Parallel Working Sessions: outcomes – Luciano Floridi

Luciano Floridi, OII Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Information at the University of Oxford and Faculty Fellow of the Alan Turing Institute (ATI).


Thank you and now that I know what I’m going to say will be double-checked afterwards I’m a bit more worried because I had to put together a rather complicated – the word complex is overused – conversation twice in a single narrative.
For those of you who were with me, forgive me for what I’ve misunderstood / forgotten/ misinterpreted. We could start from this mixing up and I try to help our imagination by using the following analogy: we live in a mangrove society. Mangroves grow where Sweetwater meets the salty water, where the river meets the sea. Asking: where do the mangroves grow? Is the water salty? Is it sweet? Do we live in a digital world? Do we live in an analogue world? Asking that means, as my students would say: “you must be from the nineties”.
It means not knowing, not having understood where we are which is intrinsically mixed environment where the analogue and the digital lives in a cycle of mutual interactions. More and more. It doesn’t mean that a lot of people live entirely on the digital side or entirely on the analogue side. But most of us and increasingly number of us, live in this special sort of world.
In this world navigation is difficult and the second reference I would like to suggest is actually back to Plato. As I obviously can’t resist: the pilot of the ship – kybernetes – from which cybernetics comes – is the person who knows how to navigate difficult waters with undercurrents, perhaps sometimes against the winds and may actually take strange directions to get where he normally he but sometimes she wants to go. And if you know how to sail a little bit – not that I know much about it – sometimes you have to go almost opposite to where you aim to end up.
So that cybernetic ability to have a direction with full sight – because you need to know where you would like to end up – and control – Which was another big thing in the panels. Those are the virtues of the cybernetic Politics (capital P) that we would like to see implemented. Especially because the waters are perilous, especially because the winds are fast.
In other words, precisely because change is happening so quickly. At that point, another reference might come handy. Sometimes the best way of moving fast is to move slowly – Festina lente – as they would say in my hometown.
The idea is that you can go very quickly – slowly. Because the idea here is to think before acting. And there was one of the things that emerged. Think – about what?
Well I have here a list of sort of highlights and I am sure I am missing some but the fundamental point was that we need not better but just understanding. It implies that you have some understanding and that you can improve on it.
At the moment, I think lack of some real, true understanding of just what is going on in our society.
The impact of personal identity, how we behave in this new environment and more needs to be done in that context.
A clear understanding of how values are changing – because no matter what we are told – at the end of the day, if there’s a social backlash against the policy, against the particular product launched by a company, the policy or the product will not succeed. I know it is for the down the road and sometimes we forget that it takes three, four, five steps to get there, but the idea is: if this is not properly designed it will not fly – using a different metaphor.
Well how do we make sure the right design is there? We need new models for benefit sharing – something we haven’t seen much recently – we need new models to incentivize the right kind of socially valuable services products, new environments, at the end of the day we might actually need new meta-technologies.
Technologies to help us to handle technologies. Because complexity, in the technical sense, in the computational sense of complexity, is just going to increase. And we do have a trick to deal with increasingly complex things – we develop more complexity to deal with complexity. It can be a successful story.
In terms of story – I know that my time is coming to an end, so I’m slowly moving towards the second half of my summary. In terms of story there is a tendency that we had for a moment during the workshops to either going for done it before seen it before, come on – nothing new.
Or, It’s a revolution! Nothing ever compares! Of course, people with grey hair don’t get bold and they start aiming for the boring middle ground. The grey area. A bit of new, a bit of old.
But what’s the difference here? What we need to write is, essentially, the second chapter of our interaction with digital technologies. It doesn’t mean that we need to drop consent. Of course, consent, when it comes to personal data is still a keystone of our building, but it does mean that we need to move forward. You don’t write the second chapter by erasing the first chapter. But you don’t write the second chapter by making a photo-copy of the first one either.
And it’s that interaction in terms of learning lessons and moving forward that some of the tricks here need to be played. Whereabouts exactly? We covered a few key areas: you may expect the usual suspects and they were there. Health, economy, education and more broadly business and technological innovation. In each case I think we could be a little bit more daring and if I may refer back to something that Robert himself said today: we could try to experiment a little bit more.
But you experiment in safety – remember Festina lente. Where you have rules for the game that tell you yeah you can do that, with safeguards. Just give it a try. We need to do that a little bit more carefully.
Final point: there is something at the same time interesting and disturbing when it comes to the new technology – as in, new from a philosophical perspective – not as in from last year. That we have developed.
Think of back to the salty and sweet waters. If you remove salt, what remains? It’s not salty. There’s just no salt. If you remove sugar from a cake, it’s not sweet – there’s just no taste of sugar.
But if you remove information, that is informative. If you remove politics – that is political. So, the technologies that we are developing are, to be less obscure, self-refresh.
We have technologies that work with themselves about themselves increasingly in an autonomous way. We can be the Khyberneter, mastering the whole system. Or we can just step out and think: “well, fingers crossed, hopefully everything will go fine.”
Part of the discussion was during the two workshops was precisely to say: “no, we can be playing the controlling or sort of directing role here, while we see these technologies working with themselves, about themselves among themselves.
I don’t need to remind this audience that the greatest vast majority of data we have today are machine generated they are not about our own conversations.

So, the conclusion is that we are missing a lot of things but there is a lot of enthusiasm and brainpower to deal with these missing bits.
And I would like to end with this particular challenge that remains with me. That was my own personal feeling that I have had at the end of the two workshops. We have been in vaguely comparable circumstances not such a long time ago.
The environmental crisis, in that context – fast technologies, ethics and values and policies had to catch up – we ended up having not a solution but having a direction: sustainability.
And here is the challenge I would like to leave to this audience, and if you have an answer, please let me know. The biosphere is related to sustainability as the info sphere is related to…what? We need to work on that.
What? If have that what, we will have a direction towards which our policies can move.
Thank you.

Day 2