We are our information

Dr Saima Rana

In this article, Dr Saima Rana, the CEO at Gems World Academy and Chief Education Ambassador at the Varkey Foundation, provides a unique insight into the technological and information revolution that we’ve seen in recent years.

David Chalmers, Professor of Philosophy and Neural Sciences and Co-director of the Center for Mind, Brain, and Consciousness at New York University, has a new book out: “Reality+: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy.” Years ago, Chalmers was writing about ‘The Matrix as Metaphysics’ and this new book is basically a development of that essay brought up to date in the light of the continual and amazing technological and information revolution that’s been occurring over the last few decades.

Chalmers’s basic point is that as we develop technology to the point where the virtual and non-virtual experience is seamless then we must confront the impact this has on ourselves and the very notion of reality.

Chalmers’s argument is that once we get to that point then Virtual Reality (VR) should be considered as real as non-VR. Digital objects and people aren’t the same as non-digital objects and people, but they are nonetheless real. When I meet you in a virtual café, for example, I really am meeting you in a café, albeit a virtual one. If this strikes you as odd, think about when we talk on a mobile phone. I’m directly listening to you even though it’s mediated by digital technology. Or consider the zoom meetings we’ve all been having during this terrible pandemic. I really have had face-to-face meetings in my office with literally hundreds of different people even though, again, they’ve been mediated by digital technology. It was a real meeting, and they were real people I had meetings with.

An online future

Chalmers imagines a future where maybe everything is done online, so to speak. Every relationship, every experience may be taking place in a virtual world created by digital technologies, and Chalmers’ intuition is that these relationships and experiences will be as real as the ones currently outside of the VR world.

A counterintuition is that we would be in a world of illusion. But long-ago Kant argued that our so-called objective world is the product of our own brain. Whatever the world is like is available only through the conceptual filters available to us via our biological systems and in particular our brains. In other words, we’re already in a mediated world.

Kant’s point was that any experience must be mediated and Chalmers’s point is that VR systems are just another system of mediation. But Chalmers takes another step. Currently, no digital technology is conscious. When you switch off your mobile phone or your laptops, no one dies. The technologies are not aware of anything. It isn’t like anything to be a digital thing at the moment. But what if, asks Chalmers, in the future, we can construct digital technologies that are conscious? After all, our brains are made from just complex unconscious stuff. It’s possible that in the future, we’ll figure out how to make something that works like a brain.

Maybe we’ll create consciousness out of silicon, for example. In this scenario, the avatars in our online games now have their own minds, their own thoughts. In this scenario, we are confronted with issues of existential importance. Would it be murder to switch off a machine? And would playing games currently being played be morally ok once we know that the digital characters have thoughts and feelings? Chalmers thinks that we would have a duty to treat them as we treat other conscious beings.

He then imagines the possibility of uploading our own minds so that we go live with these other conscious avatars in the VR world. Our bodies grow old and die but we escape and live potentially forever – or for as long as the system is kept switched on. Now Chalmers asks what kind of reality would we want to be living in? All the issues of our non-digital world would come to bear on this new scenario. Who would rule it, who would police it, what would be the ethics, what would be its social rules, its hierarchies and so forth? His argument is that if this happened, we would take this VR world to be as real as the one we had left.

His is a science-fiction scenario, and like any fiction can run towards utopian scenarios or dystopian ones. But we’re all living in a technological and information revolution that similarly offers both optimistic and pessimistic options. I’m an educationalist working in schools, but this is a revolution that is churning up everyone’s backyard, be you thinking about your business, your finance, your entertainment, or your politics.

I think Chalmers’s thought experiments and the increasingly augmented reality we are living in asks for us to consider how we are bridging our lives with these technologies. In education, we’re having to ask this and I’m certain the same questions and challenges will occur to anyone with their eyes open in any sector we care to think about. But let me stick with education.

The relationship between education and technology

What is so important about the relationship between education and technology, and why is there a need for a bridge between the two? A bridge suggests that there is a separation, a gulf, something that needs to be joined up, connected – literally ‘bridged.’ It is, of course, undoubtedly true that we are living in a world where education and technology are key forces. They are increasingly important features of all lives in our global landscape, inescapably necessary and powerful change agents that affect all of us whether we like it or not. Education and technology bring with them powers – economic, social, political, cultural – and, of course, with great power (as Spiderman reminds us!), comes great responsibility.

