avril 15, 2024

Recently Published Book Spotlight: The Green & The Blue

8 min read
Recently Published Book Spotlight The Green The Blue | StirlingPhilosophy

Luciano Floridi is the Founding Director of the Digital Ethics Center and Professor in the Cognitive Science Program at Yale University. His research focuses on the digital revolution and its philosophical issues. In this Recently Published Book Spotlight, Floridi discusses his recent book The Green and The Blue: Naive Ideas to Improve Politics in the Digital Age (Wiley, 2023), his motivation for writing it, the mentors and opportunities that have enabled his academic success, and his advice for philosophers seeking to publish their own book.

What is your work about?

I research the philosophical implications of the digital revolution and the information society. My most recent book is The Green and The Blue: Naive Ideas to Improve Politics in the Digital Age. In it, I explore the intersection of digital technologies and AI with ethics and politics within the broader context of society and the need to rethink some fundamental, socio-political ideas. I focus on the concept of agency—the ability to act in the world—and the resulting ethical challenges and political considerations. It is an unusual book, at least for me, since all the chapters are explanations of the 100 points listed at the end (Chapter 28: Hundred Political Theses for a Mature Information Society).

How does it fit in with your larger research project?

The book is the most recent development of a much larger project concerning the foundation for a philosophical understanding of the transformations brought about by the digital revolution. I hope philosophers will spend more time addressing the pressing, conceptual issues of the digital age. In my case, I have completed the first three volumes and half of the fourth: The Philosophy of Information (OUP, 2011); The Ethics of Information (OUP, 2013); The Logic of Information (OUP, 2019); The Ethics of Artificial Intelligence – Principles, Challenges, and Opportunities (OUP, 2023). The Green and the Blue is a more accessible version of the book on The Politics of Information, on which I’m currently working.

How do you relate your work to other well-known philosophers?

Not very much. I prefer to work on philosophical problems rather than philosophers’ problems. The Green and the Blue, in particular, has very few references. It is an attempt to deal directly with some pressing conceptual issues, rather than addressing the philosophical debate about them.

What directions would you like to take your work in the future?

I would like to add a fifth volume, The Hermeneutics of Information, to the whole project. Especially because there is much material that could not go into The Green and the Blue. It is more “cultural” and less related to socio-political issues. People sometimes ask how I became interested in the digital revolution and the concepts of information and computation in the first place, and they are surprised to hear that it all started from an interest in the philosophy of religion and the concept of “revelation.” I started working on it in terms of Shannon’s information theory as an undergraduate. Admittedly, that led me very far from the original goal. Still, I intend to go back, full circle, to deal with the dialectic between immanent and transcendent sources of meaning (spoiler: I am an agnostic). I hope to have enough time and mental lucidity, because it is still a long journey ahead. Ultimately, I believe all good philosophy is eschatological.

Who has influenced this work the most?

My teachers, and above all Susan Haack and Michael Dummett, especially for their methodologies and rigorous ways of thinking, and the generosity of their teaching and mentoring, for which I will never be grateful enough. If I can think philosophically at all, I owe it to them. In terms of classic philosophers from the past, I would say Plato, Descartes, Kant, and Wittgenstein.

Why did you feel the need to write this work?

The Green and the Blue started as a pamphlet in Italian to support Matteo Renzi, the former Italian Prime Minister. I knew Matteo and we discussed how I could help his political campaign with some new ideas. In the end, he used a few of the concepts to be found in the text (“online”, “infosphere”). I was and remain convinced that we need a more constructive philosophy of our time for our time. There is much analysis, deconstruction, critique, archaeology, unveiling, suspecting, and so forth, but not enough constructive thinking or conceptual design, which is how I define philosophy. We cannot just identify problems and raise questions. We must also provide solutions and answers. It is exciting to try to fill the gap when it comes to our time and seek to understand what the human project could and should be for in the digital age. The book is my contribution to what I hope may be a much wider movement. Recently, things have become even more urgent with the impact of AI on democracy. Something I discussed at the annual keynote lecture of the European University Institute.

Which of your insights or conclusions do you find most exciting?

None. I’m excited by discovering new problems and understanding the solutions that may be provided, but I find my insights or conclusions too poor. In his Don Juan, Byron refers to the famous story, according to which Newton felt he was “like a youth / Picking up shells by the great ocean—Truth.” If that was Newton, then I can only hope to collect, at most, some grains of sand. The truth is that the more one explores, the wider the horizon of one’s insipience becomes. As my squash coach used to say, “it’s good pain,” but pain it is. And it is not exciting at all.

What topics do you discuss in the work, and why do you discuss them?

