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Series: The Internet and the Future of Organized Knowledge
The Internet and the Future of Organized Knowledge
Article 1 of 4 in series
[Note: we thank Professor Floridi for kind permission to reprint this material, which is a shortened version of a paper he gave at a UNESCO Conference in Paris, March 14-17, 1995.] Part One: Understanding The Internet The Internet: a population of several million people, interacting by means of a global networkShow full article
[Note: we thank Professor Floridi for kind permission to reprint this material, which is a shortened version of a paper he gave at a UNESCO Conference in Paris, March 14-17, 1995.]
Part One: Understanding The Internet
The Internet: a population of several million people, interacting by means of a global network. It is the most educated intellectual community ever, a global academy constantly thinking.
Yet the Internet is also a completely new, hitherto unknown phenomenon. What is the Internet exactly? What can it be used for? And what will be the effects of such a radical revolution in the way we handle the world of information? These are the three fundamental questions that will determine the future of organized knowledge.
What The Internet Is -- By the word "Internet" we refer to the international system of digital communication, emerging from the agglomerate of thousands of networks that interact through a number of common protocols worldwide. It cannot be physically perceived, or meaningfully located in space and time, over and above the set of interacting networks that constitute it. It is a collaborative initiative of services and resources, each network being accountable only for its own proper functioning.
Thus, nobody is ultimately responsible for it as a single enterprise, nobody is earning money from the service as a whole, nobody is running the system, and nobody will be able to control it in the future.
What The Internet Can Be Used For -- This is not easy to determine. It isn't that we don't know how to use the system, but that the variety of things that one can do via Internet increases literally every single day. However, we can distinguish four rough categories of communication: email, discussion groups, remote control, and file transfer.
Thus, we can exchange private messages with a friend, publish an electronic journal, set up a "slow reading group" on Voltaire's Candide, and access data in all possible forms: software, bibliographic records, electronic texts, images of paintings, statistical graphs, musical sounds, whole data banks on an enormous variety of subjects. Any exchange and manipulation of symbols, images and sounds is already possible on Internet, or soon will be. In the future even television will probably be remembered as just another episode of the computer age.
How The Internet Will Affect Organized Knowledge -- This question is almost impossible to answer precisely. It is hard to give even an initial shape to our ignorance, since there may be much more we do not know than we could guess. After all, the Internet is already transforming some of our most fundamental conceptions and habits.
The Internet is fostering the growth of knowledge, yet at the same time it is generating unprecedented forms of ignorance. As always in the history of technology, whenever a radical change occurs, some individuals are left behind while the new technology makes those who do master it suddenly aware of other domains still to be explored.
The new model of "spineless textuality" represented by hypertext, the virtual ubiquity of documents, the appearance of online services and electronic sources that need to be catalogued, have radically changed the discipline of librarianship. Even the library itself may disappear: no longer a building, a storehouse of knowledge physically recorded on paper, the new "consulting" library will be a node in the virtual space of the digital encyclopedia, providing access to electronic information on the network. Instead of an object-oriented culture, producing multiple copies of physical books for each user, we will become a time-and-information culture, providing services charged per period of use.
Concepts of citizenship and privacy are changing too. In the new electronic marketplace of the global village, publicity has assumed an international scale, while privacy means electronic privacy in our email conversations. Our good manners are evaluated on the basis of a social "netiquette." Civil rights concern the way in which information about ourselves can be created and stored in databases, and then accessed and used through the network. Crimes range from electronic pornography to viruses, from the illegal reproduction of software to illicit intrusion into electronic systems, from infringement of copyright to electronic plagiarism.
Even the way we think may be affected. Relational and associative reasoning is nowadays becoming as important as linear and inferential analysis, while visual thinking is at least as vital as symbolic processing. And as the skill of remembering vast amounts of facts is gradually replaced by the capacity for retrieving information and discerning logical patterns in masses of data, the Renaissance conception of erudition is merging with the modern methods of information management.