As educationalists, we are committed to empowering our students so that they become responsible, knowledgeable, ethical, and dynamic global citizens able to face the challenges of our ever-complex and changing world with the skills, attitudes and character that enables them to thrive and help others thrive. That’s why when we educate, we educate all dimensions of each person – their minds, their hearts, their spirit and their bodies, so that they become well-rounded individuals capable of friendship, love, respect, honour, honesty, with a sense of the wonder and awe of their world and everything in it, and the ability to look after and fortify their physical and mental wellbeing.

And it is important that all this is done whilst recognizing the particular and peculiar contemporary context we find ourselves in. We are alive in what some have labeled an ‘information society’, where information has become more than ever the world’s currency and chief commodity. This information revolution has changed and continues to change the world profoundly and irreversibly. It is a revolution happening at breath-taking speed with unprecedented scope.

The creation, processing, management, and utilization of information is now a vital issue, bringing with it enormous benefits and opportunities and also, of course, huge threats too. One worry of all this is that the changes that are happening are happening so quickly, and are so huge, that they may be outpacing our understanding of the nature, implications, and consequences of the changes. For this reason, we find ourselves with an ethical duty to engage with this new, emerging landscape. We must forge the conceptual tools to understand this new, emerging world so that we aren’t passive consumers and receivers of the conceptual engineering taking place but can actively take part in shaping and controlling the changes.

The metaverse

As we now recognize, the ecology of this technological innovation is wide-reaching and constitutes what is now being called a ‘metaverse‘. The components of this metaverse are diverse and various and include digital currencies, digital marketplaces, and commerce, nonfungible tokens, infrastructures, device independence, gaming, digital assets, online shopping, workplaces, social media, digital humans, concerts, social and entertainment events and natural language processing. Its conceptual architecture is one that we all are increasingly interacting with whether we understand it or not.

We need to understand that we are agents – and by that, I mean people who can both construct their environments and take responsibility for them and their inhabitants. Again, too often the information and technological revolution speaks too little to this dimension. As educationalists, we are in the business of ensuring that no lived environment, no world, no society, is beyond the reach of our students. We teach them to take responsibility, to be part of making their worlds, by giving them the knowledge, experience and values that such responsibilities entail. This too is part of bridging education and technology.

Students need to fully understand the connection between the online worlds they frequent and inhabit and their own agency. They need to be able to challenge algorithms that deform their own values of self-respect and respect for others. As they grow, they require us to help them negotiate this complicated virtual world and understand that they can make a difference and that they should take responsibility. Who can doubt the impact of digital technologies on how global warming, racism, bioethics, the global economy, geo-politics and other important issues are being discussed and shaped? And with such realization, we can begin to see that ethics and values infuse everything. This is the challenge, and this is where the bridge is required.

But to do this we must understand that we are already down the rabbit hole. When you consider the metaverse, the infosphere, the world of information and technology in which we live and work, we need to realize that we are already information creatures, that the sci-fi scenarios of Chalmers’ thought experiments are already happening.

The philosopher of the information revolution and Google, Luciano Floridi at Oxford University, argues that this is the case. He says that information moves through several phases: occurrence where it is discovered, recording and transmission (which involves networking, distribution, accessing and retrieval); processing and management (which involves collecting, validating, merging, modifying, organizing, indexing, classifying, filtering, updating, sorting, storing etc.) and usage (involving monitoring, modeling, analyzing, explaining, planning, forecasting, decision-making, instructing, educating and learning etc.). None of this is new to us because, probably without realizing it, everything we do works through such phases be it schools, businesses, or any number of the dimensions of our lives.

Linking to Chalmers VR world

Here’s the link with Chalmers VR world. Floridi argues that we have become, here and now, our information. We are informational entities. The metaverse is an infosphere in which we live and we are individuals constituted by our information. If this is right, then how we think about ourselves, our relationships to things like banks, shops, films, money and so on must take account of this.

Consider this: according to Floridi ‘every day, enough data is being generated to fill all US libraries eight times over.’ Consider this: on February 3rd Queenie Wong reported that Facebook parent company Meta lost 26% of its market value (or $232,000,000,000) in a single day, saying that it was the largest single-day drop in market value for a US company ever, according to Reuters.

Floridi’s point is that we are now having to confront a new kind of world where unbelievably powerful and enormous amounts of information is out there. Our own identities are now part of this, a fact which is distributing us across an ecology – what he calls an infosphere – which demands ‘we consider the essentially informational nature of human beings and of their operations as social agents’.

Education, welfare, prosperity, edification, economic and scientific advantages are being generated by this technological and information revolution, and it offers the promise of a world where everyone prospers, everyone thrives. But only if we start to understand the radical implications of the revolution which is engulfing us, and who and what we want to become.

enewsletter