© Luciano Floridi and Figure/Ground Communication
Floridi was interviewed by Laureano Ralon on May 22th, 2011
Luciano Floridi was born in Rome in 1964. He was educated at Rome University La Sapienza, where he graduated in philosophy (laurea) in 1988, first class with distinction. He obtained his MPhil in 1989 and PhD degree in 1990, both from the University of Warwick. He was lecturer in philosophy at the University of Warwick in 1990-1. He joined the Faculty of Philosophy of the University of Oxford in 1990 and the OUCL (Oxford’s Department of Computer Science) in 1999. He was Junior Research Fellow (postdoc) in Philosophy at Wolfson College, Oxford University in 1990-4, Francis Yates Fellow in the History of Ideas at the Warburg Institute, University of London in 1994–95, and Research Fellow in Philosophy at Wolfson College, Oxford University in 1994-01. During these years in Oxford, he held several lecturerships in different Colleges. Between 1994 and 1996, he also held a post-doctoral research scholarship at the Department of Philosophy, Università degli Studi di Torino. Between 2001 and 2006, he was Markle Foundation Senior Research Fellow in Information Policy at the Programme in Comparative Media Law and Policy, Oxford University. Between 2002 and 2008, he was Associate Professor of Logic (tenure) at the Università degli Studi di Bari. In 2006, he was elected Fellow by Special Election of St Cross College, Oxford University. Between 2006 and 2010, he was President of IACAP (International Association for Computing And Philosophy). In 2009, he became the first philosopher to be elected Gauss Professor by the Göttingen Academy of Sciences. Still in 2009, he was awarded the Barwise Prize by the American Philosophical Association in recognition of his research on the philosophy of information, and was elected Fellow of the Society for the Study of Artificial Intelligence and the Simulation of Behaviour. In 2010, he was appointed Editor-in-Chief of Springer’s new journal Philosophy & Technology and elected Fellow of the Center for Information Policy Research, University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. Since 2008, he is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Hertfordshire – where he holds the Research Chair in Philosophy of Information and the UNESCO Chair of Information and Computer Ethics – and Fellow of St Cross College, University of Oxford, where he is the founder and director of the IEG, Oxford University Information Ethics research Group. He is currently the Principal Investigator of the AHRC-funded project “The Construction of Personal Identities Online” and of the Marie Curie Fellowship Grant on “The Ethics of Information Warfare: Risks, Rights and Responsibilities” (FP7-PEOPLE-2009-IEF). Floridi’s research concerns primarily the Philosophy of Information and Information Ethics. Other research interests include Epistemology, Philosophy of Logic, Philosophy of Technology, and the History and Philosophy of Scepticism. He has published over a hundred articles in these areas, in many anthologies and in such peer-reviewed journals asArchiv für Geschichte der Philosophie, British Journal for the History of Philosophy, Erkenntnis, Ethics and Information Technology, International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, Journal of the History of Ideas, Metaphilosophy, Minds and Machines, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Social Epistemology, Synthese, The Information Society, and Zeitschrift für Allgemeine Wissenschaftstheorie. His works have been translated into Chinese, French, Greek, Japanese, Hungarian, Persian, Polish, Portuguese and Spanish.
What do you think of yourself as – a teacher, an author, a public intellectual – and how do all the facets of your career and personality reinforce one another?