Entire sectors of activity like communicating, writing, publishing and editing, advertising and selling, shopping and banking, teaching and learning are all being deeply affected. Such transformations are of the greatest importance, as they will determine our life-style in the coming decades.
We are now ready to explore what such an epochal change in our culture will mean in one special field: the future of the Human Encyclopedia.
What The Human Encyclopedia Is -- The Human Encyclopedia is the store of human knowledge. It is constantly increasing, although at different rates in different ages and cultures. The rate of increase depends on two things: the quantity of information stored up until that time and the current degree of accessibility of the "memory" of the system.
The invention of printing has usually been considered a turning point in this increase, but its importance should not be misunderstood. The printed book represented a powerful new medium whereby a text could be reproduced more quickly, cheaply, and accurately, and hence be more safely stored and more widely diffused. It tremendously accelerated the recovery, conservation, and dissemination of knowledge among an increasingly large number of people. But this did very little to improve the degree to which an individual could take full advantage of the entire Encyclopedia, since the process of information retrieval remained largely unaffected by the printing of books.
Quite soon after Gutenberg, there were attempts to do for the processing of information what the printing press had done for the reproduction of knowledge (see Gulliver's Travels). But they all failed, because such an enterprise required something much more radical than a merely mechanical solution. Only the passage from printed paper to digital data made possible a thoroughly new way of managing information, and much more efficient control over the system of knowledge. This explains why Information Technology, as the long awaited response to the invention of printing, has been much more pervasive than any previous technology. The press (mechanically) enlarged our intellectual space; only the computer has made it (electronically) manageable.
Three Steps to The Internet -- Thus began in the 1950's a process of converting the entire domain of organized knowledge into a new, digital macrocosm. This conversion has engendered three fundamental changes in how we access information: extension, visualization, and integration.
Extension. There has been constant growth in the kinds of information that could be digitized - not only numbers and text, but also sounds, images, and animation. The growing extent of this "binary domain" has soon required forms of access far more congenial to the mind than the merely digital, leading to...
Visualization. The invention and improvement of visual display units, together with the development of graphic interfaces and WIMP applications (Window, Icon, Mouse, Pop-up menu), have made possible a spectacular return of the analogical as the fundamental threshold between the binary macrocosm and the mind. Finally...
Integration. The translation of different kinds of information into a single language of bytes has increasingly brought together the various domains of knowledge into an ever-wider and more complex encyclopedia. This integration has subsequently grown qualitatively by the incorporation of multimedia and virtual reality. It has also grown quantitatively, as local domains have joined into an ever-wider environment of networks, tending towards a global, multimedial, and unique macrocosm of digitized knowledge. Obviously, this brings us back to...
The Internet Again -- We can now see that the Internet is just the most recent form adopted by the organization of the system of knowledge, a mere stage in the endless self-regulating process through which the Human Encyclopedia constantly strives to respond to its own growth. Through the combination of the three processes of extension, integration, and visualization, the Internet has made possible management of knowledge that is faster, wider in scope, and easier to exercise than ever before.
As a stage in the life cycle of the Encyclopedia, the network has already given rise to unprecedented innovations and to new fundamental problems, some of which are especially relevant to the future of scholarship and organized knowledge. These will be explored in detail in the next parts of this article.
Article 2 of 4 in series
[Note: we thank Professor Floridi for kind permission to reprint this material, which is a shortened version of a paper he gave at a UNESCO Conference in Paris, March 14-17, 1995.] Part Two: Ideometry - A New Way of Knowing In the previous part of this article, I argued that the Internet can be understood as a stage in the life cycle of the Human EncyclopediaShow full article
[Note: we thank Professor Floridi for kind permission to reprint this material, which is a shortened version of a paper he gave at a UNESCO Conference in Paris, March 14-17, 1995.]
Part Two: Ideometry - A New Way of Knowing
In the previous part of this article, I argued that the Internet can be understood as a stage in the life cycle of the Human Encyclopedia. As such, the Internet has already given rise to unprecedented innovations and to new fundamental problems, some of which are especially relevant to the future of scholarship and organized knowledge. In this part, we begin to examine these by developing the concept of ideometry.
