On 10 March 2020, Kier Schuller (Research & Policy Analyst at ICTC) spoke with Professor Luciano Floridi
as part of ICTC’s Tech & Human Rights Series
. Professor Floridi is the Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Information
at the University of Oxford, where he is also the Director of the Digital Ethics Lab
at the Oxford Internet Institute (OII)
. In this interview, Kiera asks Professor Floridi about the intersections of technology and ethics. The conversation explores the Fourth Revolution, “hyperhistory,” ethical challenges in the digital era, and how we can design a better information society that is open, pluralistic, tolerant, equitable, and just.
Thank you very much for your time, Dr. Floridi. I appreciate you joining me today. To begin, one of the subjects that you have been steeped in for a long time is digital ethics. For our audiences who may not be familiar with these ideas, what is digital ethics and how did you come to study it?
Dr. Luciano Floridi:
‘Digital ethics’ is an umbrella concept that helps us to cover all the ethical issues that are transformed, exacerbated, or emerge for the first time due to digital technologies, as they are designed, developed, and deployed in our society. For example, issues of privacy, intellectual property, personal identity, transparency, accountability, the need to be able to explain what happens when you use technologies in decision processes, and so on. We can think of digital ethics as an ethics of an entire environment — the digital environment — much like environmental ethics or bioethics. Just as we understand ethics in an environmental or biological context by focusing on the unifying themes, we do the same with digital ethics, in the context of digital technologies. Under this umbrella, themes include data ethics, AI ethics (what was once known as “computer ethics”), information ethics, machine ethics, ethics of algorithms — these all fall under digital ethics at large.
At the Digital Ethics Lab
, what are some of the main ethical challenges posed by digital technologies that you are tackling?
Dr. Luciano Floridi:
I like to distinguish between two main groups of ethical issues. First, there are issues that we all see around us — that we read in newspapers, watch on T.V., and share on social media like Facebook. For example, you would have had to be on the moon recently to have missed all the discussions of privacy, data, or the right to be forgotten. These issues are crucial, but they have been highlighted sufficiently now in our conversations. There is a second group of issues that are more long term and less visible because they are less immediately pressing. These are related to the development of technology and the way our technology is influencing us across decades of interactions — not immediately but across the next 10–20 years, on a daily basis.
I can give two examples that are most pressing from the view of my work, and which are connected. First is the issue of our flexibility and the way we are malleable. Human intelligence is definable in terms of our ability to be open to changing our mind, to listen to influence, etc. If we place this kind of intelligence next to tools that are constantly bombarding us, recommending to us, presenting us with distractions, nudging us all the time, clearly the question of “Who is influencing who?” is quite obvious. There is a big risk that we will be adapting to our technologies and not the other way around. For example, to trivialize, it means I will only have watched the film that Netflix recommended, read the book that Amazon recommended, taken the holiday trip that TripAdvisor recommended, and so on. The second issue, linked to this, is thus the erosion of autonomy. How far is my own decision really my own in the context, and how much has it been influenced by the technological environment in which I am operating?