Mostly, I discuss contemporary issues related to the digital revolution. Recently, I have turned to more political and normative aspects, from the impact of AI on democracy to the proper way of regulating digital technologies in public health. But at the new Digital Ethics Center (DEC) that I direct at Yale, we usually investigate problems that are slightly less obvious or already discussed, anticipating new questions that will become pressing. No sci-fi or hypothetical speculations about logically possible scenarios—these are the things that unfortunately give philosophy a bad reputation—or glorified journalism, but questions that we think will become pressing in the foreseeable future. It is a pioneering and risky approach because some of the issues may turn out to be less critical than we envisage. But it can be gratifying. On a more personal basis, I’m working on the role and value of semantic capital and its foundation in a wholly secular society. This is already present in The Green and the Blue, but it is the central topic of my new work.

How is your work relevant to the contemporary world?

My research team and I at the DEC specialize in GELSI: Governance, Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications of digital technologies. So, we are regularly involved in consultations with governments, institutions, and companies regarding digital policies and strategies, from regulating AI and the Metaverse to understanding data protection and content moderation, bias, fake news, digital sovereignty, brain implants, and so forth. Borrowing the terminology from medical research, I consider philosophy a translational enterprise: what is blue sky and foundational research today should contribute to our understanding and improvement of the world and a meaningful life tomorrow. However, the “applicable” part is only the tip of the iceberg and is impossible without the rest. The value of these consultations is that they keep our research in touch with real-world issues. In the case of The Green and the Blue, I hope it may help to overcome the current crisis of liberal democracies.

What advice do you have for others seeking to produce such a work?

Have the courage to study problems, not authors, and do not become a specialist of or on some philosophers; they themselves were not. Stay away from trendy debates, for they die as quickly as they are born. Try to discern and focus on the signals in the noise of cultural trends and intellectual fashions. Work with people from other disciplines, because philosophy is like salt, essential in the kitchen but lethal as a single diet. Be your unfriendliest critic and keep searching. Dare to go against the current without ever thinking that the problem is the current.

What writing tips do you have?

Write and revise in progressive refinements (in the computer sense of the expression), be painstakingly careful about every word, control your language, do not be controlled by it, and give yourself a deadline. The forever revisable page is as much a trap as the white page.

Did you encounter any problems getting yourself published and, if so, how did you overcome them?

Many, but I persisted and I’m truly grateful to Wiley for publishing The Green and the Blue, it is an unusual book. More generally, at the beginning of my career, I used the opposite strategy suggested by Matthew 10:16-18: I tried to hide as a wolf among wolves. Academia, and above all philosophy, are highly conservative. Actually, the less empirical and quantifiable the standards to judge intellectual innovations, the more difficult it is for less paradigmatic (in the Kuhnian sense) views to emerge. For example, a new idea in neuroscience may be challenging, but it can emerge because one can provide facts and proofs in its favor. In contrast, where the evaluative framework is softer, vaguer, and more open to flexible interpretation, where there are less-constraining facts and quantitative evidence, like in the humanities and philosophy, new ideas struggle to overcome the tradition more. The less rigid the evaluation framework is, the more conservative its application. It’s called tradition, canon, relevant literature, academic disciplines, top specialized journals, essential conferences and networking, and peers’ cooptation. Furthermore, academia preaches multidisciplinarity, but always privileges monodisciplinarity. So, one has to adapt to the rules of the game. Try to fit in. Being an analytic philosopher was enjoyable intellectually and very useful in learning much and improving my philosophical ideas and ways of thinking and writing. I am no longer an analytic philosopher, but I am one who was. And then, of course, there is the component of luck, which, in my case, came in the form of a Junior Research Fellowship (JRF) at Wolfson College, University of Oxford. A JRF is a sort of postdoctoral position with complete independence. For four years, the JRF enabled me to work on anything I wished, without any teaching, administrative commitments, or reports at the end of the academic year. That generous freedom enabled me to start working on what I called the philosophy of information as a new area of research.

What effect do you hope your work will have?

Give hope and contribute to getting philosophy out of its current scholasticism and making it relevant to understanding and improving the world and semanticising our existence.

What writing practices, methods, or routines do you use, and which have been the most helpful?

Be obsessed.

What’s next for you? 

The Politics of Information, and The Hermeneutics of Information, that is, volume 4.b and volume 5 of the Principia 😊. Then I can retire and finish a book on Mathematical Skepticism (I’m missing only 2 chapters!).

Maryellen Stohlman-Vanderveen headshot

Maryellen Stohlman-Vanderveen is the APA Blog’s Diversity and Inclusion Editor and Research Editor. She graduated from the London School of Economics with an MSc in Philosophy and Public Policy in 2023 and currently works in strategic communications. Her philosophical interests include conceptual engineering, normative ethics, philosophy of technology, and how to live a good life.