Showing posts from 2020

On not reading (series: notes to myself)

I have not read enough. I said this with a sense of inevitable guilt. It’s not merely for lack of time, although that has played a role. It is not only tiredness, now that I have too many other preoccupations and I look for distractions, not more reflections, at night. It is not just because of a sense of unease pleasure, in which one may not indulge without moderation, like drinking good red wine. It is mostly because of a persistent sense of apprehension. Reading is formatting one’s mind, and this is risky, almost dangerous. For a convincing book may kill a tender idea you were nourishing, implanting a new one that is not yours, like a smuggled species on a new island. An insightful book may create turbulent thoughts almost unpleasant, that keep your mind rocking day and night. An interesting book may trigger a chain reaction that will disrupt your malleable reasonings, not yet sedimented. New bits of semantics will pin-pong in the head, interfering with other essential reflections.

Le tre funzioni del linguaggio digitale e le loro conseguenze

(Questo testo è la Prefazione al volume: Linguaggi nella società e nella tecnica, 1968-2018 - Atti della giornata di studi organizzata dall’Associazione Archivio Storico Olivetti, in occasione del centenario della nascita del fondatore Camillo Olivetti, per riprendere e attualizzare i temi del convegno internazionale sui “linguaggi nella società e nella tecnica” promosso e organizzato nel 1968 dalla Società Olivetti. Milano, Fondazione Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, 15 Ottobre 2018). * * * Nel 1988, grazie a una borsa di studio dell’Università di Roma La Sapienza, fui ammesso come visiting student all’Università di Warwick, per studiare con Susan Haack, una delle più famose docenti di filosofia della logica. Tra i tanti ricordi, c’è quello di giornate senza fine, passate tra la caffetteria e i laboratori del campus, dormendo poco e lavorando senza sosta, scrivendo la tesi di laurea e facendo girare programmi di logica su uno dei tantissimi Olivetti M24, sempre disponibili, ad ogni ora e in

On bad questions (series: notes to myself)

Some questions are bad. Not because they are stupid. Stupid questions are so because of their content, or context, or implications. Stupid questions can also be bad, of course, but bad questions need not be stupid. Questions are bad because they make you look bad when you answer them. For they are questions badly formulated. They are "loaded". So if you wish to avoid a silly answer, you must be ready to question the question, and this is not only bad manners, it also gives the impression that one is trying to dodge the question . Bad questions seem to be of at least two kinds. Yes or no questions. "So, in the end, and to be clear about what you really think: is true, universal Artificial Intelligence possible or not?". If you say no, you are wrong, because there is a sense in which AI is possible, i.e. it is not logically impossible (a contradiction). But if you say yes, then you are wrong, because true, universal AI, the kind you see in sci-fi movies, is factually

The fight for digital sovereignty: what it is, and why it matters, especially for the EU

This article is forthcoming in Philosophy & Technology 33.3 (September) 2020,  as Editor Letter. Digital sovereignty seems to be something very important, given the popularity of the topic these days. True. But it also sounds like a technical issue, which concerns only specialists. False. Digital sovereignty, and the fight for it, touch everyone, even those who do not have a mobile phone or have never used an online service. To understand why, let me start with four episodes. I shall add a fifth shortly. 18 June 2020: the British government, after having failed to develop a centralised, coronavirus app not based on the API provided by Google-Apple,  gave up, ditched the whole project (Burgess 19 June 2020), and accepted to start developing a new app in the future that would be fully compatible with the decentralised solution supported by the two American companies. This U-turn was not the first: Italy (Longo 22 April 2020) and Germany (Busvine and Rinke 26 April 2020, Lomas 27 Apr

On "howevering" (series: notes to myself)

"Howevering" is the second shoe dropping, for which you inevitably wait, successfully, in that suspended moment between a "yes..." and the almost inevitable "but...". Most people love  to howeverise  (as Kia says). Philosophers are masters in this. Colleagues and friends sometimes seem unable not to howeverise. Critics are addicted to howeverising. They all agree with you, but only howeverly.  Howevering is a sleight of hand, which retracts what has just been conceded. "Of course, global warming is a life-threatening problem, however...".  Howevering deflects the immediate confrontation of a disagreement, and this seems polite. I do not wish to say you are wrong, but I think you are, and so I dismiss the yes I just uttered to pacify you, to replace it with the however, and show you what the case really is.  Howevering is a license to fill the gap with anything you wish. Once you start howevering, there is no end to the chain of clauses supported,

On being mansplained (series: notes to myself)

I wanted to make a brief point. I thought it was original. But I was too late, it had already been made: mansplaining is gender-neutral . I know because I have had people explaining to me – your average Caucasian, male, middle-aged, European bourgeoisie, in other words, the stereotype of the mansplainer – how to spell my name. But let me hasten to say that, no, my dear, this is not literally, thank you for explaining to me that it cannot be the case. I meant it metaphorically. What puzzles me is how can you be so sure that you are not the one who is not getting it? Please pause for a moment and ask yourself whether "o buraco é mais embaixo", as they say in Brazil, which roughly means that "the hole is further down". And if it looks obvious to you, if you thought about it, why do you assume I did not? In short, next time, if you see me behind you, please do wonder whether I might be almost a whole lap ahead, before explaining to me how to run.

