Blueprints for the Infosphere
Interview with Luciano Floridi
Luciano Floridi is Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Information at the University of Oxford, where he is also the Director of Research of the Oxford Internet Institute. He is renowned for his work on the philosophy of information and computer ethics. Luciano Floridi was the first philosopher to be elected Gauss Professor by the Göttingen Academy of Sciences in 2009. Google appointed him to its Advisory Council on the Right to be Forgotten in 2015. As of January 2016, he is one of six members of the European Union’s New Ethics Advisory Group on Ethical Dimensions of Data Protection. Beyond his academic work, Luciano Floridi is a charismatic public philosophical figure. He engagingly conveys his ideas to a broad audience in media appearances and in his books, essays, and talks. On the 6th of March 2016, fatum magazine met with Professor Floridi at Blackwell’s Bookshop in Oxford. He had just given a public talk there as part of the Philosophy in the Bookshop event series. The following interview took place in the historic office of Basil Blackwell.
fatum: Professor Floridi, in your most recent book, The Fourth Revolution, you write that our perception of reality owes more to Alan Turing than to Isaac Newton. In what ways do computers, the Internet, and new information communication technologies impact how we understand and shape the world today?
Luciano Floridi: The point that I make in my Philosophy of Information is, I think, quite simple: We have very influential techno-scientific perspectives today that help us make sense of the world. Really, the ultimate technique is our own language, but it comes with a lot of basic concepts that we take for granted—for example, when we say that people are mostly water. This is extraordinary: To think that really the difference between me and a jug of coffee is only some liters of water. But speaking this way is part of a Newtonian view of the world, a mechanistic view where cause and effect follow each other. This view is something that one could describe as ur-philosophy, the philosophy before the philosophy. When you live in a particular society and culture, you are usually not aware of the way you begin thinking about the world.
Then, all of a sudden, the world changes. We live in an amphibian manner nowadays that I refer to as onlife: partly online, partly offline. Starting with Alan Turing, we have an information revolution, a digital world, and the Infosphere*; the former foundations are shaken, and replaced by other views. If yesterday it was normal to say that you are mostly water, today everyone says that your DNA is just like a piece of software. This formatting of the world in a particular way is remarkable. That is where philosophy becomes crucial. Because unhinging, criticizing, reappropriating, and improving the view of the world, that is part of the philosophical job. Without philosophy, we are just the slaves of our own conceptualization.
fatum: You refer to your philosophical approach as conceptual design—as opposed to conceptual analysis. What is conceptual design and how can it provide an understanding of current technological developments?
Luciano Floridi: Analysis is important, but it is important only as a first step. It is necessary to analyze in order to understand and not confuse concepts. In the last decades, however, analysis was also widely thought to eliminate philosophical problems. Philosophical questions were considered to be either problems that you could analyze away or else analyze for good. Finding concrete solutions was generally left to other fields.
I completely disagree with this picture of philosophy. This had never been philosophy in the past. It will not be philosophy in the future. It should not be the philosophy of today.
Most of the problems we deal with as philosophers are open problems. They are constrained by mathematics and empirical data, but these are insufficient to make a decision. This is where the philosopher comes in: the space of design. Analyzing alone is too little. Philosophers also have to ask: What should we do?
If anything, philosophers are the ultimate experts in open questions. The trouble is that a lot of the time, we as philosophers are not dealing with them. It is irresponsible when we leave the space of open questions untouched by philosophical input, because the result will be that someone else comes in. The questions of our time will not be left unanswered. If philosophy does not do its job, those who will answer will be the self-proclaimed gurus, the fundamentalists, the crazy guys. The way we did philosophy for half a century in purely analytic style has done a damage to society. Philosophers walked away from their duty.
fatum: Hilary Putnam similarly said that if philosophy does not do its job,
bad philosophy takes its place. Is part of the problem a classical distinction within philosophy between theory and praxis, between episteme and techne, as the Ancient Greeks would have said?
Luciano Floridi: With Plato onwards, we took a wrong turn when we started thinking: episteme is one thing, and techne is another. Of course it was much easier in antiquity and in medieval times to think that technology and science were two different things completely. But since Galileo, we know that technology and science are combined in a single thing. There is no experimental physics without measurement and quantification, in Galileo’s case, some way of measuring time. There is no Newton without calculus, and calculus is a mathematical technique. Today, there is no science without computers. For example, there is no neuroscience without brain scans. Science and technology are now part of the same package.
What we need to be doing as philosophers is study the foundations of science and scientific knowledge, which are developing as science develops. We still do not have, for example, a foundational theory of data science. A new science is growing and nobody is doing any philosophical work on it. So there is a lot of classic work to be done in epistemology, but we also need to do research on the role techno-science plays within society.
fatum: How can conceptual design be applied in such a broad range of contexts, from epistemology to questions concerning society?
Luciano Floridi: This is where I become close to Charles Sanders Peirce, the great Pragmatist. There has to be a point of contact, where theory hits the ground and the so-called phenomenal world, the world we interact with.
Essentially, when you analyze, you have a particular system you want to generate a model of. The model is determined by the level of abstraction. The level of abstraction is chosen in terms of a given purpose. The purpose is a pragmatic choice. Not in the everyday sense of “pragmatism”, but in the philosophical sense.
I used to think of myself as a completely Neo-Kantian philosopher. I spent a year in Marburg and was the real sort of follower. If I had to choose the greatest of the great, one philosopher, in the whole history of philosophy, to me that would be Kant. That is how close I am to his philosophy.
