Luciano Floridi is Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Information at the University of Oxford, where he is also the Director of the Digital Ethics Lab of the Oxford Internet Institute. In addition to that, he is a Distinguished Research Fellow of the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics of the Faculty of Philosophy, and Research Associate and Fellow in Information Policy of the Department of Computer Science. Furthermore, Luciano is a Faculty Fellow at the very prestigious Alan Turing Institute. His research focus includes Information and Computer Ethics, the Philosophy of Information, and the Philosophy of Technology. In this interview, we have touched on a wide range of topics from his time living in Itlay, to his favourite books, spoiler alert – one of them is The Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant. It has been an absolute joy to interview Luciano and we hope you enjoy reading about his life.
Q: What is your dinner party monologue for when someone says “and what do you do?”
A: I tell them I am a philosopher and enjoy their reaction. After a few seconds, I tell them again, and they start believing it. Most people have strange ideas about what philosophy is. For some, it is a bit of religion and spirituality, or perhaps the history of ideas. For others, it is a lot of nonsense. For others, it is something immensely complicated and abstract. I try to explain that philosophy is conceptual design. Like playing with Lego. The only difference is that the little bricks are ideas and that you have your own 3D printer. And I tell them that philosophy addresses open problems. So any joke about progress is a bit silly. There is no progress in philosophy, unlike in science, but there is plenty of development. Think of designing and refining new furniture or new cooking recipes. This goes well with the dinner. I end up saying that I try to “play gently with ideas”. A citation from Oscar Wilde. This goes well with Oxford, often a fascinating subject for many and with the Lego analogy.
Q: Could you tell us about where you grew up; were you a rural or city dweller?
A: I grew up in Prima Porta, in the periphery of Rome, next to a railway station. It was a semi-rural place, which just got worse. We had plenty of freedom, cycling, playing in the field behind the local church, messing around. It was a genuine environment if a bit rough. The local cinema, before closing, had either porn or western movies. We were very interested in both. The only source of culture was a newspaper kiosk. No bank, no public library, no disco. Any street-wisdom I have, I acquired it then. I got lucky with the public schooling, with excellent teachers whom I now realize must have been on a mission to make us a bit more civilized. One of my schoolmates sometimes had to skip school. We could see him from the window taking care of his family’s flock. And I was lucky with my parents. I could not have hoped for better ones. Understanding, always open to dialogue, fair, open –minded, intelligent, patient, and seriously interested in listening to my brother and myself. They are still sources of great insight and conversations these days. I also spent an endless amount of time in a very small village south of Rome, Guarcino. A beautiful, countryside house, with plenty of freedom to get bored during the long, very long, summers. We migrated there any weekend and for months during school vacations. I read, and read, and read even more. Anything the old house contained, accumulated by generations of bourgeoisie must-haves on the shelves. And the whole village was our playground. Not exactly Rousseau, but close.
Q: What subject(s) did you excel at in school, and which did you find most challenging?
A: Maths, History, Literature of any kind, and Philosophy. Physics was ok. But I never got interested in biology or chemistry.
Q: Can you recall any reoccurring comments from your school reports?
Q: Did you ever have a eureka moment where you thought, “this is the subject I want to study”?
A: Yes. I was recovering from some sickness, in bed. I must have been twelve or thirteen (just before going to high school basically). And as usual, I was reading a children’s encyclopedia, called “Conoscere” (later translated into English as “Knowledge”). We still have it in the house in the countryside. It is one of those encyclopedias that have one or two pages on a subject, then the next two pages are about something completely different, utterly unrelated, and so on. Never understood the logic of it at the time. The lack of systematicity really annoyed me. I realised only writing for this interview that it was meant to be a “[…] new colour magazine which grows into an encyclopædia”. Now I get it. But at the time I thought it was patronising (a word I learnt much later to express my impression): meant to stimulate kids curiosity or something like that. Anyway, my father, a family GP, had spoken to me very highly of something called “philosophy”. So I was checking what it was. And the entry was so disappointing. It looked like a joke. It was a little story about some silly ideas the ancient had about the origins of the universe. But my father, whom I have always respected deeply, had been so enthusiastic about the topic. Something was not right. That’s when I decided to study philosophy. The next thing I remember is asking my father what I could read that was more serious. He gave me his 3 pocket volumes of History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell, which was translated into Italian by Longanesi, warning me that it might be a bit difficult.
Regarding your undergraduate studies:
Q: Which University did you study at, and was it your first choice?
A: I went to Rome La Sapienza as an undergraduate. Not much choice there, in Italy most students go to the local university. It was a very solid education. I did not learn how to do philosophy. But I learnt what philosophy was. We basically read all the classics. It was a scholarship of the highest quality.
Q: What undergraduate degree did you study for at University, and in hindsight would you select the same subject again?
A: Philosophy, and yes, at that time, in Rome, I would.
Q: Can you remember a University lecturer who really inspired you?
