Floridi’s Fourth Revolution

With The Fourth Revolution (The Fourth Revolution. How the Infosphere is Reshaping Human Reality. Oxford University Press, Oxford 2014) Oxford philosopher of information Luciano Floridi https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luciano_Floridi enters into the mainstream debate on net culture and new media. Indeed, as the title suggests, digital media are “revolutionary” and not merely an extension of broadcast media. Floridi likens the revolutionary significance of digital media to that of Copernicus’ dislocation of humankind from the center of the universe. This was the first revolution. Similarly, the second revolution, which Darwin initiated, dislocated humans from their privileged place in the animal kingdom. The third revolution was Freud’s psychoanalysis, which dislocated human consciousness from its sovereignty within the realm of mind. The fourth revolution, the age of information and communication technologies (ICT) has finally dislocated human intelligence from its claim to be the only “intelligent” form of being. What is left? Floridi’s answer is that humans have become “inforgs” (not cyborgs which Floridi considers science fiction). Inforgs are beings who are their information. Inforgs, however, are more than a bundle of bits and bytes. They also process information. This quality they admittedly share with their algorithmic neighbors in the “infosphere” (the digital domain of reality). In distinction to ICT’s, however, inforgs are semantic information processors (“semantic engines”), whereas the algorithms are only syntactic information processors (“syntactic engines”). Inforgs make meaning, whereas algorithms make calculations. This has implications for many important issues in current discussions of the digital revolution. One example is the issue of privacy.

Floridi agrees with most commentators on digital privacy that digital information cannot be conceptualized as some kind of thing, an entity that can be owned by someone. My emails are not like my old handwritten letters that I can lock up in a drawer in my study. Intrusion into my house and theft of my letters are a clear violation of privacy. Digital information in contrast is not anywhere and not clearly mine. You cannot steal digital information. Since there are unlimited copies, no one can be deprived by theft. Floridi’s solution is to declare information to be the person and not merely to be a possession of the person. The inforg is its information and nothing else. This makes violations of privacy more like kidnapping than theft. To violate privacy in this view is to violate the person themselves and not their right to possession of or control over things. Posing the problem of privacy in this way implies that the person, the inforg, must be informationally delimited. Which information constitutes the person and which does not? How do I know which information I am, and which information that may in some way be associated with me is not constitutive of my being? Where do I draw the line between self and other? In the case of kidnapping there is no problem, since my body constitutes my person. Being spirited away while walking down the street is clearly a crime. But what about being “captured” on video, or Google Earth, or by a GPS tracking app? Floridi’s answer is that those data that are “self-constituted” define the inforg. The self is constituted by data or information that the self constitutes. This is who I am. Any use of this information without my consent is equivalent to kidnapping. Does this solution lead us out of the conundrums of digital privacy?

One question that immediately presents itself is the supposed ability of the inforg to constitute information by itself. Is it not precisely the nature of digital information that it is the result of a cooperation between ICT’s and humans and never the product of humans alone? The infosphere is a vast network of semantic as well as syntactic engines. In order for digital information to be constituted at all it has to be processed by both humans and non-humans. The idea of “self-constitution” becomes blurry and confusing when agency as well as cognition is distributed among many nodes in the network and nothing in the networked infosphere can be isolated and defined as an “individual”.  In principle, therefore, it is questionable if the idea of “self-constitution” makes any sense at all in the infosphere. On the practical side, given global and omnipresent connectivity, it is increasingly difficult and perhaps futile to attempt to channel, block, and hinder the flow of information. Increasing “informational friction” through PETs (privacy enhancing technologies) may be the best we can do. But we still don’t know what information we are and what not and who or what has the right to use this information for what purposes. If we take Floridi’s lead and admit that we are no longer God’s privileged creation nor fully self-possessed Cartesian subjects and that the digital revolution has irrevocably placed us into a symbiotic relation to ICTs, then perhaps we should direct attention to an analysis of the ways in which this symbiosis best works. What are the underlying rules and norms governing interaction within the infosphere? How can these norms be supported and adhered to? Perhaps the affordances of the ICTs mean more than a mere opportunity to outsource syntactic information processing but bring their own meaning into what human existence is all about. If the actor is the network, we should be investigating what makes a  network good and what makes it bad.