The New Nature of Scholarship -- When considering the innovations that the Internet has brought to the field of the production and management of organized knowledge, one might think of the reduction of the time-lag between the production and the utilization of knowledge, the promotion of international cooperation and sharing of information among researchers and scholars, or the possibility of remote teaching online. Yet most such novelties are actually less radical than they seem, since they mainly make easier and quicker what we used to do anyway.
There are other possibilities, however, which do represent a more radical break with the past. For example, the global network is weakening the concept of specialization. The book era, providing a rigidly structured context, invited specialization. Especially the humanities became topic-oriented. The electronic Encyclopedia, on the other hand, promotes inter-disciplinary work, i.e. diatopic approaches. In fact, it's difficult to restrict oneself always to the same limited space when one can navigate so easily to and fro across the disciplinary boundaries.
Now, the most substantial of the radical innovations concerns our ability to acquire ever-more-easily further knowledge about the Encyclopedia itself. Consider once again the intellectual space of organized knowledge. We can distinguish between three different dimensions:
Primary data. This is what we usually perceive as the Encyclopedia per se, the principal information we can acquire when we have access to the encyclopedia, and it is also the information the encyclopedia is generally designed to convey to the user in the first place.
Metadata. These are the secondary indications about the nature of the data sets constituting the first dimension. Here we can find information, for example, about copyright restrictions, about the collocation of our data sets in a physical library or in a virtual domain, about the subject covered by the data sets, about the quality of the information conveyed, and so forth. You can think of metadata as library records.
Derivative data. These are data that can be extracted from primary data sets, when the latter are used as a source for comparative and quantitative analysis. This requires a lengthier explanation.
What Derivative Data Is -- In the book age, primary data sets were collected and organized in structures which were necessarily rigid and unalterable. The ordering principles behind this organization actually limited the range of primary questions which could meaningfully be asked. For example, if the ordering principle stated that the primary data should be all the poetic texts of any time written in English, the final edition in several volumes of all English poems provided the means to answer properly and easily only a limited range of primary questions, like "who wrote what when."
Information Technology has transformed all this. It is now possible to query the digital domain and shape it according to principles which are completely different from those whereby the primary data were initially collected and organized. The structure of our particular set of digital data can be modified to fit an infinite number of requirements, and hence provide answers to secondary questions which were not meant to be answered by the original structure. The new patterns that emerge from the application of quantitative and comparative queries may turn out to be meaningful and interesting for reasons that are completely extraneous to the initial ordering principle.
What Ideometry Is -- Ideometry is the study of the significant patterns resulting from a comparative and quantitative analysis of the field of knowledge - that is, of the clusters of primary data like data banks, textual corpora, or multimedia archives. Derivative data, the third dimension of the Encyclopedia, are the outcome of an ideometric analysis of whatever sector of organized knowledge has been subject to investigation.
An example will clarify the notions of ideometry and derivative data together. In 1994 Chadwick-Healey published a database of English Poetry on CD-ROMs. The structure of this digital collection is thoroughly flexible, and we can reorganize it at will. As a simple example, we might wish to study the presence or absence of the two popular figures - Heraclitus, the weeping philosopher, and Democritus, the laughing philosopher - through the entire set of documents.
A quick computer survey shows that the joint motif of compassion for human misfortune and derision of human ambitions was very popular between the second half of the sixteenth and the first half of the seventeenth century, as it is in this period that we find most of the poets using the philosophical couple as a literary device. This pattern becomes even more interesting once we notice that during the seventeenth century the two Greek philosophers were portrayed in many Dutch paintings. Through a quantitative and comparative analysis (an ideometric analysis) we have made the encyclopedia speak about itself (supply us with derivative data).
