Ahead of his appearance at this year’s Campus Book Festival, human information interaction specialist Enrico Panai explains the creation of information through different forms of media.
The information age generates a daily barrage of all kinds of information. Should we seek refuge from it?
When we talk about the information age, we have to distinguish the vision of the 1980s – information as news in which the sense was elaborated by journalists – from the philosophical meaning of information as the essence of reality that governs our life. The problem is we still have to agree about what information is exactly.
I believe the best contribution to this debate was made by Luciano Floridi, a philosopher from the University of Oxford. His work in the field of the philosophy of information provided a new theoretical framework to understand the world in which we live. According to his approach, we must not protect ourselves from information, but learn the language of information because language is information.
What does being a human information interaction specialist entail?
I studied philosophy in the 1990s, from the birth of the web to its boom. For me, in those years, web programming was the ideal tool to help build a better world. So ICT has become my profession, but the theoretical platform with which I made the choices – sometimes even of a single line of code – was philosophy. When writing an algorithm, it must be done in Kantian terms: treating humanity as an end and never as a means.
In this sense, understanding how people interact with information is fundamental, because today people do not depend on information, but they are informational organisms. To understand how information interacts with people, you need to use all tools available. From behavioural psychology to sociology; from neuropsychiatry to art; from math to etymology, everything is useful, because everything is information.
In your book Skip! The Art of Avoiding Projects you speak of “an ecological way of living in the information age”. Could you elaborate?
I’m currently on an Erasmus+ traineeship at the UoM Department of Philosophy finishing a research project on the identification of latent battlefields in cyberwars. I defend the thesis that personal data of travellers in a tourist destination may be a possible ground for future cyberwars. My first interest is related to the ‘sense’ of what we do. Since there is too much data and information, we can no longer afford to waste time on unnecessary projects. This is the ecological sense of my book.
In the last century we lived in a cosy house on a hill with a swimming pool. The water in it represented all the information of mankind from the first drawings in the Lascaux caves to the beginning of our millennium. In the past two decades, every information-related project has added extra water. In a short time, the swimming pool has become a sea, transforming the hill into an island. In order to survive, we have continued to make increasingly complex projects, but every action has generated new water. Today we make projects and even use artificial intelligence to avoid drowning. However, as in ecology, before producing new energy, we should economise what we squander, hence avoid useless projects.
Media theorist and cultural critic Neil Postman argues in his prophetic book Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), that TV had habituated us to visual entertainment “measured out in spoonfuls of time". Has information twisted itself to accommodate spectacle?
Twitter is the most visible example of how Postman's prophecy was correct. At the beginning, with only 140 characters in his Tweets it was not possible to develop a speech, but only to use irony. Unfortunately, not everyone knew how to use humour, so the other side of the coin was insult and hatred.
One could think of updating the title in Amusing (and offending) Ourselves to Death.
As consumers of information in the age of social media, are we expecting entertainment from weightier forms of discourse, such as politics, education, religion and philosophy?
Facebook is the leader, but if it wasn't there, there would be another information monopoly. The problem is not the tool, but to deeply understand our relationship with others in the infosphere. If we focus on tools, we will always be late, but if we put man at the centre we will always be in time. Even today we can reread Plato, Aristotle or Pico della Mirandola and find that they already suggested the solutions for our time.
To what extent does a medium alter the information it is fed?
The medium alters the information. However, there is information that constitutes the semantic capital of humanity. That information has gone through media revolutions while maintaining its value. Yet again Floridi helped us understand, defining semantic capital as "any content that can enhance someone's power to give meaning to and make sense of something". It is the difference from lack of knowledge to knowledge that change the meaning of the story. We must take care of our semantic capital. It is our only weapon for coping with the revolution we are living.
When you write about the “ecology of the project", are you appealing for increased awareness on meaning of yet another project, and the way information shapes our lives?
I believe information needs an ecological approach. The death Neil Postman talks about in Amusing Ourselves to Death is metaphorical. We will not die laughing, but we risk wasting the time we have left scrolling information without ever grasping the meaning of our life. In this sense, Skip! is the emergency button for our era.
Enrico Panai is one of the international guests at the Campus Book Festival, being held from March 25-27 at the Campus Quadrangle, University of Malta. The festival is organised by the National Book Council in collaboration with Għaqda tal-Malti and DESA.