Luciano Floridi calls it the infosphere, the combination of the internet and computer technology that is revolutionizing our lives and work. Floridi carries the intriguing title of Professor of the Philosophy and Ethics of information at the University of Oxford;
intriguing because it suggests that the revolution is as much about issues of morality, identity and meaning as it is about technology and what the new infosphere can do, both for us and to us.
The infosphere is an exciting prospect, one that offers a myriad of new prospects for wealth and work creation, most of them as yet undiscovered. The alluring idea of better lives for all is not inconceivable. But there are few unmixed blessings in this world and we need to have a care lest we lose some of the best of ourselves in this new era. Shakespeare had it right when he had Hamlet extoll our humanity; “what a piece of work is man”.
The new technologies would like to reclassify that piece of work as a bundle of data, be they words, numbers or images. That way he or she can be more easily managed by the systems of the infosphere. The computer on the help line may call me by my first name but that is just one more piece of data, not me as I know myself with all my likes, prejudices, fears and hopes. The algorithmic society, with its programmes and routines, will take the stress out of life but also much of its meaning, if we let it.
Consciousness has not been coded, cannot be made into data. Nor can beauty, truth and goodness; the traditional virtues. Try to turn them into data and you destroy them. You know them when you see them but cannot measure them nor define them. Love and trust, loyalty and judgement, the essentials of all relationships in private life and in organizations are also immune to sensible quantification. What cannot be measured will then not count, indeed may in time be thought not to exist. We will be no more than that bundle of data, trundling through life, pushed and pulled this way and that. Could the algorithmic society reduce us to that? Yes, if we let it, seduced by its ease.
We are already immersed in many of the programmes of the algorithmic society. Much of it we never see because it is embedded in the things around us, easing but also controlling our lives. There lies the rub, or one rub. ‘We are being sedated by software’ said the President of Britain’s Cartographic Society, worried that the young would no longer be able to read a map, relying instead on the GPS and their satnav. Soon we won’t need to know how to read, cook, drive a car or remember anything – as long as we know our ID and password and even these will be called up by putting your eyeball to a monitor.
Unfortunately not all the data is what it seems to be; facts safely lodged somewhere. Much of it is evanescent, rainbow like, there for a while then fading away. When a website is updated what was there before is gone, forever. Google recommends that we print out any special photographs lest they disappear or we are unable to retrieve them a few years later. Any secrets on those floppy discs will remain secrets forever once we have lost the means to access them. We may need our memories after all, and printed documents and real books.
The algorithmic organization, too, is already here, in parts. In theory, the more work that can be routinized and programmed in advance, the more efficient the organization will be. But efficiency is not the same as effectiveness. Doing things well is not the same as doing the right things, as Peter Drucker used to emphasise. The latter requires judgement, vision and often courage, things that cannot be programmed. Even the best software cannot deal with the unexpected or the unusual. We all have experienced the frustration of the computerized help line that has not anticipated our particular problem and sends us round in endless circles searching for an answer. Efficiency gets rid of choice wherever it can. Organizations tend to like that. So, it seems, do we.
Already Amazon and its ilk tell us what we would like to read, wear, eat and watch. It is all too easy to go along with their suggestions. There was one store that was able to identify from a woman’s shopping basket when she was pregnant and would helpfully send her suggestions for some suitable maternity wear. That was fine until they sent the suggestions to a teenage girl whose mother was unaware of her pregnancy and not amused. A world awash with data allows little chance of privacy. Your mobile phone, even when turned off, can tell others where you are and whom you have been calling or texting. New television sets can record your conversation and send it away. Fibre optic cables underground can detect any movements without our knowledge. When all our private habits can be observed, analysed and dissected we will have no secrets, even from ourselves. Who are we when others know us better than we do? The ever-present danger is the power that this gives to organizations, including the ones for whom we work. Is our world going to be out of our control, and who will control the controllers? That is the challenge faced by those who foresee a so-called singularity when computers start to think for themselves.
So where does this leave us? Rejoicing in the wonders of the infosphere and exploring its potential, I hope, using it but not enslaved by it, remembering our humanness, our specialness, all that cannot be reduced to data. We must remain the masters of our creations, not their slaves.
About the author:
Charles Handy is a social philosopher and writer. He’s been an oil executive, an economist, and professor at London Business School in his long and distinguished career. His new book is The Second Curve: Thoughts on Reinventing Society