This article originally appeared in TidBITS on 2006-09-25 at 12:00 p.m.
The permanent URL for this article is:
Include images: Off

Peering into the Future of the Infosphere

by Luciano Floridi

    If you can look into the seeds of time,
    And say which grain will grow and which will not,
    Speak then to me, who neither beg nor fear
    Your favours nor your hate.
    -- Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act I, Scene III, 59-62.

[And now for something completely different... Back in 1995, we published a three-part article by Luciano Floridi in which he looked into the future of the Internet. After a reader ran across the article and drew my attention to it, I asked Professor Floridi if he would like to tackle the topic yet again. He did, and you can now read his thoughts about how we can expect to see the Internet weave its way further into our lives. -Adam]

Eleven Years Ago -- In 1995, I was invited to give a keynote speech at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris, to celebrate UNESCO's 50th anniversary (UNESCO is the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization). On that occasion, I was asked to predict what sort of transformations and problems were likely to affect the development of the Internet and our system of organised knowledge in the medium term. That speech turned into an article, a synthesis of which was published by TidBITS in three parts (see "The Internet & the Future of Organized Knowledge" [1]; for a non-abridged version see "The Internet: Which Future for Organised Knowledge, Frankenstein or Pygmalion?" [2]). They say there are only two kinds of predictions: wrong and lucky. Mine was lucky, and so I thought I might tempt fate once more.

This time, however, I shall not be concerned with the system of organised knowledge. Rather, I shall focus, more generally, on future developments in digital information and communication technologies (ICTs) and their impact on our lives. And since there is no merit in predicting the obvious, I will avoid issues such as rising concerns about privacy and identity theft, spamming, viruses, or the importance of semantic tagging, online shopping and virtual communities. I will, instead, seek to capture the new worldview that might be dawning on us.

Digital ICTs as Reshaping Technologies -- In order to grasp the scenarios that we might witness and experience in the near future, I need to introduce two key concepts: "infosphere" and "radical reshaping."

"Infosphere" is a word I coined years ago on the basis of "biosphere," a term referring to that limited region on our planet that supports life. By "infosphere," then, I mean the whole informational environment made up of all informational entities (including informational agents), their properties, interactions, processes, and relations. It is an environment comparable to, but different from, "cyberspace" (which is only one of the sub-regions of the infosphere, as it were), since the infosphere also includes offline and analog spaces of information. We shall see that it is also an environment (and hence a concept) that is rapidly evolving.

By "radical reshaping," I mean a very radical form of change, one that not only structures a system (e.g., a company or a machine) anew, but also fundamentally transforms its intrinsic nature. In this sense, for example, nanotechnologies and biotechnologies are not merely changing the world in a significant way (as did the invention of gunpowder) but actually reshaping our world in that both enable us to create fundamentally new substances that didn't previously exist and enable us to interact with and manipulate the world in previously unimagined ways.

Using these concepts, my basic claim can now be formulated thus: digital information and communication technologies are radically reshaping the very nature of the infosphere, and therein lies the source of some of the most profound transformations and challenging problems that we shall experience in the near future, at least as far as technology is concerned. In the rest of this article, I mean to clarify and substantiate this simple claim by highlighting three fundamental trends in the reshaping of the infosphere and some of their significant implications.

#1: The Rise of the Frictionless Infosphere -- The most obvious way in which these new information and communication technologies are reshaping the infosphere concerns (a) the transition from analog to digital data and then (b) the ever-increasing growth of our digital space. Both phenomena are very familiar and require no explanation, but a brief comment may not go amiss.

In a 2003 study on information storage and flows, Lyman and Varian [3] write that "Print, film, magnetic, and optical storage media produced about 5 exabytes of new information in 2002. Ninety-two percent of the new information was stored on magnetic media, mostly in hard disks. [...] Five exabytes of information is equivalent in size to the information contained in 37,000 new libraries the size of the Library of Congress book collections."

Although the production of analog data is still increasing, the infosphere is becoming more digital by the day. A simple example may help to drive the point home: the new Large Hadron Collider [4] that is being built at the CERN to explore the physics of particles will produce up to 1.5 GB of data per second, or an estimated 5 petabytes of data annually, a quantity of data hundreds of times larger than the Library of Congress's print collection (estimated at 20 terabytes) and about as large as Google's whole data storage, reported to be approximately 5 petabytes. (If you're having trouble with these units [5], a petabyte is 1,024 terabytes, and an exabyte is 1,024 petabytes.)

