We sail on a sea of data—a sea that has always supported us, for without data, creation is impossible in principle. If in this day we wish to design a new European project, we must base this project on a philosophy that understands and values the importance of data.
The foundations of geometry studied in primary school and used in everyday life were first articulated for us by Plato’s youngest disciple, Euclid. In his work the Elements, Euclid organically derived the rules that have governed triangles, circles, straight lines, cylinders and numbers (even irrational ones) for centuries. However, Euclid sensed that geometric elements in themselves were not enough: to actually construct a triangle, to explain how the mechanisms of the geometry work, Euclid understood that we need data. That is why he wrote a book dedicated to the subject, the Dedomena, later translated by Roman scribes into the Data. For Euclid, data were fundamental, but in reality this truth had long been apparent. The value of data is such that, for the purpose of preservation and transmission, humans had already transformed data into written signs several millennia before, thus moving the human race from prehistory into history. But even before there were written systems, data had been present, as when, for example, a prehistoric artist gave data painted form on the walls of the caves in the Dordogne’s Vézère valley to portray the activities of his tribe. Even more remotely, at the divine genesis of everything, before the Word (Logos in Greek) was created, the datum was present (in its diaphorical interpretation, as being distinct from another): the absence of the Word, before its creation, was itself a datum.
Data are, therefore, constitutive of our existence. However, not until the modern era have we fully realized their importance, because data had been maintained on a support that incorporated both their structure (syntax) and their meaning (semantics). It was only with the birth of computer science, traced conceptually back to Alan Turing, that we began to rend data from this support and reorganise them logically, thus separating structure from meaning, syntax from semantics. Information and communication technologies (ICTs) required additional time to develop and spread, having been established on a global scale only in recent decades. We have progressed from a geometric function of development to a hyper-exponential one. If in the first instance it was us (in the broad sense of the natural world) who created data, then more recently it has been digital machines that have created data about us. And when these machines began to communicate with each other, with tools that were permanently connected (which we call the “Internet of Things”), the amount of data literally exploded. Indeed, if all the data created prior to 2005 were visualised as being the size of the Moon, the data created in the last fifteen years would be equivalent to the Sun. Moreover, it is predicted that in the next five years the amount of data in this analogy will grow to triple the size of the Sun.
So, data have been separated from their meaning, and the amount of data is growing exponentially. We have been accustomed to thinking about data as support for our activities; instead, today data are the essence of our system.
Yet data are dull and of little use when not transformed into information. Information may be conceptualised as being the result of cross-analysing elementary, clean, well-organised data. If I were to write “Luke” and “42” on a blackboard, most people would naturally attempt to make sense of these two values. It is as if humans are driven by a lust for semantization. Some may suggest that “Luke” is the given name of a guy who is “42” years old. They might be surprised if were to say instead that Luke wears a size 42 (in UK 8 and US 9.5) or if I were to insist that I am quoting a gospel. Here we have three (of many more) possible meanings arising from just two values. We must conclude, then, that with so much data in the world there must be an unfathomable number of possible meaning combinations. And the amount of data is only growing.
What must we do to make sense of all these data, to “semanticize” them and transform them into real information? The volume of data exceeds our cognitive capacities. The human mind cannot understand or interpret such quantities. There is simply too much data. Consequently, we analyse the data or, better yet, we task certain statistical tools such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), complex but not beyond our comprehension, to analyse the data for us. AI finds combinations of meaning that we would not have considered, some of which are nonsense to us. Back to the previous example, AI might interpret the values as meaning that in the Maltese town of Luca (Ħal Luqa in Maltese, spelled like “Luke” in Italian) it is 42 degrees centigrade today or, alternatively, that 42 is the sum of the letters of all the LP titles of a Japanese rock band called Luca (ルカ). In short, cross-analysing the data provides both semantic information, which makes sense, and pseudo-information, which—although syntactically correct—does not qualify as information. The situation is like cooking: technically we can cross-reference all the ingredients, but the result must pass the taste test; otherwise, cooking or eating would no longer make sense.
Thus, we return to sense and to the constant desire for semantization, the most relevant characteristic of humans as information agents.
Therefore, to live in a European project of the future we must reconceptualise the meaning of the Union; otherwise, there is the risk that an avalanche of pseudo-information will pollute the very idea of Europe (a development which, in fact, has been occurring for some time). In order to pursue this reconceptualisation, we need the appropriate tools of thought at hand.
