Alan Turing, Technology, and Floridi’s ‘Fourth Revolution’

> Alan Turing, Technology, and Floridi's 'Fourth Revolution'

Central to the argument presented by Luciano Floridi is the ability of technology to change the way we view ourselves, others and the world in which we live (Floridi, 2012). From Copernicus’ telescope to the onset of Web 4.0, we have been are being fundamentally changed. As more information becomes available to us through these developing technologies we move ever closer to total immersion in the “infosphere” – a world we would inhabit as “inforgs”. However, by Floridi’s own definition, there have been a number of technological ‘revolutions’ that have had similar effects on the way we view the world, our place in the world and beyond and in the development of knowledge networks, bringing into doubt the numbering of these revolutions to simply four. From our perception of ourselves as singular entities in the cosmos to the democratisation of information, the access to information and the consequences of such access have and will be  profound. In reaching this conclusion, Floridi argues that it is the contribution of the mathematician, Alan Turing, both in his work in developing the computer and the philosophical underpinnings of this work that made such a revolution possible.

Floridi’s use of the term “Fourth Revolution” is based on a view of history in which individuals and society constantly re-evaluate their place within the world and universe. Based on two distinct views of our place in the world – the “introverted”, how we view the world from our individual perspective, and the “extroverted”, considering our place within the broader context of society and the world as a whole (Floridi, 2012) – it is an informational version similar in its focus to the scientific model put forward by Kuhn, proposing a number of “paradigm shifts” throughout history (Kuhn, 1962).   Although not directly specified, the place of the individual before the first three revolutions was a limited one, placing them within an immediate context, i.e. their community, and the sources of information limited by the technology and social structures of the time. The information societies in which they dwelt were limited ones.


The insights provided by the first three revolutions identified by Floridi are profound in their implications for humanity. The Copernican revolution moved humanity from an immobility at the centre of the universe, the Darwinian revolution made us aware that we are part of the natural world and the Freudian revolution revealed that our views and observations of the world can be subjective (Floridi L. , 2008). While not all meeting the strict definitions of scientific or technological revolutions (Popper, 1963), it is their implications of a natural progression in human understanding that Floridi is emphasising. However, the difference in the Fourth Revolution is that it is not understanding that is central but the nature of the understanding. In short, Floridi argues that this information, as it is applied to his philosophy of information, is central in our considerations of the broader questions of existence (Allo, 2010).

Floridi moves from using information as a means of achieving this understanding to information as the understanding. His movement through the phases of human history in the development of an information society, moving from the development of a written language in Mesopotamia in 4 BC to the development of the printing press by Guttenberg has been identified as part of this slow evolution towards the infosphere (Floridi L. , The Information Society and Its Philosophy: Introduction to the Special Issue on “The Philosophy of Information, its Nature and Future Developments”, 2009). But it is with the contributions of Alan Turing that Floridi considers the Fourth Revolution to truly have begun (Floridi L. , Turing’s Three Philosophical Lessons and the Philosophy of Information, 2012).

It is through the work of Alan Turing that humanity began the transition from knowledge societies, in which vast amounts of information were stored and retrievable in such things as libraries and databases, to that of information societies, in which the information is an integral part of how we operate.  Turing is best known in modern times for his contribution  in breaking the Enigma code in World War II, but much of Floridi’s work focusses is on the philosophical implications of Turing’s ideas.


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Turing’s main arguments revolve around the concept of computational devices as more than glorified calculators to the broader question of “Can machines think?” and, even more importantly, what do we mean when we ask this question (Floridi L. , Turing’s Three Philosophical Lessons and the Philosophy of Information, 2012). Turing’s concept of the universal machine, while leading to the development of the modern computer, was based around the idea that machines, in blurring the lines between mathematics, biology and philosophy, could ultimately think in the same ways as humans (Hodges, 2012). In developing an ability to learn, in that these machines could make rules based on rules and were not simply data retrieval systems, Floridi argued that we already live in an infosphere at the centre of which lies a Turing machine (Floridi L. , Turing’s Three Philosophical Lessons and the Philosophy of Information, 2012) due to technology’s ability to integrate any number of informational systems into our very lives. There is still some debate regarding the distinction between the notion of knowledge, intelligence and information retrieval and whether the “Imitation Game” is anything more than a contest to determine the fastest processor in regard to searching the internet (Brignsjord, 2012). However, there can be little doubt that these distinctions will become less significant in time as the technology, our redefining of intelligence (French, 2012) and our integration with information continues.

