The Fourth Revolution is a book written by Italian philosopher Luciano Floridi, published in 2017. It is a reflection on how our society is being impacted by information and communication technologies. We have entered a new age, that Floridi defines as ‘Hyperhistory’, where human progress and welfare [have] begun to be not just related to, but mostly dependent on, the successful and efficient management of the life cycle of information. All the above is analyzed through eight chapters dealing with Identity, self-understanding, privacy, intelligence, agency, politics, environment and ethics.
Building on this basic idea, Floridi goes on to characterize any technology in terms of in-betweenness. A saw is a technology that sits in between me and the wood that I would like to cut. This is an example of first-order technology. Second-order technologies are those that sit in between a human and another technology. If It’s the case of a screwdriver with its screw, or a hammer and a nail. In recent time third-order technologies are being developed more and more. Here the exchange is in between two technologies, and the core is an exchange of information. So I use this screen to view what I’m typing, but behind this there’s a lot more in terms of the relationship between one technology and another, removing the Human from the loop. This is the crucial change affecting humanity, the impossibility to control (and sometimes understand) this chain on in-betweenness that characterizes information technologies.
the information society is better seen as a neo-manufacturing society in which raw materials and energy have been superseded by data and information, the new digital gold and the real source of added value.Luciano Floridi, The 4th Revolution, page 218
Infosphere and Humanity
In this context, as the boundaries between life online and offline break down, we become seamlessly connected to each other and surrounded by smart, responsive objects. We are all becoming integrated into what the author defines as an ‘infosphere’ where the centrality of the Human is, however, put into discussion.
We produce more and more data. The ‘Zettabytes‘ that Floridi talks about become however complicated to handle: there is an overabundance of data, but questions remain of the real meanings. We are flooded by bytes of data every day, and what today is being called ‘Big Data’ causes two sets of issues. A technological one, which is how to manage and process this huge quantity of data. And one of understanding what he defines as ‘small patterns’. This is a problem of brainpower rather than computational power.
Small patterns matter because, in hyperhistory, they represent the new frontier of innovation and competition, from science to business, from governance to social policies, from security to safety.Luciano Floridi, The 4th Revolution, page 16
A fight for Identity
Personas we adopt on social media, for example, feed into our real lives so that we begin to live in ‘onlife’. Following those led by Copernicus, Darwin and Freud, this metaphysical shift represents nothing less than a fourth revolution according to Floridi. One that has a profound effect on the meaning of being human. Especially considering the youngest: as the author suggests, generation Z was born onlife. One of the key characteristics in this domain is that we share and promote a culture of proxies.
In a proxy culture, we may easily be de-individualized and treated as a type (and) used to reidentify us as specific consumers fo customizing purposesLuciano Floridi, The 4th Revolution, page 58
In this new onlife society, people develop a ‘hyper-self-consciousness‘: never in the history of humanity have people monitored, recorded and reported so many details about themselves to such a broad audience. Through Social Media Internet has become an externalized stream of consciousness where nothing is too small, irrelevant, or indeed private to be left untold. This is where the identities we create begun to have new meanings.
Here below a great video of a Ted Talk of Luciano Floridi that in Rotterdam wents through the fundamental concepts of his book.
The one thing that I missed in this book is the effect of this new information technology on the Future of Work. There are some fascinating considerations on Artificial Intelligence (or rather, on the lack of intelligence of technology). A lot of it is reassuring seen from a work perspective, as the author does not see any time soon the formation of a true AI that can be characterized by real intelligence, putting itself completely against the view we have seen for example in The Singularity is Near.
In conclusion, this book is one that makes you think. Floridi brings in deep technological understanding and humanist vision, creating a book that is not too difficult to read, and gives you a new reflection insight at any page. As we sit deeply everyday in this new technology, we often don’t take the time to see through it and understand its meaning.
I think this book is particularly indicated for everybody that leads projects dealing with data related to people. The new perspective on Privacy and Ethics are for me crucial, especially if you associate this with the parallel reading of Snowden‘s latest book.