Actually, I think of myself as a student or, to be more precise, a postdoctoral “seeker after truth” (to quote Einstein). In Oxford, there is a special, postdoctoral position, called Junior Research Fellowship. If you hold one, you are a JRF. That is exactly the way I feel most of the time: a JRF who has earned the right to pursue his research autonomously, and in whichever direction he thinks will be fruitful and interesting, but who is still at the beginning of his journey. Of course I am not, but in the back of my mind I seem to have failed to register that I am a middle-age academic, and since that has not happened so far, it is unlikely ever to become part of my self-perception. Or at least I hope so. For I see the absence of such a frame of mind as a gift from the gods, an elixir of mental youth, a sort of blindness to the obvious (age, with its years, responsibilities, compromises, and disappointments) that, paradoxically, helps one to keep in perspective what is crucial and what is irrelevant in academic and intellectual life, and avoid confusions between the altar of truth and the desk of bureaucracy. I like to study philosophy and I try to end every day having learnt or understood or solved something. I have never thought of myself as a teacher. I do not consider myself one. When I like teaching it is only insofar as it allows me to learn, so it is a selfish love. I have become an author and since writing is a great way of studying and understanding, I cherish such a role. As for being a public intellectual, insofar as I am, or rather, insofar as I perceive myself as being one, I am grateful for the opportunity, because it adds a moral value to my intellectual pursuits. It does not mean that I am useful, but it does mean that I feel useful. My career, my personality and indeed my whole life have been completely determined by my passion for philosophy. I enjoy life, but I enjoy studying it even more.
You have taught at a number of European universities, including the University of Warwick and the University of Hertfordshire. What attracted you to academia in the first place and how did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?
Academic life is the only life I know, if I exclude a year wasted in the army. I recall a very early episode in my life that turned out to be premonitory. I was going to be in first grade, so I must have been four or five. I had been shown by my parents the elementary school, through a window of our flat. And I remember thinking that I was never going to leave such building (a thought to which I went back again and again through the years, so this might be why it is still with me). In a way, I never did. What attracted, and still attracts me to academia is that it seems the only life worth living: the life of the intellect, of wondering, thinking, reading, writing, discussing with other people interesting issues, investigating fascinating problems, listening to remarkable speakers… Whenever I am forced to leave the academic bubble to interact with the real world – and this happens more often than I like – I am reminded of the privilege I enjoy. Some friends think that I am a workaholic. It is probably true, but then this requires a clarification. I usually feel, and sometimes behave, like a kid who cannot leave his playground, even if it is getting dark, and dinner is getting cold. Becoming a university professor was a plan, as basically all my life was and still is (I grew up knowing exactly where I will be buried in the family’s tomb, in Guarcino). As a teenager, I also had a passion for mathematics, but I knew mathematicians were like athletes: by the time they have reached their mid-thirties they have peaked. So philosophy promised to offer the same degree of abstraction and universality, but a much longer timeframe of enjoyment and hope for more intellectual victories in the future. Philosophers, like good wine, get better with age. I also soon realised that mathematics would not have helped me to address the conceptual issues about which I cared most. Philosophy is eschatological, mathematics cannot be. So by the time I was leaving high school the choice was easy. As for pursuing an academic career, that seemed to be the only way of being paid to study and be a philosopher. If I had been rich, I would have chosen Montaigne’s life. I was not, so that too was an easy choice. It was the implementation that was remarkably difficult and long. I am still working on it.
In your experience, how did the role of university professor evolve since you were an undergraduate student?
It is still changing, but a pattern seems increasingly visible: being a researcher and being a teacher are becoming two separate careers. Both have become specialisms, so the gap between excellent researchers and excellent teachers is widening. This is not a bad thing. The university system does not easily admit it, and the academics involved do so only reluctantly, but it seems inevitable that, in the long run, we will witness a separation of the two careers at the undergraduate level. This will be a good development. Learning has lengthened, and an undergraduate degree might need to be organised more like a high-school one, with dedicated, specialised teachers. Today, excellent researchers with a very poor teaching record are valued more by the higher education system than excellent teachers with a poor research record, witness the overwhelming emphasis in the UK on various forms of so-called “research assessment”. This is unfair and unreasonable. They are different jobs, and should be evaluated on their own merits. The time, capacities and skills required by both professions demand their separation. This is happening more quickly in science than in the humanities, not only because the former allows such de-coupling more easily (think, for example, of research centres and labs) but also because the latter is not seen as a research-intensive area of study. What I have said so far does not apply to graduate “teaching,” which should really be considered professional training. Graduate students need to work and collaborate very closely with the research community they wish to join. Only from other researchers can they learn the practical craft and theoretical skills necessary to investigate difficult problems in their field, like artists and artisans do. I hope we shall soon see the emergence of the professional university teacher.