This radical reshaping of the infosphere is largely due to the fundamental convergence between digital resources and digital tools. One of Alan Turing's most important intuitions was that, in our radically reformed infosphere, there is no longer any substantial difference between the processor and the processed, so digital tools deal effortlessly and seamlessly with digital resources in a way that simply wasn't true in the analog world.

The convergence of digital tools and resources potentially eliminates one of the most long-standing bottlenecks in the infosphere and, as a result, there is a gradual erasure of friction, the forces that oppose the flow of information within a region of the infosphere. Reducing friction in the infosphere thus reduces the amount of work and effort required to generate, obtain, process, and transmit information in a given environment, by establishing and maintaining channels of communication and by overcoming obstacles in the flow of information such as distance, noise, lack of resources (especially time and memory), amount and complexity of the data to be processed, and so forth. Given a certain amount of information available in a region of the infosphere, the lower the friction in it, the more accessible that amount of information becomes.

Because of their "data superconductivity," information and communication technologies are well known for being among the most influential factors that affect friction in the infosphere. We are all acquainted with daily aspects of a frictionless infosphere, such as spamming, and concepts such as micropayments, which become possible only when there is no friction in the transmission of payment information between parties. Three other significant consequences are:

The upshot is that information and communication technologies are making humanity increasingly accountable, morally speaking, for the way the world is, will, and should be. That's a huge change from times not so long ago when all-powerful gods were deemed responsible for every otherwise inexplicable event, and it forces us to accept ever more responsibility for our own actions in every sphere.

#2: The Global Infosphere Is Becoming Our Ecosystem -- During the last decade or so, we have become accustomed to thinking about our online lives as a mixture between an evolutionary adaptation of people to a digital environment, and a form of post-modern, neo-colonization of the digital environment by people. This is probably a mistake. Information and communication technologies are as much recasting our world as they are creating new realities. The threshold between here (analog, carbon-based, off-line) and there (digital, silicon-based, online) is fast becoming blurred, but this is as much to the advantage of the latter as it is of the former. Adapting Horace's famous phrase, "captive cyberspace is conquering its victor."

The digital is spilling over into the analog and merging with it. This recent phenomenon is variously known as "ubiquitous computing," "ambient intelligence," "The Internet of Things," [8] or "Web-augmented things." It is, or will soon be, the next stage in the digital revolution.

Basically, the increasing digitalization of both artifacts of the physical world and of our entire social environment suggests that soon it will be difficult to understand what life was like in pre-digital 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 become blurred and eventually disappear. To put it dramatically, the infosphere is progressively absorbing all other spaces. Let me explain.

In the fast-approaching future, an increasing number of objects will be able to learn, advise, and communicate with each other. A good example is provided by RFID (Radio Frequency IDentification), which can store and remotely retrieve data from an object and give it a unique identity, like a barcode. RFID tags can measure less than half a millimeter square, and be thinner than paper. Incorporate this tiny microchip in everything, including humans and animals, and you have created what I'm calling "ITentities." This is not science fiction. According to a report by market research company InStat, the worldwide production of RFID tags will increase more than 25-fold between 2005 and 2010 and reach 33 billion. Imagine networking these 33 billion ITentities together with all the hundreds of millions of PCs, DVDs, iPods, and other digital communication devices available and you see that the infosphere is no longer "there" but "here." And it is here to stay.

Nowadays, we are used to considering the space of information as something we log in to and log out from. Our view of the world is still modern or Newtonian: it is made of "dead" cars, buildings, furniture, clothes, which are non-interactive, irresponsive, and incapable of communicating, learning, or memorizing. But what we still experience as the world offline is bound to become a fully interactive and responsive environment of wireless, pervasive, distributed, a2a (anything to anything) information processes, that works a4a (anywhere for anytime), in real time. This interactive digital environment will first gently invite us to understand the world as something "a-live" (artificially live), i.e. as comprising agents capable of interacting with us in various ways (shoes, for example, used to be "dead" artifacts, but you can now interact with the pair of Nike shoes you are wearing through your iPod). Such animation of the world will, paradoxically, make our outlook closer to that of pre-technological cultures which interpreted all aspects of nature as inhabited by animating spirits.