We have a very clear idea of what it is to live in a biosphere as biological beings. We also have a notion of what it might be to live in an infosphere as a biological being. In fact, we are consistently interacting with technology in ways which were considered unimaginable and are beginning to take for granted. Floridi’s Fourth Revolution outlines a very clear perspective on our lives as “infoborgs”, creatures that integrate information into our very being, living within this “infosphere”. Floridi argues that those who will lead the Fourth Revolution already exist as “digital citizens” who will take such a life for granted (Floridi L. , Artificial Intelligence’s New Frontier: Artificial Companions and the Fourth Revolution, 2008). Tim Berners-Lee’s concept of the internet being a means through which all interrelated data is accumulated (Berners-Lee, 2009) to the development of technology which will be more intuitive to human needs in retrieving data. In fact, as demonstrated by the Watson system developed by IBM, computers will act more like a human brain in a process described as “cognitive computing” (IBM Watson: How it Works, 2014). This will require our education system to adapt and teach not content, but to explicitly instruct learners in the tools and means by which these citizens of the infosphere can access and incorporate this vast array of information at their disposal (Mihailidis, 2013 ). Learners will not be restricted to the physical, but be creatures of information who will be “like fish out of water” (Floridi L. , A Look into the Future Impact of ICT on our Lives, 2006), were they to be removed from the infosphere.


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This statement is almost literal. There was, according to a study in 2002 (!) over 800 MB of new information being produced for every person in the world every year (Lyman, 2003). This would have increased dramatically in the intervening years with the growth of social networking, peer-to-peer sharing and multimedia sharing sites such as Instagram which were all in their infancy or non-existent. In 2007, the terms “Internet of Things” and “the ubiquitous network society” (Internet of Things, 2006) were coined to describe the growing integration of technology and information into our lives. This was before the advent of genuine smartphones, Skype and Facebook. The development of integrated mobile devices, represented so succinctly by the development of fitness devices which communicate with GPS satellites and heart-rate monitors to provide information on location, calories lost, distance run, etc., effectively make the user of the equipment another source of data to access and be accessed.

Floridi promotes an inevitability in humanity’s integration into the infosphere and suggests that the evolution of the infosphere will occur in a series of stages that will result in our full immersion. The first is what he describes as the “re-ontologizing” of existing technologies to incorporate the new informational streams, the second is the ongoing reduction of “ontological friction” in existence within existing technologies in that they are more conducive to the information and the final one will involve the reconceptualization of technology built specifically to enhance the information  (Floridi L. , A Look into the Future Impact of ICT on our Lives, 2006). But it is here that the previous three revolutions, which so defined our introverted and extroverted views of the world from the individual and societal perspective, differ from that proposed by Floridi. He presents his Fourth Revolution in almost evolutionary terms and, while he is strong in providing a myriad of examples to prove the oncoming revolution, he is less convincing in detailing how these will change our views of the world, excepting that it will profoundly.

Information is undoubtedly much more readily available than it once was, as is our use of and interaction with it. It is an expectation of both educators, learners and fellow infoborgs that this information will be accessible and in a number of forms in which it can be used for a variety of purposes. But Floridi’s Fourth Revolution goes beyond that. It is information itself and not the purposes we use it for that is significant. It lies in the presumption that there is no other way to be and that the infosphere is the only place we can inhabit. Floridi makes it clear that any physical changes to humanity into cyborgs will only be to reduce the ontological friction, to make access to the information more readily accessible (Floridi L. , A Look into the Future Impact of ICT on our Lives, 2006), but like Star Trek’s fictional Borg, Floridi makes it clear that “Resistance is Futile” (Borg (Star Trek), n.d.)

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