A: Susan Haack my supervisor. She taught me how to think. But more on her below.
Regarding your postgraduate studies:
Q: What motivated you to further pursue academia?
A: I always wanted to be a philosopher, academia was the only path.
Q: What institution(s) did you study at in your pursuit of postgraduate education?
A: I went to Warwick because I wanted to study with Susan Haack, a philosophical logician whose book Philosophy of Logics had been translated into Italian, in 1983. I adored that book. I was at Warwick for my MPhil and PhD. I had won two scholarships but even combined they were less than generous. The Foundation said it was a fixed amount, no matter how much time I was going to take to graduate. So I asked whether I could graduate in two rather than three years and receive the same scholarship. They agreed. And so I worked hard. And it paid back. I was awarded a MPhil (a 2-year degree) instead of an MA (1-year degree) at the end of my first year. And I was allowed to submit the PhD thesis the year later. Basically, in two years I researched and wrote two different theses and completed the equivalent of two degrees that would have normally required five years. Necessity is sometimes a good motivation. After that, I completed my education with a postdoc (Junior Research Fellowship) at Oxford. I had just submitted my PhD thesis and I applied both to Cambridge and to Oxford. I got an offer from both. But Cambridge wrote a letter, whereas Oxford gave me a telephone call. By the time I got the letter, it was too late. I had already accepted the offer from Oxford. And so I went on to collaborate with Michael Dummett. I got lucky once again. Because Oxford turned out to be a wonderful environment to develop my ideas. But above all, because I met there the love of my life, Kia.
Q: What was the title of your PhD thesis, and how would you explain your findings to a novice?
A: The title was too long and detailed: “The search for knowledge: from desire to defence – Hypothesis for the introduction of a Peirceisch interpretation of the genetic principle of the process of knowing as a fundamental orientation for a future gnoseology”. It was an attempt to reconsider the foundations of epistemology from a more pragmatist approach.
Q: If you had your time as a student again, what would you do, if anything, differently?
A: I received an offer from Oxford for the (DPhil) and then from Yale for Fulbright Scholarship for a Masters degree. In both cases, I ended up declining the offer because I wanted to complete my studies as quickly as possible. With hindsight, I am not so sure it was worth burning those years’ candle at both ends. I literally did nothing else but think, read, write, eat, sleep. Not a very philosophical life. Certainly unhealthy.
Q: Tell us about your current research focus?
A: The human project for the information society. By this I mean: what kind of society do we want to design today, in a world so dominated by digital technologies?
Q: What do you believe is your single most important piece of research?
A: I know the one best known: The Fourth Revolution – How the Infosphere is Reshaping Human Reality. I hope the most important is still in the making. It is one of the reasons I decided to be a philosopher and not a mathematician.
Q: Within your area of study, what breakthroughs are on the horizon?
A: We have turned a new page in human history, the passage from a fully analogue to an increasingly digital world. Any foreseeable novelty will be part of such a transformation. I think the most important changes will come from how we manage it, socially, culturally, ethically, legally, politically. In short, I think the most important, but also less visible and quieter breakthrough will be intellectual and affect how we will understand ourselves, each other, the world, and our interactions among ourselves and with the world.
Q: Let your imagination take over for a minute and tell us what you hope your successors will be researching in 2116?
A: If I could even remotely guess I would be researching it now, sorry, no idea whatsoever. Imagine the question asked in 1916. They would have never dreamed of this digital world.
Q: What do you feel your professional legacy will be?
A: I fear none. I hope the establishment of a new area of research, namely the philosophy and ethics of information. Because we will need a lot of it to understand and design our foreseeable future.
Q: Are you working on any extra-curricular projects at the moment, such as: books, podcasts, websites, or speaking?
A: All of the above, plus I’m now working on a new book called “The Human Project”.
Advice and Tips
Q: If you could give your 18-year-old self one piece of advice, what would it be?
A: Do not marry your schoolmate (it was a big mistake, we got divorced pretty soon ).
Q: What advice would you give someone looking to start, or progress his or her career in your field?
A: Go to Oxford and read Computer Science and Philosophy.
Q: Which book would you say has had the biggest impact on your life?
A: Philosophy of Logics by Susan Haack, as I mentioned above, its translation brought me to Warwick.
Q: If you could recommend one book to a novice in your field, what would it be?
A: The Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant. But if that is too difficult, then Problems of Philosophy by Bertrand Russell.
It is the best way of having a chance to be fully human.
Q: Why do you think being a freethinker is important?
A: It is the best way of having a chance to be fully human.
Q: And finally, we are back at the dinner party. Someone offers you a drink, what do you ask for?
A: A prosecco at the beginning, or a Nebbiolo during the dinner, or a single malt Scotch whisky at the end.
If you’d like to find out more about Professor Luciano Floridi you can check out his Twitter page, Wikipedia page and academic profile.
Feature photo by Ian Scott (2016).
Books Recommended by Professor Luciano Floridi