Floridi, Luciano. The 4th revolution: how the infosphere is reshaping human reality. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. xvi, 248 pp. ISBN 978-0-19-874393-4 £10.99

We missed this book on its first appearance in hard back, but that is a good reason for reviewing the paperback edition. Luciano Floridi has been reviewed here before: his Information: a very short introduction (2010) was very favourably reviewed at the time of publication and my assessment of this volume is that it is no less interesting and useful.

The author’s central proposition is that humankind has experienced three stages of development, which he labels, prehistory - the period before the invention of writing; history - all that has happened since that invention; and ‘hyperhistory’ - upon which we have only recently entered, and defined by the author as the situation in which:

human progress and welfare [have] begun to be not just related to, but mostly dependent on, the successful and efficient management of the life cycle of information.

Building on this base, Floridi goes on to develop the idea of in-betweenness as the most significant characteristic of any technology, thus my sunglasses are a technology that sits between my eyes and the sunshine. This is an example of first-order technology; second-order technology is that that sits between the human being and some other technology, so I guess that the screen on which I view these words, sitting between me and the computer system that supports it, would be second-order technology. And, of course, you see where this is going: third-order technology gets rid of the human and consists of technology that sits between one provider-technology and another user-technology (my terms, not Floridi’s). Inevitably, such third-order technologies are information and communication technologies, which, as it is information that is communicated, we shall abbreviate to information technologies. Modern stock trading goes on to a significant extent through such third-order technology: a computer receives data from other computers enabling it to calculate the current state of the market for a given share or set of shares (e.g., all oil company shares) and then communicate buy or sell decisions to other computers that control the stock of shares held by the bank or hedge fund.

Agency of the kind described here is central to the further development of third-order technology and, indeed, the term agent is used to describe the software carrying out the buy or sell decisions referred to earlier.

The rest of the book, essentially, is about how third-order technology and information technology in general is reshaping, as the sub-title has it, human reality. This is accomplished through eight chapters dealing with identity, self-understanding, privacy, intelligence, agency, politics, environment and, very briefly, ethics.

Throughout the book Floridi draws upon a seemingly encyclopaedic knowledge of developments in information technology, leavened by frequent reference to the classics and to modern writers. This integration of a humanistic cast of mind and knowledge of technology makes what would otherwise be a very dense volume, a very readable account of the way things are going.

The one thing I missed in the book is a separate chapter on the nature of work in this hyper-historical period we are entering. There are, of course, mentions throughout on the impact of technology on work, but the term does not occur in the rather poor index, and the author’s ideas on how work, particularly knowledge work, might develop would have been instructive. My own guess is that, if AI agents develop as some forecast, knowledge workers will be made redundant: already many kinds of workers are either fed information relating to their work directly from information systems, or they possess information searching skills that leave no place for an intermediary, other than a computer-based intermediary such as search engine, or Google’ alerts. The latter is pretty rudimentary at present, but Google is known to be working on AI-related search and it can’t be very long before the results begin to show.

One indicator of a good book is that it makes you think: Floridi, as a philosopher, has a vested interest in making us think and in this book he succeeds. Elsewhere, I have written of the need for information science, if it is to continue to exist, to become holistic, rather than focussed narrowly on such matters as information retrieval: this book could be a foundation text for such a field.

Professor T.D. Wilson
Editor in Chief
June, 2016