The Onlife Initiative: Luciano Floridi and ICT Philosophy

Onlife, a term coined by Luciano Floridi is now part of a new EU Commision Onlife Initiative. Its main concerns are the impact of Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) upon the human condition. Their mission statement below gives the details from their site ( see Onlife Initiative ):

What is the impact of information and communication technologies (ICTs) on the human condition? In order to address this question, in 2012 the European Commission organized a research project entitled The Onlife Initiative: concept reengineering for rethinking societal concerns in the digital transition. This volume collects the work of the Onlife Initiative. It explores how the development and widespread use of ICTs have a radical impact on the human condition.

ICTs are not mere tools but rather social forces that are increasingly affecting our self-conception (who we are), our mutual interactions (how we socialise); our conception of reality (our metaphysics); and our interactions with reality (our agency). In each case, ICTs have a huge ethical, legal, and political significance, yet one with which we have begun to come to terms only recently.

The impact exercised by ICTs is due to at least four major transformations: the blurring of the distinction between reality and virtuality; the blurring of the distinction between human, machine and nature; the reversal from information scarcity to information abundance; and the shift from the primacy of stand-alone things, properties, and binary relations, to the primacy of interactions, processes and networks.

Such transformations are testing the foundations of our conceptual frameworks. Our current conceptual toolbox is no longer fitted to address new ICT-related challenges. This is not only a problem in itself. It is also a risk, because the lack of a clear understanding of our present time may easily lead to negative projections about the future. The goal of The Manifesto, and of the whole book that contextualises, is therefore that of contributing to the update of our philosophy. It is a constructive goal. The book is meant to be a positive contribution to rethinking the philosophy on which policies are built in a hyperconnected world, so that we may have a better chance of understanding our ICT-related problems and solving them satisfactorily.

The Manifesto launches an open debate on the impacts of ICTs on public spaces, politics and societal expectations toward policymaking in the Digital Agenda for Europe’s remit. More broadly, it helps start a reflection on the way in which a hyperconnected world calls for rethinking the referential frameworks on which policies are built.

The Onlife Manifesto which you can download from the site relates:

The deployment of information and communication technologies (ICTs) and their uptake by society affect radically the human condition, insofar as it modifies our relationships to ourselves, to others and to the world. The ever-increasing pervasiveness of ICTs shakes established reference frameworks through the following transformations:

  1. the blurring of the distinction between reality and virtuality;
  2. the blurring of the distinctions between human, machine and nature;
  3. the reversal from information scarcity to information abundance; and
  4. the shift from the primacy of entities to the primacy of interactions.

The world is grasped by human minds through concepts: perception is necessarily mediated by concepts, as if they were the interfaces through which reality is experienced and interpreted. Concepts provide an understanding of surrounding realities and a means by which to apprehend them. However, the current conceptual toolbox is not fitted to address new ICT-related challenges and leads to negative projections about the future: we fear and reject what we fail to make sense of and give meaning to.

In order to acknowledge such inadequacy and explore alternative conceptualisations, a group of scholars in anthropology, cognitive science, computer science, engineering, law, neuroscience, philosophy, political science, psychology and sociology, instigated the Onlife Initiative, a collective thought exercise to explore the policy-relevant consequences of those changes. This concept reengineering exercise seeks to inspire reflection on what happens to us and to re-envisage the future with greater confidence.

I like this multidisciplinary approach of the sciences and other domains of knowledge battling it out within an ongoing initiative. His notion of concepts as interface is one that I believe Ray Brassier in some form might even agree with in theory and practice. It seems we are having to incorporate within a materialist framework many of the feature sets of the older idealist toolset, but with a much more robust and arguably different conclusion on the reality of Ideas. Ideas are tools, not some eternal archetypal constructs out of the Platonic imagination. Ideas change and are part of history, rather than some kind of innate powers or capacities of the Mind or Brain. We’ve always had these issues with us and will probably continue arguing over these questions till doomsday, while the sciences just keep on doing their work using these tools in heuristic fashion not bothered by all the philosophical fuss over meaning and attribute.

I’ve been working through many of Floridi’s works of late:

  1. Philosophy of Information: An Introduction
  2. The Philosophy of Information (his magnum opus and detailed philosophical inquiry into information theory)
  3. The Ethics of Information
  4. Cambridge and Blackwell Guides
  5. Many of his Editing editions:
    Protection of Information and the Right to Privacy – A New Equilibrium?
    The Ethics of Information Warfare
  6. Sextus Empiricus: The Transmission and Recovery of Pyrrhonism ( an excellent scholarly introduction and bibliography to the work of Sextus: well worth the read)

If you’ve wondered where an aspect of the future of philosophy is going to be situated, I’d start with Floridi’s work which seems to offer a stringent and knowledgeable take on both the history and philosophy of Information and Communications Technologies.