The second step will be a reconceptualization of what we experience in informational terms. It will become normal to consider the physical world as part of the infosphere, not so much as envisioned by the Matrix movies [9], where the "real reality" is as hard as the metal of the machines that inhabit it; but in the evolutionary, hybrid sense represented by an environment such as New Port City, the fictional, post-cybernetic metropolis of the Ghost in the Shell graphic novel [10]. The infosphere will not be a virtual environment supported by a genuinely real world; rather, it will be the world itself that will be increasingly interpreted and understood informationally, as part of the infosphere. At the end of this shift, the infosphere will have moved from being a way to refer to the space of information to being synonymous with Being. I suspect we shall find this sort of informational metaphysics increasingly easy to embrace.

For the skeptic, there are plenty of daily examples that offer tangible evidence of such radical transformations. "Robotic cookware" [11] is already available. MP3 players will soon be able to recommend new music [12] to their users by learning from the tunes their owners enjoyed. Many online services, ranging from Pandora [13] to MyStrands [14], already do this. Your next fridge [15] will inherit your tastes and wishes from the old one, just as your new laptop can import your favourite settings from the old one, and it will interact with your new way of cooking and with the supermarket Web site, just as your laptop can talk to a printer or to another computer. We have all known that this was possible on paper for some time; the difference is that it is now actually happening in our kitchens.

As a consequence of such reshaping of our ordinary environment, we shall be living in an infosphere that will become increasingly synchronized (time), delocalised (space), and correlated (interactions). We shall be in serious trouble if we do not take seriously the fact that we are constructing the new environment that will be inhabited by future generations. We should be working on an ecology of the infosphere if we wish to avoid problems such as a tragedy of the digital commons. In other words, we are leaving our children not just a slew of planetary environmental problems, but problems that will infect and contaminate the infosphere as well.

Unfortunately, I suspect it will take some time and a whole new kind of education and sensitivity to realise that the infosphere is a common space, which needs to be preserved to the advantage of all. One thing seems indisputable, though: the digital divide will become a chasm, generating new forms of discrimination between those who can be denizens of the infosphere and those who cannot, between insiders and outsiders, between the information-rich and the information-poor. It will redraw the map of worldwide society, generating or widening generational, geographic, socio-economic, and cultural divides. But the gap will not be reducible to the distance between industrialized and developing countries, since it will cut across societies.

#3: The Evolution of Inforgs -- We have seen that we are probably the last generation to experience a clear difference between offline and online. The third transformation I wish to highlight concerns precisely the emergence of artificial and hybrid agents, i.e., partly artificial and partly human. Consider, for example, a family as a single agent, equipped with digital cameras, laptops, Palm OS handhelds, iPods, mobile phones, camcorders, wireless networks, digital TVs, DVDs, CD players, and so on.

These new agents can already operate in the infosphere with much more freedom and control than was possible just a few years ago. We shall increasingly delegate or outsource to artificial agents our memories, decisions, routine tasks, and other activities in ways that will be increasingly integrated with us and with our understanding of what it means to be an agent. This is rather well known, but two other, separate aspects of this transformation may be in need of some clarification.

On the one hand, in the reshaped infosphere - progressively populated by artificial and hybrid agents, where there is no difference between processors and processed, online and offline - all interactions become equally digital. They are all interpretable as "read/write" activities, with "execute" being the remaining type of process. It is easy to predict that, in such an environment, the moral status and accountability of artificial agents will become an ever more challenging issue.

On the other hand, our understanding of ourselves as agents will also be deeply affected. I am not referring here to the science-fiction vision of a "cyborged" humanity. Walking around with something like a Bluetooth wireless headset implanted in your ear does not seem the best way forward, not least because it contradicts the social message it is also meant to be sending: being on call 24x7 is a form of slavery, and anyone so busy and important should have a personal assistant instead. The truth is rather that being a sort of cyborg is not what people will embrace, but what they will try to avoid, unless it is inevitable. Nor am I referring to a genetically modified humanity, in charge of its informational DNA and hence of its future embodiments. We shall probably see genetic modifications of humans in the future, but it is still too far away, both technically (safely doable) and ethically (morally acceptable), to be discussed at this stage.

What I have in mind is a quieter, less sensational, and yet crucial and profound change in our conception of what it means to be an agent. We are all becoming "connected informational organisms," or what I'm calling "inforgs." This is happening not through some fanciful transformation in our body, but, more seriously and realistically, through this radical reshaping of our environment and of ourselves.

