Life in the Infosphere

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What is our place in the universe? That simple question has motivated much of the history of philosophy and preoccupies a great deal of complex thinking. Information philosopher Luciano Floridi suggests that we’ve entered into a new phase of thinking that requires us to acknowledge our place in an infosphere, if we are to answer the question honestly. Living in an infosphere means that we exist in “a global environment ultimately made up of information,” Floridi writes, suggesting we understand our existence as enmeshed in a complex network of informational processes, services, and entities. Those entities are both engineered artifacts, like computers, and biological agents, like humans. The implication of this seemingly ordinary insight is that we humans do not exist as individual entities that stand alone in the world, looking out onto the universe trying to determine the limits of our conscious existence. Rather, Floridi argues, we are inforgs: interconnected information organisms that interface with—and come to depend on—one another.

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An art project from a few years ago can help illustrate the idea. In 2010 Dave Kemp asked a hundred people to share anything in their wallets that connected to a database. He photographed the results and shared the images as an exhibit titled Data Collection. He described the project as “functioning as a simple, and very reductive, portrait of these individuals,” while explaining that “the project draws attention to the power and risks associated with these cards.” That we can create a self-portrait from a pocket full of identification cards draws out the point that we live enmeshed in a network of information processes. That those processes transmit sensitive information—potentially putting us at risk—illustrates how we come to depend on information entities beyond our own person. Imagine the predicament you’d find yourself in if your WSU ID vanished. Or if your bankcard was compromised. Some of Kemp’s subjects obviously had such concerns, indicated by the “Withheld” placeholders. If we take a wider view than our wallets, how else might we imagine our existence as a series of information transactions? What other aspects of our digital lives come into view? Of, on the other hand, if we zoom in to consider the cellular level, how can we understand our biological makeup as informational processes?

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Floridi makes the crucial point that understanding our universe as an infosphere does not mean existing in some fake virtual world overlaying the real world, as in The Matrix. Rather we begin to see the actual world, more and more, as constituted by information, much like our own DNA. It is in that sense that we are inforgs always interfaced with other inforgs and information technologies.

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