What makes a good teacher today? How do you manage to command attention in the classroom in an “age of interruption” characterized by fractured attention and information overload?
I am not sure what makes a good teacher. I know that all the excellent teachers I have had, not only academic (a squash trainer counts among the best), shared the following characteristics, which I would expect to apply today as well: remarkable mastery of their areas of expertise (you would be surprised to see how many people think they can be good teachers by relying on qualities other than knowing their discipline inside out); high commitment to the value of what they are teaching, why and how; care and respect for their pupils’ development; and, in the best cases, that special gift to make even the driest things interesting, something that comes with the palpable enthusiasm for the topics covered and the believer’s sense of worthiness of what is being conveyed. Much is made today of involvement, interaction and collaboration with the students, but that was not my experience. It was a matter of mutual respect, with the expectation that learning was a serious, rewarding but hard task. The age of interruption is also the age of boredom. It might be a matter of bad habits, picked up outside the classroom, but if a seminar, or a lecture, is interesting, then the likelihood that someone might check his or her twitters decreases dramatically. I spoke above of the altar of truth. I meant it. We expect people to behave properly in churches and temples, even if they are non-believers; the same holds true for teachers and students in a university lecture room, which is a sacred place, where the best of humanity’s efforts are shared. Of course, the blackboard is replaced by the PowerPoint, books by iPads, mobile learning is a reality, real-time voting feedback in the classroom a normality, and so forth. But no gadget will ever replace a good teacher, and a good teacher can do without any gadget. Mind, I am a technophile, a nerd and a geek. I am only stressing the obvious: attention is ultimately commanded by contents, not containers.
In 1964, Marshall McLuhan declared, in reference to the university environment that, “departmental sovereignties have melted away as rapidly as national sovereignties under conditions of electric speed.” This claim could be viewed as an endorsement of multidisciplinary/ interdisciplinary studies, but it could also be regarded as a statement on the changing nature of academia. Do you think the university as an institution is in crisis or at least under threat in this age of information and digital interactive media?
Whatever kind of post-disciplinarity one might have in mind (inter-, multi-, para-, trans-, you name it), it is easy to fail to take into account the logic of ideas. Ideas come together in clusters. Astrophysics, Biochemistry, Neuroscience… they became recognisable sciences only once they left the magmatic state of multi- or interdisciplinary approaches and acquired the status of structured disciplines in themselves. Now, academia is changing more quickly than ever before, because the pace at which knowledge is developing is unprecedented. So we are witnessing more post-disciplinary mutations taking place. Some will become stable, and give rise to new disciplines, some others will not survive. Cybernetics nowadays looks like a dinosaur, computer science is still struggling with its parents, mathematics and engineering, and so forth. But changes prove the healthy status of academia as an environment where evolution is flourishing. Let me give you a concrete and personal example. When I first joined the Philosophy Faculty in Oxford, in the nineties, I proposed to establish a new joint degree in computer science and philosophy. Oxford already had similar joint degrees in mathematics and philosophy and in physics and philosophy, so I thought it was a no-brainer. I was right, but also wrong in thinking that everybody would have agreed with me. After a couple of years of useless attempts I gave up. And yet, there is redemption in time. More than a decade after my failed attempts, thanks to the efforts of dedicated colleagues, Oxford has expanded its offer and will welcome the first students in computer science and philosophy in 2012. Paradoxically, the more dramatic the transformations are, the healthier the environment is.
