Today’s issues of technology can be discussed from several perspectives. Although philosophy is not a common approach to discuss technological issues, some principles from this field might work well when it comes to evaluating technology. To give a simple example, Popper mentioned in his seminal paper “Epistemology without the knowing subject,” that if a person were to take the knowing subject away from epistemology all there would be left would be information. In other words, saying that ‘Paris is the capital of France’ would be merely providing information.
Although such a philosophical approach to information has existed since the beginning, we have been mostly unaware of it. While the main focus of philosophy throughout ancient history has been about the nature of things (aka metaphysics), this aspect continued throughout the Middle Ages and showed a significant change with the arrival of modern times, where the emphasis shifted onto the questions about meaning (aka semantics). So, different philosophies about the nature of reality or about the language of our knowledge of reality existed throughout history. Nowadays, we are at another turning point due to the arrival of the information age, in which the focus of philosophy shifted to both the technological and informational framework that is used to make sense of our knowledge of reality.
According to Aristotle, at the heart of metaphysics was the question of what it means to be a human being. Later on, during the Middle Ages, the emphasis shifted from this virtue ethics to religious metaphysics. Afterward, during the modern period, ethics, as Kant argued, was based on a complete account of reality. Nowadays, given the developments of our digital age, our ethical discourse needs to be in terms of information. Looking at the ultimate nature of things, one would realize that ethics is indeed the end of the intellectual journey, whether our discourse is metaphysical, logical, rational, or epistemological.
This interrelatedness between information ethics and philosophy has crucial consequences in our daily lives, ranging from our ‘right to be forgotten’ when it comes to using Google’s search engine, to our freedom of expression. In fact, the importance of these issues have grown to such an exponential degree that merely reducing the problem to the removal of some links would cause bigger issues. In order to understand today’s technological issues more in-depth, we need to specify the problem at its core; namely the clash of two main principles of ethics. On the one hand, there is the right to privacy, which has been the main principle of a truly democratic society; and on the other hand, there is the right to free speech.
Furthermore, the political aspect can also be not ignored. While the emphasis on privacy has been in the cultural DNA of the European Union, freedom of expression has been one of the main ingredients of the American corporate world. In addition to this, the nature of law also differs from region to region, as laws are defined by physical borders which are absent within the infosphere. Although this may seem like a trivial issue, there is no straightforward response to the question of whether the decisions taken by the EU should apply to the whole world or not.
Using the Kantian approach, we could say that processing the message from the outside world (aka message source) refers to data. Information is limited by data. Although the world is not based purely on our imagination, it is also not as it may appear to be via our senses. The interrelatedness between data and information should not only be understood in terms of representation, but also in terms of affordances. Based on the data available, we are being provided with ways of making sense of data and transforming them into the correct information. It would be naive to talk about knowledge as if it equals the reality itself. While reality is the source of signals, our knowledge is of the signals. In other words, music sent by radio does not represent radio itself.
The popular Turing test can also be approached from a philosophical perspective. Some people might argue that the question of whether a machine can think deserves no discussion, as we cannot define exactly what thinking or what a machine refers to. Yet, once the test is run, the different responses of an individual person and a machine can be seen. According to Turing, the level of abstraction needs to be clarified in order for the response to a thinking machine to be found. In comparison to other fields, where there may be different levels of abstractions, the field of computer science defines this level of abstraction based on the different level of abilities of the players in order to comprehend the questions and to provide meaningful responses to them.
In the past, power referred to the creation or control of things in the sense of producing new goods. In our digital age, contrary to what Marx asserted, it no longer refers to the production of goods, but to the production of services or experiences. This shift in mindset also requires the control of information. Non-surprisingly, governments are switching from their willingness to assert power over things to a willingness to assert power over information, which also changes the nature of information about things. In other words, those who control questions will also shape responses. Once we as citizens understand this new power, we can also start managing information accordingly and increase our own power.