By remolding the infosphere, digital information and communication technologies have brought to light the intrinsically informational nature of human agents. This is not equivalent to saying that people have digital alter egos, some Messrs. Hyde represented by their @s, blogs, and https. This trivial point only encourages us to mistake digital ICTs for merely enhancing technologies. The informational nature of agents should not be confused with a "data shadow" either (coined by A. F. Westin in 1968, a "data shadow" is a digital profile generated from data garnered from a user's online habits). The more radical change, brought about by the reshaping of the infosphere, will be the realization of human agents as interconnected, informational organisms among other informational organisms and agents.

Consider the distinction between enhancing and augmenting appliances. The switches and dials of enhancing appliances are interfaces meant to plug the device into the user's body ergonomically. Think of Bluetooth headsets and the cyborgs of science fiction. In contrast, the data and control panels of augmenting appliances are instead interfaces between different possible worlds: on the one hand there is the human user's outside world, and on the other hand there is the dynamic, watery, soapy, hot, and dark world of the dishwasher; the equally watery, soapy, hot and dark but also spinning world of the washing machine; or the still, aseptic, soap-less, cold, and potentially luminous world of the refrigerator. These robots can be successful because they have their environments "wrapped" and tailored around their capacities, not vice versa. Imagine someone trying to build a droid like C-3PO capable of washing their dishes in the sink exactly in the same way as a human would. It makes no sense.

Now, to be clear, information and communication technologies are not augmenting or empowering in the sense just explained. They instead create environments that the user is then enabled to enter through (possibly friendly) gateways. It is a form of initiation. Looking at the history of the mouse, for example, one discovers that our technology has not only adapted to, but also educated, us as users. Douglas Engelbart once told me that he had even experimented with a mouse [16] to be placed under the desk, to be operated with one's leg, in order to leave the user's hands free. HCI (Human-Computer Interaction) is a symmetric relation; we both learn and adjust our behavior to fit our technology.

To return to our distinction, while a dishwasher interface is a panel through which the machine enters into the user's world, a digital interface is a gate through which a user can be (tele)present in the infosphere, as telesurgery [17] clearly shows [18]. This simple but fundamental difference underlies the many spatial metaphors of "cyberspace," "virtual reality," "being online," "surfing the Web," "wireless gateway," and so forth. It follows that we are witnessing an epochal, unprecedented migration of humanity from the physical world we can see and touch to the infosphere itself, not least because the latter is absorbing the former. As a result, humans will become inforgs and will coexist with other (possibly artificial) inforgs and agents operating in an environment that is friendlier to digital creatures. As digital immigrants like us are replaced by digital natives like our children, the latter will come to appreciate that there is no real difference between the infosphere and the physical world, only different levels of abstractions. And when the migration is complete, we shall increasingly feel deprived, excluded, handicapped, or poor to the point of paralysis and psychological trauma whenever we are disconnected from the infosphere, like fish out of water.

One day, being an inforg will be so natural that any disruption in our normal flow of information will make us sick. Even literally. A simple illustration is provided by wearable computers [19] and current BAN (Body Area Network [20]) systems, which are "a base technology for permanent monitoring and logging of vital signs [...] [to supervise] the health status of patients suffering from chronic diseases, such as diabetes and asthma." Both phenomena are properly understood from an inforg (not a cyborg) perspective.

Are We There Yet? It would be useful to have some idea of what sort of empirical evidence we should look for that might signal the emergence of the infosphere as the real and only environment in which we human inforgs will be living. How will we know that what has been predicted above is actually happening? By way of conclusion, here are five suggestions.

1) Sufficient battery life: One important problem that we shall face will concern the availability of sufficient energy to stay connected to the infosphere non-stop, not just through our working day, but through the rest of our waking hours (and possibly even while we sleep). It is what Intel calls "the battery life challenge [21]." Today, we know that our autonomy is limited by the energy bottleneck of our batteries. The infosphere, and hence life as an inforg, will become a reality the less we have to worry about running out of power in our laptops, cell phones, iPods, and other devices that enable our participation in the infosphere.

2) Google Objects: You will know that ITentities have finally arrived when you will be able to use a search engine to find objects in the house ("where are my glasses?") or in the office ("where is my stapler?") in the same way that you locate a book in a library through its electronic catalogue.

3) Children of the PC: For clear signs of digital migration in recent generations, some evidence can be gathered by looking at the evolution of the software game industry [22]. For example, in the United States, the average age of players is increasing [23], as the children of the post-computer revolutions [Like us! -Adam] are reaching their late thirties. By the time they retire, in three or four decades, they will be living in the infosphere full-time.