The question about the external forces that are challenging academia is different. The threat is real, but sometimes misunderstood, at least by the popular press. The already vast and exponentially increasing amount of online information of all kinds represents a challenge for the university system only if one is confused about what the latter is supposed to provide. There was a time when the lack of availability (no manuscripts, say) and accessibility (plenty of manuscripts in the convent’s library, say, but no reading skills) eclipsed the real problem in education, which has always been, and will remain, the critical and creative understanding of whatever information is being handled. Now that availability (the information is there, lots of it and growing exponentially by the day) and accessibility (increasingly more people can get it, easily and cheaply, anywhere, anytime) are becoming less pressing issues, the problem of knowing what to make of it and with it is, if anything, even more serious, making the higher education system even less dispensable than before. One only needs to read a decent Wikipedia page on a medical issue, for example, to realise that availability and accessibility are just the conditio sine qua non to become informed. It is through a university education that we fully master the skills to understand, critically and creatively, the wealth of information that we enjoy, and thus graduate from the role of users and receivers to that of providers and producers. The information society needs the latter, not the former, and this is why it needs increasingly more higher education, not less. Google is not making us stupid, to paraphrase a recent catchphrase, it is showing that we are stupid unless we study. This should boost the demand for education.
What advice would you give to young graduate students and aspiring university professors?
The advice would be different depending on the discipline. In some cases, a university career is not impossible, indeed it is a reasonable choice. These are the cases where there is a huge demand, but also, and the student should keep this in mind, many opportunities to earn much more outside academia. As a brilliant computer scientist, for example, you need to be particularly devoted to academic research and standards of life to resist the temptation of opening your own company even before finishing your first degree. Plenty of biographies at the airport show this. In the humanities, and especially in philosophy, I would strongly urge the student to reconsider the choice. The positions are so few, the competition so high, the sacrifices before obtaining a permanent job (tenure) so many and tough, that pursuing an academic career looks unreasonable when, with half the brain and efforts, one would get a much better chance of enjoying the handful of decades at one’s disposal. So the advice is: do not do it, unless you absolutely cannot help doing it, in which case no advice is necessary anyway.
Your main area of specialization is the Philosophy of Information. In what ways is this field of inquiry similar or different from the philosophies of technology and media?
There are significant similarities because the philosophy of information (PI) cannot be divorced from the study of the society and the technologies that bear its name. But there are also important dissimilarities, because PI investigates classic issues in epistemology, logic, metaphysics, semantics, philosophy of mind, ethics, and so forth, which bear no connection to the nature of technology and its conceptual problems. One can do philosophy of technology in many “philosophical ways”, but I see philosophy of information as a way of doing philosophy. So I would consider PI a sort of bridge, between episteme and techne. Plato might not have liked it, but I think Bacon would have loved it.
What is “information” anyway?
A title, of a very short and accessible book: Information – A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2010.
What characterizes a “philosophical approach” to the study of information, and what kind of philosophy do you rely on in order to make sense of what you call the “infosphere”?
A philosophical approach in general is characterised by the investigation of what I like to call open questions. A question is open if it cannot be answered either logico-mathematically or empirically, proving a theorem or running an experiment. This is why we can disagree on its answers even if we are all fully informed, rational and reasonable. Now, there are plenty of interesting and very influential questions about the concept of information that are open, in the same way as there are plenty of open questions about knowledge, right and wrong, beauty, or existence. The philosophy of information investigates such questions. Ultimately, the sort of philosophy of information that I practice seeks to make sense of the whole infosphere (or reality seen from an information-theoretical perspective) systematically, through what I have defined as conceptual engineering. Philosophy as conceptual engineering is the design of the right ideas, interpretations and conceptual models that, put together like components in a mechanism, end up explaining the reality in which we live and our life in it, not least with the hope to improve both.
What are you currently working on?
I am working on a trilogy, which I call principia informatica in the folder of my computer, even if I am not from Cambridge. The first volume is already out (The Philosophy of Information, Oxford University Press, 2011). I am currently revising volume two, entitled Information Ethics (same publisher). The third (The Principles of Information) is in progress. As I suspected when I was a teenager, philosophy is eschatological, systematic, and takes time, a lot of time. Luckily, it is also a lot of fun. More late dinners, I guess.
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