Ideometry and The Internet -- Now, to some extent this too is nothing so very new. Ideometry has been popular in many disciplines since the 1960's. Lexicography, stylometry, prosopography, citation analysis, bibliometric studies, econometrics, and quantitative history have all used forms of ideometric analysis for investigation. But scholars could perform ideometric analysis only on a limited scale and with enormous efforts. The trouble was, quite simply, that Information Technology was not yet up to scholarly expectations and needs. It wasn't that the Humanities were not sufficiently "scientific" to allow the application of Information Technology tools, but rather that Information Technology was too primitive to be of any real service for the highly sophisticated tasks required by scholarly research.
The radical change brought about by the present age of Information Technology and the Internet is that an ideometric approach is becoming an increasingly easy option for any researcher. It is obvious that primary data need metadata in order to be manageable, so the second dimension of the encyclopedia can never be really separate from the first. Derivative data, however, are not so directly available, and the third dimension emerges only when large amounts of primary data are collected in digital form, are made easily accessible to the user, and can be rapidly queried and thus re-structured via electronic tools. Today all these conditions are being more and more adequately fulfilled by Internet.
An Electronic Book Is Not A Book! Ideometry shows that digital texts, though they maintain some of the basic features of printed books and can therefore be used as surrogates, should not be understood as if they were meant to fulfil the same task. We do not convert printed texts into electronic databases in order to read them better or more comfortably. For this task the book is and will remain unsurpassed.
But we do not spend so much money only to create big electronic indexes either. Rather, we collect and digitize large corpora of texts in order to subject them to comparative and quantitative analysis and extract knowledge they contain only on a macroscopic level. What is revolutionary in an electronic bibliography, for example, is not that I can find a certain book in a few seconds, which is trivial, but that I can ask new questions: I can check when books on the history of Analytic Philosophy started to be written, for example, and discover how their number increased while the movement became more and more scholastic.
Thus, corpora of electronic texts and multimedia sources are the laboratory for ideometric analysis. And (this is where the Internet comes in) the larger and more accessible the domain, the better it will be, for the ideometric value of an extensive corpus is given by the product rather than by the simple arithmetical sum of the ideometric value of each single document. Once simple and economical tools for studying visual and acoustic patterns also become available, ideometric analyses will be extended to the entire domain of the enlarged Encyclopedia.
Thus, electronic collections of data and the Internet have raised the level on which we can deal with our data. But the Internet has also raised severe problems for scholarship; I shall talk about these in the third part of this article.
Article 3 of 4 in series
[Note: we thank Professor Floridi for kind permission to reprint this material, which is a shortened version of a paper he gave at a UNESCO Conference in Paris, March 14-17, 1995.] Part Three: The Problems In the previous two parts of this article, I argued for an understanding of the Internet as a new stage in the growth of the Human Encyclopedia, and showed how it allows us to do new kinds of research by asking third-level (ideometric) questions about our dataShow full article
[Note: we thank Professor Floridi for kind permission to reprint this material, which is a shortened version of a paper he gave at a UNESCO Conference in Paris, March 14-17, 1995.]
Part Three: The Problems
In the previous two parts of this article, I argued for an understanding of the Internet as a new stage in the growth of the Human Encyclopedia, and showed how it allows us to do new kinds of research by asking third-level (ideometric) questions about our data. Here, we turn to new problems that the growth of a network of information and communication has already caused or soon will give rise to.
There are at least ten principal issues worthy of attention. I shall deal with them in what I take to be their approximate order of importance.
(1) The Devaluation of The Book -- We have already entered the stage where digital information is preferred over non-digital, not because of its quality, but simply because it is available online. However, the more resources that undergo the conversion, the less serious this problem will become.
(2) The Devaluation of Information Processes -- The Internet helps to satisfy an ever-growing demand for information. In this process, the use value of information has increased steadily, in parallel with the complexity of the system, but its exchange value has been subject to a radical modification. Because of the great and rapid availability of data, Internet has caused a devaluation of some intellectual enterprises - such as compilations, collections of images, bibliographical volumes and so forth - whose original high value depended mainly on the correspondingly high degree of inaccessibility that afflicted information in the book era.
Today, much of the raw data that in the past had to be collected at great expense of time and energy are freely available on the Internet. The result is that the era of the great collections on paper is practically over.