However, Kant considered scientific knowledge to be a mere description of the world. But science is also about building, about design, about constructing. Science is an intervention. For Kant, there is always a natural system, and there is always a model. For us, that is true. There is a system out there, call it the noumenon. There is a model that tries to describe it, a level of abstraction. What is it that I find limiting in Kant? A Kantian philosopher today tells you nothing about technology—nothing about blueprints. A blueprint is a design for something in the future, something that does not represent a system yet.
It was by the 19th century philosophers of technology in Germany that Kant was criticized for having been totally silent about the nature of technology. Construction is not limited to a conceptual level and the realm of reason—this is where Idealism got it wrong. When I construct a table, I may not know what it “is” in and of itself, but I am building something that was not there before. To use a metaphor of Galileo, the “Book of Nature” written with mathematical symbols: we are adding new chapters. My contribution is, if you like, complementing the philosophy of reading with a philosophy of writing. We need to talk about a philosophy of design, a philosophy of construction.
fatum: Is the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms that the Neo-Kantian Ernst Cassirer developed such a
philosophy of writing?
Luciano Floridi: Cassirer got very close to it. When I studied The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms as an undergraduate in Rome, in Italian translation, it was overwhelming, but it was also eye-opening. However, even in Cassirer you find a Platonic attitude—the attitude of someone who is watching. Whether you are in Plato’s Cave or sitting in front of the fire like Descartes, you are still watching, you are not building. It is surprising that someone like Plato tells you throughout his book The Republic how to build a state, and yet his epistemology is totally voyeuristic. There is a tension there that is unresolved, and it is unresolved all the way to Kant. When we tried to resolve it, we went with Idealism. We took the wrong turn; nobody wants to build concepts for concepts’ sake. Even Heidegger and Husserl are on the reading side. Where is the writing? Philosophers are good at building with concepts and providing the right framework to build the right world.
fatum: Your own ethical framework implies that every informational entity, no matter if it is biological or non-biological, is morally good if it preserves or decreases informational entropy. How can we determine what is morally good?
Luciano Floridi: The idea that the world in itself—and being—is not morally neutral, but is connected to something that we want to identify as the Good, goes back to Plato, but above all to Spinoza. When you read Plato, the Good is the ultimate nature of being and being is good. In Spinoza, the world is an expression of the divine.
What does it mean to be “good”, just in and of itself? There is no real answer to this question because you have eliminated all other points of reference. The only way of getting out of here is to say: What does it mean to decrease the goodness in something? Maybe destroying it, diminishing its properties, or not letting it flourish—in other words, some kind of vandalism. So we have only a relational perspective. Imagine a scale which does not tell you how much something weighs, but only that something weighs more than something else.
What does it mean to have a world in which every entity has a minimal degree of value in and of itself? It means to say: Do not vandalize, unless… Do not destroy, unless…
unless is important because the moral scale does not give you an absolute value. Saying a glass of water is valuable in and of itself; that is meaningless. But if you take a glass and break it, for no reason, for no purpose. Well, I would say the world was a better place when the glass was not broken. Of course we may break the glass for a thousand reasons which can be weighed in a comparative analysis. But in absolute terms, I think we should invert the fundamental question. The question is not
What is value in itself?, but rather
Is there anything that is worth vandalizing?. Is there anything that does not deserve any respect whatsoever, at all, by default, to begin with?
So instead of asking
Is there a threshold below which something is totally worthless?, let us ask: Should there be a threshold? Or should we just assume that everything is worth at least some moral attention? This room we are in right now: Is this not worth preserving?
fatum: Is art the opposite of vandalism then? As something poietic…
Luciano Floridi: …that enriches the world. And sometimes enrichment comes at a cost. You have to break something to build something else in the creative zone. That is why I think an entrepreneur is pretty much an artist. If you talk to the real entrepreneur, not a crazy one, she wants to build. She does not care that much about money. Money is just a corresponding degree of confirmation that what one builds works. The pleasure is in building. That is why people keep creating. This creative nature is with us, that is why we care.
fatum: You have pointed out that there is a discrepancy between the pace of technological progress and production and the way that cultural, legal, and ethical developments have kept up. What problems does this give rise to?
Luciano Floridi: Essentially, technology is developing at a much faster pace than legal systems and our theoretical understanding. Partly that is our fault as philosophers. We have not been there and still refuse to be there. Catching up is a bit difficult now.
We increasingly resort to patchwork solutions. The risk in this is missing the big project: a systemic and synoptic view of the world. You do not want to design things on an ad hoc basis. You want to have a whole architecture. This architecture will not arise unless we stop chasing technology and start thinking
Where should technology go?. At the moment, we are chasing breathlessly, running after technology. Let us step back and let us have a look whether we really want to go where we are going. This is the lesson that we should learn from the design perspective. Design is about architecture. It is not about finding a particular solution. Small-minded approaches will not result in an architecture. And at the moment, we are working on an urgency level: now, now, now, go, go, go! We are not taking enough time to step back and think: What is the human project here?
fatum: What are you currently working on yourself?
Luciano Floridi: Right now, I am working, piece-by-piece, on the third volume of a larger project on the foundations of the philosophy of information. I have published the first two volumes, the Philosophy of Information and the Ethics of Information. Volume three will be the Politics of Information. Our societies are increasingly becoming information societies. I would like to understand much better what norms and agents we should be building to tackle the supranational, global issues that developing or developed information societies are facing. The classic problem is environmentalist. We are not going anywhere unless we have something that is bigger than France, Germany, Italy… Not even Europe is enough.
We need new minds. The world is demanding it, society needs it, and there are jobs out there. We need philosophy that is done at the highest level and that therefore is applicable. The great philosophers have always done things that society could take and run with. That is the kind of philosophy we need to do now. And we are not doing enough of it. So it is on your shoulders.