Overcoming the limitations of our own intelligence in an information society

Dr Saima Rana

CEO and Principal of GEMS World Academy, Dr Saima Rana, explores how we can overcome the limitations of our own digital intelligence.

Working in Dubai is fascinating. It is the apotheosis of a digital, information society, a hub of the most cutting edge and innovative technology and information activities on the world stage.

Looking at it, it looks like a sci-fi set of the future, a strange and amazing landscape that speaks to our dreams of Ballardian tomorrows. And of course, with all this excitement comes immense responsibilities. We need to understand the strangeness of life in our new technological information society. Why? Because we want peace of mind.

Someone is speaking loudly into her mobile phone. We are annoyed. But is she doing something wrong to us, or are we doing something bad to her? After all, we’re the ones listening to her conversation, albeit unwillingly. Paradoxically, our annoyance seems to be based on the intuition that she is breaching our privacy at the same time as we are overhearing her private conversation. Why are we annoyed? Perhaps this is the explanation. She is not entering our informational space, but she is abducting us into hers, forcing us to be remotely present against our will.

I am recorded in a public space by CCTV. I feel that somehow my privacy has been breached but how can this be? How can CCTVs breach my privacy if they are in public spaces? Think: kidnapping! It’s because I am being unwillingly and maybe unknowingly moved to an observer’s local space – a space which is remote for me – that I feel uncomfortable. How? What is being abducted is information and the best way of understanding what is happening is in terms of cloning.

The cloned information is not a space that belongs to me, and which has been trespassed. Rather, it is part of myself, or better, something that at least partly constitutes me at a given informational level of abstraction. The result is the creation of my double, a Doppelganger. A distant observer has created a double of me and is observing it in some unknown remote place. No wonder I’m feeling uneasy.

Informational privacy vs traditional privacy

Informational privacy is different from traditional privacy which tends to assume a distinction between private and public spaces. In terms of our digital worlds, that trad distinction doesn’t help. So, we need to change how we think about these issues if we are to understand how they play out in this new environment. In the examples above concepts such as abduction and cloning seem to be much more fruitful in explaining our discomfort than intrusion and trespass.

Again, think about what Kevin Bankston, Staff Attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said about search histories when writing in 2005: “Your search history shows your associations, beliefs, perhaps your medical problems. How Google defines you… data that’s practically a printout of what’s going on in your brain. What you are thinking of buying, who you talk to, what you talk about…”

If he’s right, then someone looking at your search history is mind-reading. Selling it to others is the equivalent to sharing the content of your mind to strangers. Sure, it’s a privacy issue but we need to think about it in a completely different way than how we’d think about privacy breaches traditionally.

Another example is when unwanted information is forced upon us – like the constant bombardment of 24-hour news updates, junk mail, even someone chatting loudly on their mobile phone. This is brainwashing. If this is right, then our information society is changing the traditional meanings of many important things. And as such, we need to rethink how best to respond to these changes. After all, responding to cloning, hijacking, mind-reading, and brainwashing is surely going to be different from responding to intrusion, theft and trespass.

Note, each time a cloning, hijacking, abduction, mind-reading, or brainwashing incident takes place someone is being augmented, enhanced, and upgraded. These things aren’t obvious if we just think in traditional ways about beneficiaries of breaches of privacy and given that in the US alone 10 million victims of this sort of thing are created each year, and it’s calculated that most violations are unknown and thus unreported, it’s important. And of course, these examples are just a tiny subset of the conceptual changes our information society is inaugurating.

Our intrinsic value

Warren and Brandeis way back in 1890 wrote about what is intrinsically valuable about us and what needs to be always protected: “The protection afforded to thoughts, sentiments, and emotions… is merely an instance of the enforcement of the more general right of the individual to be left alone. It is like the right not to be assaulted or beaten, the right not to be imprisoned, the right not to be maliciously persecuted, the right not to be defamed.

“In each of these rights… there inheres the quality of being owned or possessed and… there may be some propriety in speaking of those rights as property. But obviously, they bear little resemblance to what is ordinarily comprehended under that term. The principle… is in reality not the principle of private property, but that of inviolate personality… the right of privacy, as part of the more general right to the immunity of the person is the right to one’s personality.”

Therefore, we need to be alert to the changes because we still need to protect the things Warren and Brandeis identify.

When we talk about the digital and information revolutions, we rightly discuss the enormous power and unimaginable benefits they bring. But if we remember that we all have a right to our personality, our thoughts, and feelings, then we need also to work hard at thinking through implications of this brave new world.

The educational values I promote are ones that enhance moral agency and take seriously the right of each person to control their own personality. We are now all mixtures of the biological and the information sphere, what for short we might call ‘the infosphere’ – think of a driver and her GPS, an M1 Abrams tank, a government, a bank, any fortune 500 American global corporation.

In this context we must start thinking about accountability and responsibility if our personalities are to remain intact and be prepared to rethink our traditional concepts around what is real and valuable so that we protect our peace of mind, our thoughts, feelings and whatever makes us intrinsically valuable.

Creating a moral environment

As philosopher Luciano Floridi, author of the brilliant ‘The Ethics of Information’ argues: “More and more commonly moral actions are the result of complex interactions among distributed systems integrated on a scale vastly larger than a human being. Globalisation is also a measure of the size of the agents involved in moral decisions that crucially affect the life and future of millions of individuals and their environments… We need augmented ethics for a theory of augmented moral agency.”

Consequently, we need to construct a moral environment that can include all the infosphere. We need to develop and shape the moral world we live in, understand our pasts and where we want or ought to be heading and promote good developments. We need to be proactive rather than reactive.

So, what kind of a person should we be developing to do this? Should they be homo ludens, someone with leisurely playfulness devoid of ethical care and responsibility? Or homo oeconomicus, typically a producer, distributer, and consumer of wealth? Or else homo faber, the user and exploiter of natural resources?

Floridi suggests a different model for humanity, that of Homo poeieticus, a demiurgical figure who concentrates not just on a final product but also on the process through which a result is achieved, who takes care of reality through hands-on experiences, collaborations, interactions with conceptual or informational entities, and who is at heart in the ‘makers knowledge’ tradition where processes are built, manipulated, dissembled and where reading writing and literature and the arts work as transformations in materiality.

This is very close to the model I have applied in my own school, one where my students come to see themselves as agents and producers rather than passive receivers of their worlds.

Following Floridi’s insights, I think we need imaginative, active citizens – representatives of homo poeieticus – to engage with and safeguard the infosphere so that it’s a space that enhances lives, brings peace of mind and protects our existential being. The world of education is responding to this new society, but it can’t be left to just our schools and educational establishments.

Everyone is implicated in this because we are all living as informational beings. We all need to think how this might be done because our intelligence is limited and the technologies powerful.

Back in 1964, Norbert Weiner reminded everyone that: “The world of the future will be an ever more demanding struggle against the limitations of our intelligence, not a comfortable hammock in which we can lie down to be waited upon by our robot slaves.” Living in our modern information society we are fast becoming aware of this, and it’s clear that it’s a struggle we in education, and everyone else elsewhere, must not shirk.