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The Fourth Revolution, Floridi 2014

In brief Luciano Floridi is an Italian philosopher with a background in computer science whos considered a pioneer in the philosophy of information. The Fourth Revolution is a continuation of Floridi’s prior work intended for a wider audience, leisure readers but also scholarly readers who need an introduction and motivation to the field. It is carried in a similar spirit as Floridi’s contribution to the Very Short Introductions series on information in which he discusses the basic terms and views regarding the meaning of information and ends up opening the topic of information ethics.

In The Fourth Revolution, Floridi syntheses the effect of the growth of digital technologies in various areas of our life, its consequences and its side effects. It shows that we are undergoing a shift in our understanding of the world, that requires careful reframing. The basic idea he proposes is that we should understand information because we understand the world through it. This leads to using an informational lens through which we understand the world. Floridi nicely describes the shift in his reaction to one of the reviews of this book.

'I do not know whether the world in itself is informational, (…) What I do know is that our conceptualisation of the world is. The distinction is trivial and yet crucial: from DNA as code to force fields as the foundation of matter, from the mind-brain dualism as a software-hardware distinction to computational neuroscience, from network-based societies to digital economies and cyber conflicts, today we understand and deal with the world informationally. To be is to be interactable: this is our new “ontology”' [1].

“To be is to be interactable”. If this is to be, it means the sphere of information is no less real in comparison to say, a material world. It is an ontological shift that is becoming more apparent with the growth of technology and that Floridi tries to convey. It is best described using the concept of Onlife which is an important concept in the book. Onlife denotes no longer making a distinction between living online, and offline. The best example I can come up with is to imagine the fatal reality of the amount on your digital bank accounts. The amount of money on our accounts is purely digital, computed as a result of our transactions. Yet we rely on it. Floridi uses numerous other examples of IcTs with an increasingly closer linkage to our lives to support this claim. Some of them are interesting to me because the book touched on some of the major online trends which are even more apparent since the publication of the book in 2014. To name a few, the increased importance of software abstraction over hardware is now more apparent when it comes to software infrastructure built on other software. Today, companies build infrastructure on top of other infrastructures. We can see it in the discipline of developer experience (DX). Another example, today best seen in the web3 game industry, is in the intertwining of the in-game economy and off-game economy. It's interesting to see the Onlife perspective in games slowly getting adoption, even though some claim that in games, the ideal of perfect justice cannot be pushed aside in order to work and be enjoyable.

Furthermore, if our conceptualization of the world is informational it means that it's possible to graft and represent the world using terms compatible with the technological world. Floridi says “ICTs are leading our culture to conceptualize the whole reality and our lives within it in ICT-friendly terms, that is, informationally” [2]. I understand the appeal of this view on the world myself. It is unsurprising to object to the possible loss in the such conceptualisation of the world, Floridi does not deal with this question, at least not in the opening chapters.

We can see two ways of admitting autonomy to technology in Floridi’s approach. He builds a concept of technology’s in-betweenness to capture that technology can act autonomously for example computers can run jobs in the background, process data and interact with each other. What may make a difference for us is whether the technology is in our control or not. A manifestation of autonomy may be considered in the way the technological agents affect their environment including the way they shape us. Of course not necessarily in a way that is desirable. Floridi in the book deals with the effects of technology in terms of our interpretation of the world so it's not autonomy in a sense of technology being separated from us. However, what he conveys is that such interpretation leads to rethinking how we should use technology (the book’s subtitle is how the infosphere is reshaping human reality). And if we take a certain position towards the use of technology and act accordingly in some way because of our informational interpretation eg. because we face technology in our everyday lives or because it's useful for us to interpret the world in ICT friendly way, I would argue there may be a little different to acting as if the technology was autonomous on its own, separated from us meaning that both ways of understanding autonomy are the same.

Regarding the question of what kind of autonomy should we grant to technology, I would say it seems productive to admit the autonomy of technology when we design new technology. We should be responsible for seeing the world in a dynamic way in which our newly designed technology may introduce side effects. This is quite a debated topic in design theoretics concept called Ontological designing that builds upon philosophy of technology and of course philosophy of environment. [3] Ontological designing focuses more on how we design the world and how the world designs us back, which is often oversight or ignored [4]. Any technology that gets created affects its environment in some way, though it may be negligible. Wrong or no assessment of its possible effect may, of course, have disastrous consequences. What is important to mention is that these side-effect consequences as I like to call them using the popular ICT glossary can be deployed on a high scale using technological infrastructures. The growth of technology makes the idea more significant so even what looks like a small problem can lead to a huge one with exponential adoption and network effects affecting billions of people. What Floridi points out is that even though we see ourselves as responsible for designing new technology, it's the technology through which we interpret the world, on which we rely o every step, so it has authority that we always take into account in our own decision processes often unconsciously. And again, we can realise this conclusion only if we look at the world informationally in terms of what information we use in our thinking, how we get it, what its source and evolution.

I believe that admitting the autonomy of technology in the full range is one of the assumptions Floridi makes. Its also assumed in the concept of Infosphere in information ethics. According to Floridi’s introductory book, in information ethics “all aspects and instances of being are worth some initial, perhaps minimal and overridable, form of moral respect.” The infosphere, of course, is just the world we live in interpreted informationally. In the Infosphere, what is considered to be a good action by an Inforg (instance of being in the Infosphere) contributes to the Infosphere in a way that supports the preservation and flourishing of the infosphere. So Inforgs should collectively fight the entropy [5]. This is a way of passing the responsibility on to the Inforgs. The Inforgs which have the power to the prevention of ruining the infosphere should contribute to doing so in the best possible way.

It doesn't seem much relevant to me as a reader whether the ideas discussed in the book are globally new. Floridi himself suggests that specialists who work on the edge of the contemporary world and technologies more or less realize this. What seems to be a common element in these fields is a sense of urgency and competition. The best example of people who must have taken such a perspective is the ones who work at the national security level, information specialists, managers of innovation and so on. For those, having an informational advantage plays a crucial role, and thus being able to collect and process information and understand potential sources of information from all possible relevant sources. Seeing the world informationally is a basic assumption in such fields. The presented ideas are new for me locally and personally. I think they are new in the crisp form Floridi gave them. He seems to describe them in just the right way. Although sometimes, he uses maybe too many examples to describe concepts that are more abstract than I would appreciate described in a different way. What I consider new is the overall comprehensive description of the topic of seeing the world informationally and the discussion around it that follows. And of course, the scope on which technology changes our world is unprecedented (as we discussed in the course of the information society).

Citations and used literature

[1] ‘Luciano Floridi responds to NYROB review of The Fourth Revolution’,OUPblog, Nov. 20, 2014. (accessed Oct. 02, 2022).

[2] L. Floridi,The 4th revolution: how the infosphere is reshaping human reality, First edition. New York ; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

[3] A. Feenberg, ‘What Is Philosophy of Technology?’, inDefining Technological Literacy, J. R. Dakers, Ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan US, 2006, pp. 5–16. doi: 10.1057/9781403983053_2.

[4] A.-M. Willis, ‘Ontological Designing’,Design Philosophy Papers, vol. 4, no. 2, pp. 69–92, Jun. 2006, doi: 10.2752/144871306X13966268131514.

[5] L. Floridi,Information: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2010. doi: 10.1093/actrade/9780199551378.001.0001.


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