‘Academic philosophy is definitely too narcissistic today’
Narcissus, Caravaggio, 1597-99
3:AM: You argue that there’s an information revolution going on, that it’s very important and to ignore it is not an option just as it wasn’t with the first three – the Copernican, the Darwinian and the Freudian. What is it about the zettabyte era that is causing the revolution?
Luciano Floridi: The history of philosophy looks a bit like a sine wave (or a roller coaster, if you prefer). It goes up and then down, up again, and then down. The ups, the crests of the wave, are the innovative periods, when we deal with philosophical problems. These are the times when philosophy is engaged with open and fundamental problems in relation to its own time. Once successful, philosophy fells in love with its own image, which is admittedly beautiful and attractive to any speculative mind. And like Narcissus it drowns, unable to leave the beauty of its reflection. The downs, the troughts of the wave, are the scholastic periods, when we deal with philosophers’ problems. I believe that the information revolution is a great opportunity to renovate philosophy and climb up again on a new crest. Academic philosophy is definitely too narcissistic today. It would be very healthy to make it look at the world, instead of itself. And the world itself is in great need of philosophical understanding and design of new ideas. We need philosophy on board while we are creating the information society and re-thinking what I like to call the human project.
But what kind of philosophy? It seems to me that it should be a philosophy engaged with the profound transformations caused by information and communication technologies (ICTs). No aspect of human life is being left untouched by ICTs: education, work, conflicts, social interactions, entertainment, politics, art, literature, cinema, law, health, business, science… it is hard to think of anything that is not being transformed or redefined by the information revolution. This means that old philosophical problems are being upgraded, think of issues about personal identity, memory, the nature of knowledge, the foundations of science, ethics, and so forth. And new philosophical problems acquire prominence: what is the nature of information? What happens to power in an information society? Can we reconcile human freedom and its predictability by smart machines? These are just a few examples among many.
Unfortunately, if you talk to philosophers, most of them are dismissive of technology. They tend to reduce it to a matter of tools and practical skills. I disagree. I guess I am not Platonic enough. The philosophy of information is not a matter of developing a philosophy of the next gadget. It is about engaging with the deep transformations caused by ICTs in how we understand the world, hence in our epistemology and metaphysics; in how we make sense of it, hence in our semantics; in how we conceptualise ourselves, and what we think we can be or become, hence in our theories of education, identity, and our philosophical anthropology; in how we interact with each other, how we manage and shape collaborative and conflicting relations, and how we may construct the society we want, hence in our socio-economic and political thinking. ICTs and the infosphere they are creating are providing the new environments in which we live and think. To use a word I introduced some time ago, they are re-ontologising our realities. Surely this is what philosophy should try to understand and help to shape properly. So, ultimately, it is a question of ethics, or, as I prefer to put it, of environmental ethics. It is time to go back on top of the crest of the sine wave.