Reading Floridi: Towards an Informational Ethics of the Infosphere

Original article was published by Shyam Krishnakumar on Artificial Intelligence on Medium


Reading Floridi: Towards an Informational Ethics of the Infosphere

Our lives are overwhelmingly lived online, seeped in information. An ethical approach to information requires us to think of it differently. We explore philosopher Luciano Floridi’s “informational ethics” and the macro-ethical approach applicable to rocks, ancestors, Gods and AI chatbots.

“Philosophy faces the challenge of providing a foundational treatment of the phenomena and the ideas underlying the information revolution..in short we need to develop a philosophy of information”
-Luciano Floridi, The Ethics of Information

The 4th IR is a metaphysical transformation. Image Credit: Titiksha Vashist

The 4th Industrial Revolution is not just a shift in technology, it is a fundamental shift in metaphysics which has put into question several philosophical assumptions held since the advent of modernity. When a similar transformation occurred around the 17th century, it gave rise to a fresh flowering of philosophical and ethical thought leading to new social, economic and political architectures. That time is upon us now.

Unfortunately, for some time, we have been thinking of the ethics of Artificial Intelligence like we would think of the ethics of a water kettle. A kettle must not scald the user, it should be reliable, safe, child-friendly etc. But that is a rather poor and derivative way to think about a fundamental transformation that disrupts the world as we know it and our place in it.

As Floridi evocatively states:
“Our technological tree has been growing its far-reaching branches much more widely, rapidly, and chaotically than its conceptual, ethical, and cultural roots. The lack of balance is obvious and a matter of daily experience in the life of millions of people”.

We are now Inforgs in the Infosphere

Luciano’s Floridi’s work opened for the first time, a macroethics of information which explores fundamental questions of human life from an informational perspective. His work considers information as a fundamental philosophical category akin to knowledge, truth or meaning and therefore equally worthy of philosophical investigation.

A foundational concept for Floridi is the Infosphere. Like the biosphere which is the global ecological system capturing all living beings and their relationships, Floridi’s infosphere is the informational environment constituted by all informational entities(humans, animals, bots, the earth, your chair etc), their properties, processes and mutual relations. Read maximally, with an informational ontology the infosphere is synonymous with Reality or Being. Information and Communication Technologies are re-ontologising the cosmos by changing its fundamental essence. Many of us think that the digital environment as a frontier that is being rapidly colonised by human presence. Floridi argues however that it is the reverse: the online is absorbing the ‘offline”, the infosphere is progressively absorbing all other ontological space. The real world is not entering the infosphere. The infosphere is eating up the world.

There is no Offline Anymore

Given an increasingly more animated world which is increasingly digitally interspersed, with always connected intelligent devices, there is almost no ‘offline’ anymore. The world is becoming a part of the infosphere and our perception is shifting from a materialist one to an informational one. The world is increasingly coming ‘alive’ around us due to Internet of Things, drawing remarkable parallels to the Indic worldview and that of other pagan cultures which considered the universe not as a dead clod of matter but as sentient and alive. The very word jagat, etymologically means that which is constantly changing, that which is constantly in motion.

As the world becomes increasingly absorbed into the infosphere, humans become yet another type of inforgs, or informational organisms among other inforgs, artificial(like chatbots) and natural(like trees and stones). For Floridi, an inforg is any consistent packet of information and the infosphere is the totality of existence- the environment constituted by all informational entities and their processes.

When this migration is complete, there is no ontological difference between cyberspace and the real world. Eventually, without the infosphere, we will become psychologically incapacitated like a fish out of water. A disruption to our flow of information can make us sick. At this very moment we are constructing new physical and intellectual environments that will be inhabited by future generations. Therefore, there is a need to formulate an ethical framework that takes into consideration this new ontological reality we are inhabiting.

Ethics for Rocks, Ancestors, God and AI Chatbots

Floridi takes an ecological approach to information ethics to formulate a macroethical approach concerned with the whole realm of reality, abstracting all of existence into its informational signature, inforgs inhabiting an infosphere. In short, the ethics of the infosphere.

Ethics has been usually considered a human business largely centered on the abstract figure of the solitary, rational human individual. However, in a world where humanity has the power to influence every aspect of reality, philosophical attention must be drawn to the receiver of the moral action, who may or may not be human. Informational ethics, then is not just the personal cultivation and social relations of the human being, not just the biosphere with its plants, trees and animals, but all that exists or will exist — stones, books, future generations, ancestors. Floridi’s approach encompasses the ends of space and time into the fold of the ethical.

Towards Flourishing: For the Well-being of the Infosphere

So what then is the ethics of information? Every inforg has an inherent dignity that deserves to be respected and enjoys minimal, overridable rights to exist and develop in a way appropriate to its nature. This places moral claims on interacting agents, by constraining and guiding their behaviour. All entities are not equal and can be grouped into classes based on their potential capacity to contribute to the flourishing of the infosphere. Approval or disapproval of actions (informational processes in Floridi’s ontology) is then based on how it affects the essence of the informational entities whom it impacts and how it affects the overall well-being of the infosphere. IE is not purely conservative, but an ethics of projects and meaningful construction to rethink, remodel and improve the informational realm. The moral agent tries to improve the infosphere. Therefore IE has a more open-minded approach to questions like abortion, eugenics and bioengineering than biocentric ethics.

Floridi makes the ambitious claim that without the paradigm of Informational Ethics, our understanding of ‘moral facts’ in general and not just computer ethics questions, would not be fully satisfactory. He devotes the latter chapters of the book to examining a range of ethical scenarios not just drawn from “digital” contexts but from the larger infosphere itself. Overall, this is a work of sweeping ambition and radical ingenuity. With the ontological and epistemic shift that the Ethics of Information proposes, our technological tree might just have begun to find the right roots.