4) How do I know I am an inforg? If you spend more time connected than sleeping, you are an inforg. On average, Britons, for example, already spend more time online [24] than watching TV.

5) Virtual assets? One way of checking whether the new metaphysics has arrived is to look for the emergence of a serious economy of virtual assets. This involves two steps:

At the time of writing, End User License Agreements (EULA) of massively multiplayer online role-playing games such as World of Warcraft still do not allow the sale of virtual assets. This would be like the EULA of Microsoft Word withholding from users the ownership of the digital documents created by means of the software. This is inevitably changing, as more people invest hundreds and then thousands of hours building their avatars. Indeed, although it is forbidden, there are thousands of virtual assets on sale on eBay. A quick check on 14-Mar-06 showed that the starting bid for a "World of Warcraft WTB rank14 or epic geared druid" was $1,500, a price higher than the value of the average computer used to access that piece of information. Sony, more aggressively, already offers a "Station Exchange," [25] an official auction service that "provides players a secure method of buying and selling [in dollars] the right to use in game coin, items and characters in accordance with SOE's license agreement, rules and guidelines." John Seely Brown, previously the director of Xerox PARC, has claimed that the estimated amount of money trading hands [26] in the underground market in virtual assets exceeds the gross national product, not of Tuvalu or Liechtenstein, but of Russia ($315 billion in 2002). Whether or not he is exaggerating for effect, since it's impossible to track black market sales precisely, we're still talking about tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars changing hands in trade for virtual assets.

Again, for the skeptical reader, a comparison and some hard evidence might be useful. In recent years, according to The Economist (16-Feb-06), many countries have followed the United States in counting acquisition of software not as a current business expense but as an investment, to be treated as any other capital input that is repeatedly used in production over time. This has meant that spending on software now regularly contributes to gross domestic products. So software is acknowledged to be a (digital) good, even if somewhat intangible. It should not be too difficult to accept that virtual assets too may represent important investments. As for the hard evidence, the phenomenon of so-called "virtual sweatshops" in China is highly indicative. In claustrophobic and overcrowded rooms, workers play online games, like World of Warcraft or Lineage, for up to twelve hours a day, to create virtual goods, such as characters, equipments or in-game currency, that can be sold to other players (warning: this YouTube video [27] is rather disturbing).

Once ownership of virtual assets has been legally established, the second step will be to check for the emergence of property litigation (this is already happening: in May 2006 a Pennsylvania lawyer sued the publisher of Second Life [28] for allegedly having unfairly confiscated tens of thousands of dollars worth of his virtual land and other property) and insurance that provides protection against risks to these virtual assets. It won't be a revolution in business, but it might be comparable to the pet insurances [29] you can currently buy at your local supermarket. Again, World of Warcraft provides an excellent example. The six million players (as of 01-Mar-06, this is larger than the whole population of Norway, for example) who will have spent billions of person-hours constructing, enriching, and refining their avatars will be more than willing to spend a few dollars to insure them. In the near future, this will look normal.

Conclusion -- Eleven years ago, I concluded the UNESCO paper with the following sentence: "Today we are giving the body of organised knowledge a new electronic life, and in so doing we are constructing the digital heritage of the next millennium. Depending on how we meet the challenge, future generations will consider us as new Pygmalions or as old Frankensteins." It seems that this is still largely true, if perhaps with two provisos.

On the one hand, the comment can now be expanded to the whole infosphere: the life and nature of our informational ecosystem depend entirely on us and will require all our creative attention and care. On the other hand, what we shall become as inforgs, and how we shall behave within the infosphere, will determine our success as the only biological species capable of creating a synthetic environment to which it then must adapt.

Marcus Aurelius once wrote that "Everything that exists is in a manner the seed of that which will be." I agree, but then I would add that this is why a philosophy of information that can look into today's technology is our best chance to shape a better tomorrow.

Acknowledgements -- I am grateful to Adam C. Engst for having prompted me to write this paper and to Gian Maria Greco, Ken Herold, Gianluca Paronitti, Sebastian Sequoiah-Grayson, Miguel Sicart, and Matteo Turilli for discussions of several ideas concerning Ghost in the Shell and online games during our meetings. Paul Oldfield kindly checked the last draft.

[Luciano Floridi [30] is a member of the Dipartimento di Scienze Filosofiche, Universita degli Studi di Bari and the Faculty of Philosophy and IEG, Computing Laboratory, University of Oxford. A longer and modified version of this paper is in press and will be coming out in the 23(1) issue of "The Information Society." [31]]