David Sanford Horner
In a previous Ethicomp paper I criticised the continual resort to the language of ‘revolution’ to characterise the social and ethical impacts of the latest developments in information and communication technology (Horner, 2010). I argued that it may be worthwhile re-examining the apparently canonical assumption that ethical concerns are necessarily about radical novelty. In this paper I want to extend the discussion by examining the foundations of one specific and ‘revolutionary’ interpretation of the implications of social computing. I refer to the radical and influential account given by Luciano Floridi (Floridi, 2010). He argues that we are currently experiencing a Fourth Scientific and Technological Revolution which is transforming not only our view of the world but also our view of ourselves. Social computing is implicated as one of the symptoms of this transformation. Floridi puts ‘information’ and the concept of the ‘infosphere’ at the core of his analysis. He wants nothing less than for us to accept and conform our morality to the idea that ‘…the infosphere is Being considered informationally’ (Floridi, 2008, p.200). In this paper I want to show how in arriving at his system he makes, what seem to me to be, some fundamental philosophical errors and the consequences of these for his ethical system.
In the first section of the paper I will try and give a coherent picture of Floridi’s argument. This includes an account of what he means by the Fourth Revolution. This is particularly important given that he introduces some significant neologisms such as the terms ‘inforgs’ and ‘the infosphere’. More particularly in the context of thinking about social computing he develops the idea of ‘life in the infosphere’. He writes that: “The increasing informatization of artefacts and of whole (social) environments and life activities suggests that soon it will be difficult to understand what life was like in pre-informational times (to someone who was born in 2000, the world will always have been wireless, for example) and in the near future, the very distinction between online and offline will disappear.” (Floridi, 2010, p.16) So the ‘inforgs’ are at the informational barricades. He is after nothing less than ‘the reconceptualization of our metaphysics in informational terms’. Of course, from this informational base we get to Floridi’s very special interpretation of what we might mean by ‘information ethics’.
Now in the second section of the paper I do want to suggest that there is something very puzzling about all this. For example, the way in which Floridi inflates the meaning of ‘infosphere’ to include just about everything. I want to suggest that the root cause of the puzzlement is to do with how Floridi talks about, and deploys, the word ‘information’; there is something very profoundly wrong with his ‘conceptual plumbing’. A paradox here is that on the one hand Floridi recognises in the introduction to Information: a very short introduction (2010) that work on ‘the concept of information’ is still at a ‘lamentable stage’ but then goes on to map the concept in a highly misleading way. He tends to talk about information as though it was stuff; as though it was the name of something. Firstly, I want to follow Mary Midgley’s clue about this is kind of reductionist talk. It’s not really very helpful if I want to put my cup of tea down on a table if you tell me that tables are just bits of information in the infosphere. Information is just not a third kind of stuff at all. “It is an abstraction from them. Invoking such an extra stuff is as idle as any earlier talk of phlogiston or animal spirits or occult forces.” (Midgley, 2005, pp.66-67) Secondly, and probably even more importantly, there are just some mistakes about how we use language. I develop this point by reference to J.L.Austin’s analysis of ‘the meaning of a word’ (Austin, 1970). In his paper Austin shows how we get into a muddle by asking about ‘the meaning of a word’ particularly when we consider words like ‘real’, ‘good’ and so forth. Information it seems to me falls into this category. As Austin remarks “Even those who see pretty clearly that ‘concepts’, ‘abstract ideas’, and so on are fictitious entities, which we owe in part to asking questions about ‘the meaning of a word’, nevertheless themselves think that there is something which is ‘the meaning of a word’.”(Austin, 1970, p.60)
In the third section of the paper I draw out the implications for ethical analysis and show why all this is significant for ‘an ethics of social computing’. In this section then there will be a reflection on two recent cases where the ethical aspects of social computing were raised in important and acute forms. The point I wish to bring out is that Floridi’s analysis seems beside the point in coming to grips with a moral understanding of these actual cases. Nothing seems to be gained and in fact a lot is lost if we try to translate these cases into Floridi’s special ethical vocabulary. The first case concerns the murderer Raoul Moat. The social media figured in his crimes in that he issued threats on Facebook before committing the crimes and then several Facebook sites appeared in his support following the crimes and during the subsequent manhunt. In the second case, that of the murder of Joanna Yeates, social networking was used by her friends when Joanna first went missing to try and elicit leads on what had happened to her. It seems clear to me that we can perfectly well describe, understand and judge these cases in the moral language with which we are all familiar. I criticise Floridi’s system precisely because of the scope and strength of its claims. I suggest that by looking at where Floridi goes wrong we can get a better sense of what it means to go right in information and computer ethics.
AUSTIN, J.L., 1970. The meaning of a word. In: J.L. Austin, Philosophical Papers. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
FLORIDI, L., 2008. Information Ethics: a reappraisal. Ethics and Information Technology. 10, pp.189-204.
FLORIDI, L., 2010. Information: A very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
HORNER, D. S., 2010. Metaphors in Orbit: revolution, logical malleability, generativity and the future of the Internet. In; Mario Arias-Oliva, et al., eds. Ethicomp 2010, Proceedings of the Eleventh International Conference, The ‘backwards, forwards and sideways’ changes of ICT. 14 – 16 April 2010. Universitat Rovira i Virgili, Tarragona, pp.301 -308.
MIDGLEY., M., 2005. The Myths We Live By. London: Routledge.