ireland, Israel and Palestine, any other place. So ultimately, it seems to me that technology can play a good role in all this – but it is not at the moment playing that role. We are missing the opportunities so I’m not terribly optimistic about what we are actually doing, but in terms of what we could be doing, well, the opportunity is there. These technologies are ‘green’ in the sense that they are anti-vandalism – they can help the environment, and they can help society. What I find missing in all this recipe is the political will.
Where will the change come from? Who is going to instigate the change?
If we had had this conversation a couple of months ago I would have said: we need to understand how politics can make a difference in our society so that vandalism of these two kinds can be withstood and we can move forward to a better world socially and environmentally. Today, I have changed my mind. Politics will only be the vehicle – the tool – what we need is to change our ethics. Recently when I was in Brussels, after a meeting with the European parliament, someone asked me a blunt question: “Give me one sentence, what should we do?” And under pressure I said, “Pain now.” We as a society, as long as we keep buying that T-shirt that costs so little, that piece of chicken that costs so little – yes it’s good for my pocket, but the environment is going to collapse.
The question is, how does this ‘pain’ start? Does it have to be top-down?
That’s why I’m not optimistic about what we’re going to do. If you look at human history, big changes have happened after disasters occurred. We didn’t decide to regulate nuclear weapons until two had been exploded, and the Cold War, and so on. So if history teaches us that kind of lesson, we need to go through a disaster before finally we wake up and say, “You know what, we need to change course.” What we’re doing at the moment is buying time. From the environment to the terrorist problems, the social and environmental issues, we’re buying time. And that’s where I’m a bit pessimistic – we don’t have time. Contrary to the past, to past crises – although the nuclear crisis was as close as you could get to not having time – especially with the environment, if we make a mess as we do at the moment, there will be a point of no return.
In theory, in an ideal world, change would have to be bottom-up. It has to be bottom-up. I don’t see this coming from a few enlightened people in governments. It has to be the whole world, the whole population, that says, “Enough is enough, we have to change.” Which means better distribution of resources, higher taxes because what we pay is insufficient for what we are consuming. That T-shirt cannot cost that little without someone somewhere suffering.
Floridi’s most recent book is The Fourth Revolution – How the Infosphere is Reshaping Human Reality. Photo by Ian Scott.