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Philosophy and Computing: An Introduction

Author: Luciano Floridi
Publisher: London, UK & New York: Routledge, 1999
Review Published: November 2001

 REVIEW 1: Tapas Ray

In the conclusion to his Philosophy and Computing: An Introduction, Luciano Floridi, Research Fellow and Lecturer in Philosophy at Oxford University, characterizes the information revolution as a phenomenon shaping human evolution [1]. He outlines its role as something that could turn homo sapiens into homo poieticus, a species of creative beings that would spend its abundant free time on putting increasing distance between mind and reality, investing the latter with (presumably new) patterns of meaning, "build(ing) and improv(ing) the infosphere on and through knowledge," and "develop(ing) the state of philosophical reflection into a state of playful mental enjoyment of construction" (223).

This phase in human evolution, he says, would mean that humanity would be moving closer to a playful existence -- of (Johan Huizinga's) homo ludens -- which, mythology seems to indicate, has always been its ideal of a paradise lost through the necessity of work as homo faber and homo sapiens.

This qualified optimism -- Floridi speaks of the possibility of this development, not its inevitability -- is an insight that can be counted as one of several rewards that accrue from reading the book. The author does mention that Aristotle had understood how leisure was a necessary precondition for philosophizing. His own contribution lies in stating that pleasure would be -- or should be -- coextensive with the act of philosophizing. To keep things in perspective, it may not be out of place to mention at this point that the dream of technology setting humans free from the shackles of work, into a state of cultural uplift and bliss, was dreamt by none other than Marx, but it went sadly wrong in societies that claimed to be applying Marxism to mold themselves into supposedly classless utopias. Despite Bolshoi Theatre and the marvels of the Moscow underground, the Soviet Union collapsed.

Another point to note here is that Floridi is not the first to depict technology as a force shaping human evolution. Engels, too, had taken the dialectical view that technology has shaped human evolution while being authored by humankind itself.

These opening comments might lead the reader to believe that the book, wholly or mainly, contains speculative philosophizing by a member of the homo poieticus. In reality, however, it is much more "hard-headed." The author categorically states that it is a text book, meant for two kinds of philosophy students -- those who need to acquire some literacy in information and communication technology (ICT) in order to use computers efficiently, and those who are interested in developing a critical understanding of the digital age, in order to work on the "philosophy of information." Rather than presenting some chapters exclusively for the edification of the first group and other chapters for the second one, Floridi has made sure that most parts of the book would be of interest to both groups. This is a major strength. From the very beginning, even as he introduces the reader to the world of digital computers, presenting descriptions, categories and functional groupings as is necessary in a text book, Floridi offers valuable ontological and epistemological insights that could be extremely productive for researchers.

In Chapter 1 for instance, while delineating the directions in which the digitization of the infosphere has progressed since the 1950s, he states that "we have moved from being inside a real computer to being inside a computerized reality: visual interfaces have first enabled us to keep some distance from the system, as images to see and then 'images to read' (e.g. the Web), and have ended up generating images to inhabit" (14).

Similarly, in Chapter 3, which deals with the Internet, he writes that, as virtual entities, people operate within a space that is not metric but actually "a single logical environment constituted by the relations occurring between the several subjects involved" (74). It is an environment, he adds, whose time is not the transient time experienced in real life, but "the unitary time of the communication performance, enacted in a virtual agora, which in turn is not only the market square but also the square where the plays are performed, as in a Renaissance travelling theatre" (74). In other words, Floridi identifies the Internet not only as a "place" where business is transacted (in the broad sense of the term), but also as a stage, on which roles are played ritualistically in order to reaffirm the stability of the existing order and the individuals' positions in it.

One of the most profound observations in the book is in Chapter 4, which describes the infosphere, databases and hypertexts. Floridi states that the infosphere, which is the aggregate of all existing human knowledge, is the true environment of the modern mind. This is clearly a Cartesian view that ignores the lifeworld. However, elsewhere in the same chapter, the author shows a phenomenological insight in describing the relationship of the self with the infosphere. "In search of its own individuality, autonomy and stability," he writes, "the single mind can firmly establish itself at the crossroads of Being and Culture only by epistemically emancipating itself both from the world of things surrounding it and the infosphere it inherits from the past . However, in thus establishing its own individual autonomy, each single mind cannot help contributing to the growth of the infosphere, thus also generating new knowledge, to which future generations will need to react" (98).

Floridi's analyses of the natures of electronic databases and hypertext are illuminating. As for the former, he says its importance lies not primarily in the ease it offers for accessing data, but in the fact that it introduces an element of dialogue -- the user can query a database in various ways, subject it to ideometric analyses, and thus extract various pieces of information that would be otherwise almost impossible to find. As for hypertext, on which much has been written, Floridi takes a somewhat conservative approach. He does recognize that it forms non-sequential writing that allows readers to choose "alternative reading pathways," but discounts the view that it is wholly non-linear and hence fundamentally different from print. The number of pathways offered by hypertext is finite and determined by the author, he points out. However, he offers an interesting insight -- since hypertext makes for easy accessibility of texts from various disciplines, it has the ability to undermine the rigidity of specialization within a discipline and promotes interdisciplinary thinking, a kind of Renaissance mind.

Though a degree of intuition or self-reflexiveness is probably unavoidable and even essential in such matters, certain statements, made without explanation, prove difficult to understand. Speaking of the US Defence Department's ARPANET, the Internet's precursor, Floridi says it was a Cartesian network, "in which the intelligence of the system (software, services, documents, communication and processing functions) was as independent as possible of the extended hardware and could survive even if the latter was heavily damaged" (57). Even without knowing the details of ARPANET, it is not difficult to see that the software, documents, etc. (the "mind") had to be supported by the hardware platform in some form, and could not be visualized as a disembodied mind or reason. This would seem to go against the "Cartesian network" hypothesis.

Notwithstanding a few apparent inconsistencies, such as the above, the book is an important text that is likely to serve its stated purpose well. It offers a competent introduction to digital computers and the infosphere, and also a conceptual framework within which these can be interrogated.

1. Apart from teaching and holding a Fellowship at Oxford University, Luciano Floridi has held Fellowships in Italy, Germany and London. Among his publications is Scepticism and the Foundation of Epistemology - A Study in the Metalogical Fallacies (Leiden: Brill, 1996).

Tapas Ray:
Tapas Ray was a Ph.D. candidate in the College of Communication, Ohio University, Athens, Ohio, USA. He has moved back to his native India and is currently on the staff of The Statesman, a multi-edition daily, in Calcutta. In addition to fulltime journalism, he is engaged in occasional teaching.  <tray@cal2.vsnl.net.in>

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