In our era, which theoretically began in the 1950s but practically just the other day, we must learn to make sense of data and the ways in which they intersect. It is no longer the era of great inventions or great discoveries. Today is the era of the perspicuous cross-analysis of data, or of a conceptual design that allows us to restructure our universe.
The main tool of conceptual design is philosophy; the right philosophy for our age should ask only those questions that are capable of being answered. Currently the most promising philosophical framework is Luciano Floridi’s philosophy of information, which in his work Principia Philosophie Informationis supports a logic, an ethics and a politics based on information. It is absolutely essential to have a conceptual framework in which problems may be read at the right level of abstraction so as not to be suffocated by the avalanche of pseudo-information or shrouded by the fog of outdated paradigms. We must use the knife of semantics to create and design a world of Quality, in both the term’s classical sense (where “Quality is not a thing. It is an event”) and in its informational sense (where “Quality is not an ontology. It is a relationship”).
The notion might seem quaintly abstract, but today more than ever philosophy is important because it provides us tools with which to understand what is happening around us. In past history, when information was still a blob of data and sense amalgamated on the same physical support, our way of thinking respected physical rules. In today’s world (which we will call hyperhistory), however, where streams of data travel autonomously and construct new senses (or pseudo-senses), our cognitive abilities are no longer able to grasp reality. This need not be viewed as a problem if—instead of seeking an explanation—we move on to realisation, and if from daily action (praxis) we proceed to construction (poiesis).
In order to begin building the future of Europe together, we must ask the right questions, questions for which an answer can be given. Other questions risk serving merely as an amusement. Our questions must be of our time, questions which presuppose that science cannot be contradicted by opinions, that a datum can be interpreted correctly only when the logic of information is strictly respected, and that a person, as a semantic agent, has a higher value than a datum. We must consider the epistemological approach to be the abecedary of any discourse and humanity to be the ultimate goal of any choice.
All of us must work together to formulate the right questions. In the meantime, here are a selection that I have been asking myself as an aspiring philosopher of information. These simple questions have instigated my search for the semantic capital of the Europe of tomorrow.
- Can we work less but better? (If in the past industrial and historical world we worked eight hours a day, why should the amount of work still be the same today? There no longer remains any fixed proportion between the possibilities available and the private time allowed by an industrial organization.)
- Is it possible to adapt human dignity to technological progress? (If technology exists allowing us to avoid a repetitive task but we do not arrange for the use of this technology, are we undermining the dignity of the person carrying out that task?)
- Is there a digital dignity of the person? (If we use a person’s private information to steer her or him towards a decision, are we not manipulating that person?)
- Is it possible to enhance the learning process instead of the learned data? (In this current revolution, the education system has been left behind because we have added informational tools but have not been willing to change the paradigm. From primary schools to research universities, value seems to be derived more from quantity than quality. In a world immersed in data, where everyone must educate themselves daily, perhaps the time has come to change our approach to education.)
- Can geographical borders remain so rigid if information is so permeable? (Living in the free world, might I not hope to move from one country to another by changing the language used but without losing the profound sense of my dignity?)
- Can we imagine a Europe comprised of relationships and not nations? (If Europe is based on data and information, is it possible to imagine a Union larger than its territories and more resilient to change?)
The last question is the most complicated, and I still do not know how to answer it fully. So, I leave it there, still open. Discussing philosophy makes me think of the young son of the philosopher who asks his father, “Dad, if you are a doctor of philosophy, then is philosophy a disease?” Perhaps yes, it is, but as a mild illness philosophy can be advantageous; as a prolonged sickness it can become disabling. Floridi compares it to salt: “A little at the right time is enough, but you cannot just eat salt!” With this in mind, as an aspiring philosopher I say that philosophy must be used by those who know how to transform thought into action. Some philosophers seem only to know how to think without acting; others seem only to act without thinking. The solution is always in medio.
What remains essential is ethics: the Big Dipper by which we navigate action. An appropriate ethics is present before action commences and is not simply a stamp to be added later, after the damage has been done.
In my multiple lives (because in our era we each have more than one life) I have been a consultant, a computer scientist, a trainer, a researcher and an entrepreneur. Despite the apparent differences among these activities, my every choice has been inspired by philosophy. Still, even when a condition is chosen or an interface intentionally designed, it is possible to focus either (as a little Eichmann) on the system itself or (in Kantian fashion) on the humanity at stake. If one’s end remains humanity, then even the choice of the color of a button becomes clearer.
I hope to help build a Europe propelled towards the future yet still rooted in its past, a Europe that focuses on processes, not wondering what can and cannot be done but what should be done and what should be avoided in order to guarantee its citizens the dignity they deserve.