The Fourth Revolution: How the infosphere is reshaping human reality, by Luciano Floridi

Oxford University Press, 2014, 0 19 960672 6, hbk, xvi + 248 pp, £16.99

We cannot help being aware that information and communication technology (ICT) is changing the ways in which we process information and communicate with each other: but is it justifiable to call what is changing a ‘revolution’? Luciano Floridi’s title does not contain a question mark, and his book argues persuasively that the ‘infosphere’ in which we are now living really is changing everything.

The first chapter studies changes in ICT through time. Moore’s Law, which suggests that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit board doubles every two years, describes a reality that is taking us rapidly into ‘hyperhistory’: a world in which everything depends on ICT, and is not simply served by it. Communication is now more between electronic devices than between human beings; and it is increasingly transitory. The average life of a document on the internet is 45 days. Chapters 2 and 3 study changing spatial and identity realities. We are now rarely if ever offline. A driver might not be using their mobile phone, but their satnav might be constantly updating. In terms of population, online communities can be huge – World of Warcraft’s population is larger than the populations of most countries – and they can define who we are. To other people and to ourselves we are the people that Facebook and LinkedIn say we are.

In chapter 4, Floridi briefly describes the Copernican, Darwinian and Freudian revolutions, each of which removed a misconception about our uniqueness; and he credits Alan Turing with being the ‘father of the fourth revolution’, in which we understand ourselves as information processors, living in an ‘infosphere’ that we share with a lot of nonhuman information processors. Chapter 5 is a thorough discussion of ‘privacy’, and of the often contradictory ways in which we relate to it; chapters 6 and 7 suggest that rather than computers becoming more intelligent, we are adapting the world to ICTs as they are – and that we have a certain amount of choice as to how we do that.

Particularly important is chapter 8 on ‘politics’. Both as defender of life and property, and as welfare provider, the state has monopolised information collection, production, and control: but increasingly ICT has enabled other actors to determine policy and events. It has made possible both global corporations and the ability of individuals and small groups of people to challenge state power – hence national governments’ attempts to retain control of social media and of information more generally. Politics is now ‘multi agency’, a nation’s ‘infrastructure’ is the cabling required by fast broadband rather than its roads and railways, and warfare is increasingly cyberwarfare that must now be regulated in the same way as nuclear and chemical weapons have been regulated.

Chapter 9 shows how ICT both directly and indirectly damages our planet and its climate, and that it also has the potential to create a less carbon intensive economy. The so-far-unanswered question is which tendency will predominate: and it is therefore appropriate that Floridi’s final chapter seeks an ethics for the infosphere as a whole.

One of the questions left both unasked and unanswered in chapter 8 is this: If the nation state’s ability to collect, produce and control information is leaking into a wide variety of global and local agencies, then new contexts and methods will need to be found for the provision of welfare. In particular, it is no longer obvious that the nation state will be the right or only context for the management of the financial and other resources that individual and social flourishing will require. As well as propelling us into this new situation, ICT developments will make possible the management of such multi-agency and multi-level welfare provision – but only if welfare provision can be managed by the ICT available. Radically simple tax and benefits systems will clearly be the most appropriate.

The publisher is to be congratulated on such a reasonably priced hardback.