SOCIETY | Apr 3, 2019

5 lessons from the book “The fourth revolution”

Luciano Floridi narrates our "onlife" life. In an infosphere where millions of data are produced every day and the meaning of privacy changes.

This book is about how our digital ICTs (information and communication technologies) are affecting our sense of self, how we relate to each other and how we shape and interact with our world”. This is the first sentence of the book “The fourth revolution”, written by Luciano Floridi, professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Information at University of Oxford, which analyzes the changes of time, space, identity, self-understanding, privacy, intelligence, politics, environment and ethics.

The border between being online and off line no longer exists

An increasing number of people spends an increasing amount of time disseminating information about themselves, interacting digitally with other people, within an infosphere which is neither entirely virtual nor merely physical”. That is, it is no longer possible to think of two separate worlds between real and virtual life, so much so that the new term “onlife” can be used. “ICTs have become important in shaping our personal identities. They are the most powerful technologies of the self to which we have ever been exposed. Clearly, we should handle them carefully, as they are significantly modifying the contexts and practices through which we shape ourselves”.

A “data tsunami” is engulfing the environment

Every day enough data is generated to fill all American libraries more than eight times”. Numbers that will continue to grow ever faster and vertically, requiring increasing ICT resources to analyze them and which, in turn, will generate other data. “Ours is the first generation to experience the wave of zettabytes and to introduce a neologism that describes the tsunami of data which is engulfing our environment”. A passage, as we read in the book, from history to hyperhistory, a new era in human development which does not transcend the space-time coordinates that have always governed life on the planet.

Technologies improve, increase and re-build

The fourth revolution has brought to light the informational nature of human identity. “We are witnesses of an epochal and unprecedented migration of humanity from the Newtonian physical space to the new environment of the infosphere, as this is also gradually absorbing the first”. The book makes us reflect on how people are “inforg”, that is informational organisms, mutually connected and part of an informational ecosystem, defined as an infosphere, in which information is shared with other “informational agents”, both natural and artificial.

The new sense of privacy

The chapter on privacy quotes Virginia Woolf, who wrote “We have a private life and we consider it by far the most precious of our assets”. ICTs have made privacy one of the most important issues precisely because they condition informational friction, i.e. the forces which hinder the flow of information in one part of the infosphere, and because they have undermined anonymity. In onlife, therefore, privacy continues to be a precious asset, but it completely changes its meaning: one of the new possible points of view shows how “every day a person may want to build a different, potentially better, me. The right to privacy is also the right to renew one’s identity”.

ICTs will save the environment if we understand that the infosphere is a common area to be protected

Faced with obvious risks for the future of the planet, the chapters of the book which address the environment and ethics make us reflect on how “ICT can help us in our fight against destruction, impoverishment, devastation and the waste of both natural and human resources, as well as of historical and cultural ones”. A non-trivial process and one that “will require careful thought on the human project and a critical review of our current narratives on an individual, social and political level”.

Sonia Montegiove