“Onlife” – Where Real and Virtual Lives Meld

23 Oct 2019

Oxford professor of philosophy and ethics of information Luciano Floridi describes the new, hybrid existence where the barriers between online and offline have blurred to such a degree that there is no longer any difference: “Onlife,” he calls it.

STI Experts

Floridi, who coined the term several years ago, was among the star speakers at a recent “Onlife” event organized by the Italian periodical Repubblica and the Lena network of European newspapers. The gathering sought to shed light on the impact of technology on our lives – the digital society – touching on issues of mobility, privacy, climate change, politics, robotics and AI, among many others.

The director of the Digital Ethics Lab remarked on how humans often have to adapt to technology rather than the other way around, citing special lanes for robots on our city streets. He also expressed concerned about a loss of autonomy of decision-making, given that algorithms influence so many of our daily choices, from what we watch to what we wear to where we go.

The amazing technologies we invent, he said, often develop faster than our capacity to manage them, and adults are no better and perhaps even less prepared than young people for the reality of “onlife.”

Although technology has widened by leaps and bounds our possibilities to learn, he said, this potential is barely realized, with information being harnessed most often for commercial purposes.

The Italian-born philosopher questioned why we call social media “social,” as there is little social about it by his reckoning. 

Floridi served as editor of The Onlife Manifesto: Being Human in a Hyperconnected Era, published in 2015 as a result of work groups among 15 scholars of anthropology, cognitive science, computer science, engineering, law, neuroscience, philosophy, political science, psychology and sociology. 

The Manifesto asserts that Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) affect us in numerous important ways, impacting on our self-conception and view of reality and the way we interact with others and reality itself. It cites four important changes that led to this scenario:  blurring distinctions between real and virtual life and between humans and machines; excessive rather than insufficient information; and a new primacy of interactions and networks over individual things. Its purpose is to “launch an open debate on the impacts of the computational era on public spaces, politics and societal expectations toward policymaking.”  Professor Floridi coauthored the manifesto, wrote the introduction, and provided one of the chapter commentaries as well as a longer essay. The work is available for download on Academia.