L'intellettuale critico e la bacchetta magica (series: notes to myself)

(Grazie a Arianna Bonino per l'immagine) Leggo (anche se cerco di non farlo) tante interpretazioni e tante critiche della nostra epoca.  Alcune sono strampalate (Agamben) altre esagerate (Klein). Alla fine della lettura mi viene sempre da dire: "BUM!", il che non è un buon segno.  Ma a parte i loro limiti intrinseci (le troppe cose sbagliate o tirate per i capelli che sostengono), mi delude sempre la mancanza di una visione propositiva. È facile fare l'interprete e il critico con le idee altrui (cit.). Come ricordo alle mie studentesse e ai miei studenti, per criticare basta essere smart & sharp (e chi arriva a Oxford in genere lo è) ma per dire qualcosa di propositivo bisogna essere un po' deep  (e su questo Oxford non è necessariamente una garanzia, il sistema sembra privilegiare  s&s ). E le critiche e le interpretazioni in questione non mi risultano deep, solo profondamente superficiali. Non mi danno mai una bella risposta (sulla quale poter anche esse

On the value of taking care of the roses (series: notes to myself)

They say that what matters sometimes is not the outcome but the process: not the success or failure of an action, but just the action itself.  Maybe. But I always thought it was a bit of sour grapes. Didn’t really want beautiful roses in my garden, kind of line of thinking. The important thing was gardening. Or so you tell yourself, trying to be convincing.  But I recite this loudly a few times and it still sounds quite lame. It's the philosopher's fault, because he asks the unpleasant questions. Would you have done it anyway, even if the roses had no chance? But above all, what if the process itself is also pointless? Perhaps the gardening is a failure too, like the dead roses.  So you pause, on your way to the roses, and think: if the outcome is not what matters, and the process is not what matters, why caring for the roses? Better stop, or kill the realist awareness that shows the worthless nature of the whole enterprise.  Is there anything left, if all is a failure? 

"Frustration" and "apology": two traps of the (English) language of failure (series: notes to myself)

Suppose you are involved in designing, developing and deploying an artefact. It could be anything. Let's say, for the sake of simplicity, that someone, call him John, is building a new shower in your house. You need the shower. The shower you want is the right shower for your family. It is also a shower that would work well for everybody in the family (one person needs facilitated access). And in case you change your mind, you can always replace it with a bath or even remove it. It is actually a temporary solution. In short, your project is necessary, proportionate, justified, and time-bound (because reversible when you decide to change your mind). Following these conditions, you have some instructions about where you would like it, the design, the style, the budget, when work could start, when it should end, etc. Call them requirements. Based on all this, you issue your recommendations to John.  Work starts, but, unfortunately, it does not go well. Things go south, as they

On the Future after the Coronavirus in 250 words (series: notes to myself)

I was invited to contribute to this beautiful initiative by El Pais with a short comment (250 words) on the future after the coronavirus, in relation to digital technologies. I was honoured and delighted to accept.  You can read the Spanish translation here .  The following is the original English version (preferable in terms of the logical flow of the reasoning). It introduces the concept of three-dimensional solidarity – social, political, and environmental – and the suggestion that the human project that could sustain it and be sustained by it, may be one based on the marriage between the Green of all our environments (natural and artefactual) and the Blue of our digital technologies ( the green and the blue project ,  see also here ). In this time of great suffering, there is a strong desire to look beyond the pandemic. Thus, much is being written about the future. There are predictions . They try to guess what the world will be like. The more specific they are, the gre

Pandemic lesson: the disappearance of externalities

Lazy neurons, they fail to see connections even when they are obvious. I cannot recall when I started hearing people talking about the global village , globalisation , hyperconnectivity , spaceship earth , Gaia , ... I grew up with this holistic language as my conceptual koiné . But only recently, thanks to the pandemic, I realised that I should have linked it to another phenomenon: the disappearance of externalities . It is so obvious now. In pseudo-precise literature or pretentious conversations, an externality is a negative effect of a profitable activity, call it a cost, paid by someone else. Like what happens if one runs a profitable business that pollutes someone else's environment.  My externalities may be unintended, possibly avoidable, but it is not my problem whether they occur, and the fact that they may occur is not going to stop me from pursuing my activities, since the cost paid by someone else is not a sufficient disincentive to sacrifice my own benefit.

The New Morphology of Power in the Infosphere

What is the nature of power today, in mature information societies ?  In an article available here , I argue that in liberal societies – awash with cheap goods and services as well as free information – the sociopolitical ability to control or influence people’s behaviour (power) is exercised not so much through the control of things (think of the means of productions of goods and services) or information about things (think of the fourth power), but mainly through the control of the questions that determine the answers that give rise to information about things. And since a question without an answer is just another way of describing uncertainty, I suggest that the new morphology of power is the morphology of uncertainty : those who control the questions shape the answers; and those who shape the answers control the world. If this sounds a bit like 1984 it is because it is just a rephrasing of George Orwell's famous quote: "Who controls the past controls the future:

Mind the app - considerations on the ethical risks of COVID-19 apps

[22 April update: at the Digital Ethics Lab (OII, University of Oxford) we have elaborated a list of 16 questions to check whether an app is ethically justifiable, the full article, open access, is available here ] There is a lot of talk about apps to deal with the pandemic . Some of the best solutions use the Bluetooth connection of mobile phones to determine the contact between people and therefore the probability of contagion. In theory, it may seem simple. In practice, there are several ethical problems, not only legal and  technical ones . To understand them, it is useful to distinguish between the validation and the verification of a system.  The validation of a system answers the question: "are we building the right system?". The answer is no if the app is illegal,  for example, the use of an app in the EU must comply with the GDPR; mind that this is necessary but not sufficient to make the app also ethically acceptable, see below; is unnecessary, f