(3) Failure to Acknowledge New Scholarly Enterprise -- So far, Academe has been slow in recognizing that new forms of scholarly activity have appeared, like moderating a discussion list, keeping an online bibliography constantly updated, or publishing a paper in an electronic journal. The sooner such activities are properly recognized and evaluated, the easier it will become for individuals to dedicate more time and effort to the digital encyclopedia, and the more the encyclopedia will improve.
(4) Too Much Knowledge to Access -- A fundamental imbalance - between the extraordinary breadth of the system and the limited amount of knowledge that can be accessed by an individual mind at any one time - arises because the quantity of information potentially available on Internet has increased beyond control, whereas the technology whereby the network actually allows us to retrieve our data has improved much more slowly. The result is that we are once again far from being capable of taking full advantage of the full extent of our digital encyclopedia.
The challenge of the next few years will consist in narrowing the gap between quantity of information and speed of access, even as the former increases. Projects like the American Information Superhighway, or SuperJANET in Great Britain, are of the highest importance in this regard. However, we should keep in mind that closing the gap completely is impossible because of the very nature of the Encyclopedia.
(5) Too Much Accessible Knowledge to Manage -- This is the problem of "infoglut," as BYTE has called it. Throughout past history there was always a shortage of data, which led to a voracious attitude towards information. Today, we face the opposite risk of being overwhelmed by an unrestrained, and sometimes superfluous, profusion of data. No longer is "the more the better." If knowledge is food for then mind, then for the individual mind to survive in an intellectual environment where exposure to the Human Encyclopedia is greater than ever before, for the first time in the history of thought we desperately need to learn how to balance our diet.
Without a new culture of selection - and tools that can help us filter, select, and refine what we are looking for - the Internet will become a labyrinth which researchers will either refrain from entering or in which they will lose themselves. One can only hope that the care exercised today during the conversion of organized knowledge into a digital macrocosm will soon be paralleled by equally close attention to the development of efficient and economical ways to select and retrieve the information we need. In data-retrieval, brute force does not work any longer: we need intelligence. The Internet needs to be improved by the inclusion of expert systems.
(6) The Threat to Paper -- Some libraries are destroying their card catalogues after having replaced them with OPACs (online public access catalogs). This is as unacceptable as would have been the practice of destroying medieval manuscripts after an editio princeps was printed during the Renaissance. We need to preserve the sources of information after the digitalization in order to keep our memory alive. The development of a digital encyclopedia should not represent a parricide.
(7) Some Knowledge Exists Only Digitally -- Because for large sectors of the new encyclopedia there will be no paper epiphany, access to the network will have to be universally granted in order to avoid the rise of a new technological elite.
(8) The New Illiteracy -- Information Technology is the new language of organized knowledge. Therefore elements of that language must become part of the minimal literacy of any human being, if free access to information is to remain a universal right.
(9) The Internet as Rubbish Heap -- Because the Internet is a free space where anybody can post anything, organized knowledge could easily get corrupted, lost in a sea of junk data. In the book age, the relation between writer and reader was and is still clear and mediated by cultural and economic filters - e.g., you won't get published if what you say isn't somehow "true." For all their faults, such filters do provide some positive selection. On the Internet, the relation between producer and consumer of information is direct, so nothing protects the latter from corrupt information.
Now, there is much to be said in favor of the free exchange of information on the network, and I believe that any producer of data should be free to make it available online. But I think every user should also be protected from corrupt knowledge by an intermediary service, if she wishes. Unless academic and cultural institutions provide some form of quality control, we may no longer be able to distinguish between the intellectual space of knowledge and a polluted environment of junk.
