The new dualism of information and data science

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to hear Luciano Floridi give a Turing Lecture at the British Library Conference Centre, on ‘Ethics in the Age of Information’. The Alan Turing Institute is the UK’s national institute for data science, and locates itself at the intersection of computer science, mathematics, statistics and systems engineering. Floridi is well known as Director of Research at the Oxford Internet Institute, and originator of the increasingly influential Philosophy of Information programme.
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The talk was a typical Floridian fluent and engaging discourse, ranging over a wide area of technical and philosophical topics, and seamlessly merging a broad account of developing digital technology with long-standing ethical issues and dilemmas. This was focused around around the idea that we are now all ‘onlife’: neither online nor offline (a very 1990s binary distinction), but always at the same time both in the real world and also connected digitally. A new, and striking, thought offered by Floridi was that “the digital inscribes the world”. It does not merely describe it, not does it prescribe it: rather the digital adds to the world – “more pages in the book of nature” – creating the infosphere, which we share with biological and artificial agents.

I was particularly impressed by Floridi’s identification of a cultural neo-dualism; a new divide among the academics and practitioners who focus on information and data. This he saw as a new form of the “two cultures”, originally propounded by C.P Snow as the distinction between the sciences and the humanities. There are, he argued, two approaches: one which emphasises data, pattern, syntax, and quantitative methodology; one which favours information, meaning, semantics, and qualitative methods. There are forces pulling the two apart in the data science and information science disciplines, creating a divide which, he believed, would be terrible if it were to become permanent. He named the Alan Turing Institute and the Oxford Internet Institute, his own institution, as “the good forces fighting the split”.
floridi 3

In our own small way, in our courses and research at #citylis, City University London, we have always tried to promote a vision of information science which encompasses both approaches. It is gratifying to get such authoritative philosophical underpinnings for our perspective.

A video of the talk, about an hour long, can be found on YouTube. It is well worth viewing by anyone interested in where the information disciplines are going, and some of the new, and very practical, issues and dilemmas arising.

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