In his major work The Philosophy of Information (of which I’ll have much more to say in future posts) he defends what he terms informational structural realism – against a digital ontology he offers a qualified informational ontology. What he does is frame it within the wider notion of current structural realism, but then adds a modified commitment to informational relata based on the structural heuristics. For him philosophy no longer describes what is in the older philosophical sense of unmediated truth, but is rather bound to a set of heuristic practices that can be modified, updated, and revised in an ongoing process of give and take (but not in the normative sense of Brandom’s ‘give and take of reasons’ to justify one’s conclusions). Rather philosophy much like the sciences no longer has the luxury of some fixed truth on its side, no Archimedian point from which it can hope to judge the correctness or certainty of its statements, nor argue through some normative debate among current doxa, etc. Instead philosophy is part of the system it would try to describe, and thereby is always blind to its own lack of information concerning that system. This blindness is what closes us off from our own – as my friend R. Scott Bakker describing the quandaries of the brain, information for the simple reason that we think we have sufficient data to describe and explain what in fact is just an illusion of our misapplied categories of thought and comprehension. Our evolutionary heritage gave us powerful tools to test the waters of our environment, but left us in a quandary as to how to describe our own inner processes. Philosophy long ago fell into the illusion that it could explain or even explain away these illusions and give us knowledge where none is to be had. And we are those that have inherited two-thousand years of misguided testimony. But now we are discovering other ways and means to change this, but through the sciences not philosophy per se.

Floridi sums his own stance up saying “as far as we can tell, the ultimate nature of reality is informational, that is, it makes sense to adopt Level of Abstractions that commit our theories to a view of reality as mind-independent and constituted by structural objects that are neither substantial nor material (they might well be but we have no need to suppose them to be so ) but cohering clusters of data, not in the alphanumeric sense of the word, but in equally common sense differences de re, i.e., mind-independent, concrete, relational points of lack of uniformity, what have been defined … as daedomena.

Daedomena (‘data’ in Greek). Daedomena are not to be confused with environmental data. They are pure data or proto-epistemic data, that is, data before they are epistemically interpreted. As ‘fractures in the fabric of Being’, they can only be posited as an external anchor of our information, for dedomena are never accessed or elaborated independently of a level of abstraction. They can be reconstructed as ontological requirements, like Kant’s noumena or Locke’s substance: they are not epistemically experienced, but their presence is empirically inferred from , and required by, experience. (pp. 85-86)

14 thoughts on “The Onlife Initiative: Luciano Floridi and ICT Philosophy

  1. Pingback: more on “floridi” | centserick

  2. He says “he finds it interesting, your work.” And told me he did not know the author personally. I thought he knows you lol. Anyways, hoping for more philosphical discussion with you specifically on Floridi’s work because im doing my MA thesis and my proposal is about FLoridi’s philo of information. But i find it hard to formulate and read him. lol That’s why when i see your post i get more interested in his ideas because someone is reading him.

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    • Ok… I’ll be adding different posts along the way on his work over the next year. He seems to be transforming the basic problems of philosophy into a new framework. Since Kant philosophy has been stuck within a linguistic fun house between epistemology and ontology with no way out. What I’m seeing in Floridi is finally someone moving philosophy forward into a new framework situated just beyond the even horizon of the Kantian inward turn…

      So yes, I’ll have more to say as time goes on. Have you read his basic Philosophy of Information: An Introduction… that seems to be the easiest work to begin with and seems to set the stage for all his later projects.

      Good luck on your MA. True, you will need a fairly good understanding of the early years of cybernetic theory from von Neuman, Shannon, Turing and others on… a lot of logic, symbolic logic, mathematics, etc. to grasp along the way, too. Semantics of course and Structural Realist traditions. Roy Bhaskar’s A Realist Theory of Science is a good base book on the structuralist realism tradition.

      Obviously Floridi has transformed this tradition and modified it to adapt his notions of informational ontology to its basic insights.

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      • oh i see. Im just a beginner in Philosophy trying to have my MA. and not yet familiar with Kant inward turn though i have little knowledge about him. Thanks though for the backgrounder and link from Kant to Floridi’s framework. His philo of information book? yes the oxford introduction? and what i just read is his articles about philo of information whch can be accessed in his site. Ok i look forward to your forthcoming post. thanks again.

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  3. This is a most helpful review, Craig – and a reminder that I have Floridi’s big book occupying my shelf of shame. The Onlife project sounds timely and important. In my personal life, I become only too aware recently how intense and “real” the virtual can get and the kind of backwash it can have in RL. With ever more immersive online experiences this issue is only going to become more pressing.

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    • Oh, good… yea, I put him off for a while, too. But after working through the intro book, then the ethics work, I realized how pertinent his philosophical framework is to both Scott’s BBT (although questionable aspects of the semantic crop up) and my own post-intentional perspective. I’d say his Ethics of Information is really a powerful work to follow from his Philosophy of Information: An Introduction. I’d put off the more detailed Philosophy of Information till you get the gist of his overall approach through those two works. I’m just beginning the details philosophical work, which goes into the underlying principles of his system in great detail. But it will require time and energy, and a great deal of thinking through each of the issues. I’ll be discussing it sometime in the next few months.

      What excites me is that his framework gets us out of the Kantian circle of subjectivity at last… it puts it on a different level of thinking and being. One that incorporates the best of structural realism while at the same time that of the Information and Communications Technologies as they have shaped and continue to shape both us and our environments. His onlife metaphor is the notion of the this breakdown from binary oppositions… information now incorporates both our electronic and actual lives in a larger framework.

      You, might check out Levi R. Bryant’s new work as well. I do think it has a lot to offer toward this as well. Not just that he is using the machine metaphor rather than object, but that he is now incorporating Uexall and other traditions to formulate a path that moves toward environmental and external pressures in the shaping of and producing both human and non-human systems and behaviors.

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  4. Pingback: Accelerationism: Ray Brassier as Promethean Philosopher | alien ecologies

  5. Pingback: Further travels into Digital Life (DigCit) as part of School Education (Part 4) « Light Offerings

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