(10) Decentralization Means Fragmentation -- By converting the encyclopedia into an electronic space, we risk transforming the new body of knowledge into a disjointed monster, rather than an efficient and flexible system. The Internet has developed in a chaotic (if dynamic) way, and today suffers from a regrettable lack of global organization, uniformity, and strategic planning. While we entrust ever more vast regions of the Human Encyclopedia to the global network, we are also leaving the Internet itself in a thoroughly anarchic state. Efforts at coordination are left to occasional initiatives by commendable individuals, or to important volunteer organizations, but this is insufficient to guarantee that in a few decades organized knowledge will not be lost in a labyrinth of millions of virtual repositories, while energies and funds have been wasted in overlapping projects.
The Internet has been described as a library where at the moment there is no catalogue, books on the shelves keep moving, and an extra truckload of books is dumped in the entrance hall every hour. Unless it is properly structured and constantly monitored, the positive feature of radical decentralization of knowledge will degenerate into a medieval fragmentation of the body of knowledge, which in turn means a virtual loss of information. Already it is no longer possible to rely on the speed of our networked tools to browse the whole space of knowledge and collect our information in a reasonably short time. If global plans are disregarded or postponed and financial commitments delayed, the risk is that information may well become no easier to find on the network than the proverbial needle in a haystack.
Some people have compared the invention of the computer to the invention of printing. To some extent the comparison is misleading: the appearance of the printed book belongs to the process of consolidation and enlargement of our intellectual space, whereas the revolutionary character of Information Technology has rested on making possible a new way of navigating through such a space. But in one important sense they are similar: in the same way as the invention of printing led to the constitution of national copyright libraries to coordinate and organize the production of knowledge in each country, so Internet needs a coordinated info-structure.
The Info-Structure -- The info-structure would consist of centers making coordinated efforts to fulfill the following five tasks:
guarantee the reliability and integrity of the digital encyclopedia;
provide constant access to it without discrimination, thus granting a universal right to information;
deliver a continually updated map to the digital universe of thought;
expand the numbers of primary, secondary, and derivative resources available online, especially those that won't attract commercial operators;
support and improve the methods and tools whereby the Encyclopedia is converted into a digital domain, and whereby networked information is stored, accessed, retrieved, and manipulated.
I'm not advocating the creation of some international bureau for the management of the Internet, a sort of digital Big Brother. Nor have I any wish to see national organisms take control of our new electronic frontier. Such projects, besides being impossible to realize, would be contrary to fundamental rights of freedom of communication, of thought, and of information. Far from it, I believe in the complete liberty and refreshing anarchy of the network.
What I'm suggesting is that Internet is like a new country, with a growing population of millions of well-educated citizens, and that as such it does not need a highway patrol. However, it will have to provide itself with a kind of Virtual National Library system (which could be as dynamic as the world of information) if it wants to keep track of its own cultural achievements in real time, and hence be able to advance into the third millennium in full control of its own potential. It is to be hoped that non-national institutions (such as UNESCO) may soon be willing to promote and coordinate such a global service, which is essential in order to make possible an efficient management of human knowledge on a global scale.
Article 4 of 4 in series
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..Show full article
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"; for a non-abridged version see "The Internet: Which Future for Organised Knowledge, Frankenstein or Pygmalion?"). 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 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 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, 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:
- We have no right to ignore information. It will become progressively less credible to claim ignorance when confronted by easily predictable events (e.g. as George W. Bush did with respect to Hurricane Katrina's disastrous effects on New Orleans's flood barriers) and painfully obvious facts (e.g. as British politician Tessa Jowell did with respect to her husband's finances in a widely publicized scandal).
- There will be vast common knowledge. Because of the amount of information available on any given topic, we will have no right to claim ignorance, not just because the information was available, but because everyone else will know that the information was available.
- From these two consequences, it follows that, in the future, we shall witness a steady increase in the responsibilities of our information agents, whether they be people, companies, or bots that seek out information on our behalf.
#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," 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, 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. 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" is already available. MP3 players will soon be able to recommend new music to their users by learning from the tunes their owners enjoyed. Many online services, ranging from Pandora to MyStrands, already do this. Your next fridge 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 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 clearly shows. 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 and current BAN (Body Area Network) 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." 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. For example, in the United States, the average age of players is increasing, 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 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," 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 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 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 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 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 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."]