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Philosophy, ethics and technology: taking care of the ‘infosphere’ and building a synthesis between humanism and science from school on

Pensare l’infosfera (‘Thinking about the infosphere’) is the title of the latest book by Luciano Floridi, philosopher and professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Information at Oxford University, where he is also director of the Digital Ethics Lab. Published by Raffaello Cortina, this work has been under discussion in recent days at three events held at the Teatro Parenti in Milan. Floridi maintains that we are experiencing a ‘fourth revolution’ – after those begun by Copernicus, Darwin and Freud – linked to the spread of the ‘digital’, and the colossus represented by Big Data and artificial intelligence, which are profoundly expanding the dimensions of information and communication technology as experienced until now, and as applied to economic and social processes. Accordingly, Floridi explains that ‘the infosphere represents a new way of living alongside one another, in all areas of life – from education to business, from politics to culture, and from trade to health and entertainment – and poses a series of challenges that are as yet unknown, rendering the 20th century an obsolete world.’ The infosphere is presented as a ‘new space’, about which ‘we should be asking ourselves: “How are we building it?” and “Are we building it right?”‘

Digital thinking and technology. A reflection on the meaning and value of things, actions, choices. The development of new ideas that reflect the changing times. Floridi is very clear: ‘The digital revolution has various effects on our personal autonomy; our freedom and our ability to make choices is increasingly dependent on data. And our exceptional nature is also beginning to be called into question. As human beings, we have long set ourselves apart from other species through our self-determination and intelligence, but both of these elements are now under attack. Netflix’s algorithm tells us: “Watch this film, you’ll love it.” And we don’t play chess against computers any more, because we know they’ll win. Philosophy can help us in rethinking our uniqueness‘ (La Repubblica, 6 February: ‘We need a Socrates of the digital age’).

In a controversial time of great change, in order to find our feet in the face of the questions and choices that rapid technological evolution presents us with, the need for a new humanistic awareness is clearly evident. And philosophers are back in the spotlight, as are the relationships between politics and business, cultures and challenges linked to security and to life sciences in the global world, where the need for original geographers to redraw the maps that can guide us on our journey into the future is greater than ever. Philosophers and geographers for the new world. Poets and men of letters, because nothing can tell of the splendour and darkness of the hearts of men like literature (Shakespeare was the master of this art). Not forgetting historians, of course, to hone and refine the tools we need to clarify the relationship between past and future; here, the words of the great contemporary artist Jannis Kounellis, among others, spring to mind: ‘The problem is not that of antiquity, but that of modernity. And modernity does not exist without antiquity. We find it in everything.’

If these are reflections that intersect the worlds of culture, education and of economics and science, we cannot help but view with some concern the choices made by students and their families with regard to secondary education enrolment: the licei [Italian high schools] remain in the lead, with 59% (for the academic year 2020–2021), which is decent progress from the 53.5% of the previous year, but with a marked preference for the so-called ‘light’ scientific licei, in which Latin is not taught. The data refer to the Italian region of Lombardy (La Repubblica, 10 February), and specifically, these figures bear testament to the increasing percentage of young people who are opting to study more hours of science, computer science, sports-related or economic and legal subjects instead of Latin and philosophy.

Why? This reflects a more contemporary approach to schooling, and one that is better suited to our technological times, as well as being more useful for finding a job, the study explains. This perception, shared by young people and their families, is also linked to a trend that is gaining weight in economic and business circles: people need to be trained and given the right tools to respond to the demands of the labour market. We need scientific and technological skills, young people with a training background that enables them to enter the digital world, and technicians prepared for ‘Industry 4.0’, the digital evolution of our sophisticated manufacturing system.

Here, we are faced with two different sources of tension, both of which are justified to a certain degree.

Italian companies have long complained – and not without good reason – of a widespread lack of technical and technological training. And the figure that appears again and again in every debate is that pertaining to the istituti tecnici superiori (higher technical institutes), which have just over 8,000 students in Italy, a very small number, particularly when compared to the equivalent figure for Germany, which is 800,000. Investing in technical and scientific training, as it is called in the business world, and prioritising traditional technical institutes, higher institutes (like the istituti tecnici superiori ) and science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) degree courses, which are relatively unpopular in Italy, is essential to increase these numbers.

On the other hand, many people insist on the importance of a revival of classical studies, in order to gain the tools that we need to understand a changing world, with a focus on building knowledge and not just skills. And, faced with the rapid rate at which technologies and professional content become obsolete, in light of the evolution of digital cultures, it is key to train young people to ‘learn to learn’, in the apt words of Francesco Profumo, former rector of Turin Polytechnic and president of Italy’s National Research Council (CNR) before he became Minister of Education.

Is it possible to find a synthesis between these elements? Perhaps it lies in the need for a ‘polytechnic culture’, where humanistic and scientific knowledge converge, and to invest in a long-term approach to education with solid classical roots, including for ITS programmes and those that are open to the evolution of technology and science, as well as classical (i.e. non-scientific) licei. In so doing, we can create engineer-philosophers (as we have often said in this blog) and technicians who are sensitive to questions regarding the meaning behind things and not simply their efficiency and productivity. This can be achieved by focusing on the training of people with an awareness of the ‘usefulness of the useless’, to echo the fitting title of an excellent book by Nuccio Ordine, a man of letters who is also attentive to the themes of philosophy and science.

This brings us back to Floridi’s lesson on ‘care for the ecosystem’, regarding the ethical principles that must underpin our relationship with technology. A new form of humanism, led by conscious, responsible scientists, trained with a healthy dose of critical thinking, instilled from school on.