Rafael Capurro


Online lecture at the meeting of The Society of Socio-Informatics (Japan)
July 8, 2023.


Roots in the Early Eighties
IT and Technologies of the Self
On Digital Ontology
On Digital Whoness
Information Ethics in the "Far East" and the "Far West"
On Intercultural Information Ethics
On Parrhesia and Angeletics
Questions by the Audience & Answers



Let me start with words of thanks to Dr. Tadamasa Kimura for this invitation of the Society of Socio-Informatics. I also thank the mediation of my friend and colleague Dr. Tadashi Takenouchi with whom I share happy memories of my visits to Japan starting with a talk at the University of Library and Information Science (ULIS) invited by Dr. Riuji Endo in 1998. On this occasion I also visited the following Japanese universities: Rikkyo University, Sophia University and finally Nagaoka University of Technology by invitation of Dr. Koichiro Matsuno.

I want to highlight a long-standing friendship and academic cooperation with Dr. Makoto Nakada, University of Tsukuba, who invited me to participate at symposia on Information Ethics in 2003, 2007, 2009, 2013 and particularly in 2015 to the symposium organized by the Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation and University of Tsukuba Joint Symposium: Robo-Ethics and "Mind-Body-Schema" of Human and Robot - Challenges for a Better Quality of Life.

The Uehiro Foundation on Ethics and Education financed this travel as well as my participation at the International Symposium on "Information Ethics: The Future of Humanities" co-organized by The Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs and the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics that took place in Oxford in December 2010 at which Dr. Toru Nishigaki also participated. Dr. Nishigaki and Dr. Takenouchi edited the proceedings of this symposium with contributions from other Western scholars such as Lucas Introna, Johannes Britz and Wolfgang Hofkirchner published in 2012.

Roots in the early eighties


My talk will address some ethical issues as suggested by Dr. Takenouchi for which I am very thankful. In general terms, the topic of this talk should cover the first quarter of the 21st century. This is a large period during which I was involved in several ways starting with my activities at the Centre for Documentation on Nuclear Energy located at the Atomic Research Centre in Karlsruhe (Germany). My first publications on information ethics arise in this context in the early eighties. Broader and deeper questions on the impact of digitization on the concept of the human and on human life were developed since the nineties particularly under the impact of the internet. Ethical questions arising from the use of computers for information retrieval purposes led me to address the relation of this technology to questions coming from the hermeneutic tradition that I developed in my habilitation published in 1986. The concept of information ethics became explicit in this thesis. In a contribution to the International Conference on Phenomenology and Technology, that took place in the Polytechnic University, New York, in 1986, I defined information as the shape of knowledge at the end of modernity.

Some characteristics of the end of modernity are: (a) abandonment of the primacy of rational or scientific thought as qualitatively superior to all other types of discourse; (b) abandonment of the idea of human subjectivity as opposed to objectivity, in which intersubjectivity and contextuality play only minor roles; and (c) abandonment of the (Platonic) idea of human knowledge as something separate from the knower. Following some thoughts by Martin Heidegger, I suggested that modern technology is two-sided: as a techne it partakes of poesis and brings something forth into unconcealment, but at the same time it crystallizes into the instrumental structure of the Ge-stell. Instrumentality is good, provided it does not degenerate into a totalitarian or one-sided view. From this perspective, the development of information technology at the end of modernity is the creation of an information Ge-stell. Whereas, on the one hand, we bring forth linguistically mediated knowledge in a new shape, on the other, we transform language into a mere instrument. Yet even when this happens the process of interpretation is needed for the constitution of meaning.


IT and Technologies of the Self


In a paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Society for Information Science that took place in Pittsburgh in 1992, I analyzed information technology as having an ambiguous impact on society. This situation calls for a two-level ethical analysis. On the one hand the issues of power and control must be reconsidered under the viewpoint of institutional structures, i.e., of living norms. On the other hand, the technological shaping of society, taking the character of power, oppression, verbosity, and dogmatic belief, should be at the same time reconsidered under the viewpoint of a plurality of living forms, i.e., within a framework of deliberation and dissent. My contribution addressed both issues based particularly on Michel Foucault's concept of "technologies of the self"

I addressed these questions also at a meeting organized by The University of Memphis in October 2000. I presented a historical interpretation of the development of modern information society in the 20th century mass media society. I highlighted the emerging networked world society with its characteristics of interactivity and decentralization. The diversity of moral norms and traditions within this global medium gave and still gives rise to the question concerning an Internet-morality. A future information ethics should be based on a digital ontology.


On Digital Ontology


In my contribution to the already mentioned symposium at Oxford University from 2005 I dealt with digital ontology. A broader concept of information ethics as dealing with the digital reconstruction of all possible phenomena leads to questions relating to digital ontology. Following Heidegger’s conception of the relation between ontology and metaphysics, I argued that ontology has to do with Being itself and not just with the Being of beings which is the matter of metaphysics. The primary aim of an ontological foundation of information ethics is to question the metaphysical ambitions of digital ontology understood as today’s pervading understanding of Being.
I analyzed some challenges of digital technology, particularly with regard to the moral status of digital agents. Information ethics does not only deal with ethical questions relating to the digital infosphere. I contrasted this view with arguments presented by Luciano Floridi on the foundation of information ethics as well as on the moral status of digital agents. I argued that a reductionist view of the human body as digital data overlooks the limits of digital ontology and gives up one basis for ethical orientation. Finally, issues related to the digital divide as well as to intercultural aspects of information ethics were explored – and long and short-term agendas for appropriate responses were presented. A reductionist view of the human body as digital data overlooks the limits of digital ontology and gives up a basis of ethical orientation. I relate these issues to the digital divide as well as to intercultural aspects of information ethics.

Three years later, in 2008, I wrote a critical appraisal of Luciano Floridi’s metaphysical foundation of information ecology. I highlighted some of the issues raised by Floridi regarding the axiological status of the objects in the “infosphere," the moral status of artificial agents, and the foundation of information ethics as information ecology. I criticized the ontological conception of value as a first order category. I suggested that a weakening of Floridi’s demiurgic information ecology is needed in order not to forget the limitations of human actors and/or of their surrogates, digital agents. I plead for a rational theoretical and practical view of such agents beyond utopian reasoning regarding their potential moral status.


On Digital Whoness


In a book with the title “Digital Whoness: Identity, Privacy and Freedom in the Cyberworld” with contributions by Michael Eldred, Daniel Nagel and myself published in 2013, I addressed intercultural issues of information ethics particularly in the Far East, Latin America and Africa. In this report we make a strong difference between ‘what’ and ‘who’ i.e. on the kind of ‘digital life’ (and digitalization of living things as well as of life itself) and the perspective of ‘who’ we are, i.e. of critical thinking on life and particularly on human life in its uniqueness.
Source:  German Version, Chapter 2.5 in


Information Ethics in the “Far East” and the “Far West”


In my keynote address at The International Conference on China’s Information Ethics that took place at Renmin University of China, Beijing in October 2010 and was co-organized by the International Center of Information Ethics (ICIE) that I had founded ten years before I dealt with the distinction between direct and indirect speech in the “Far East” and the “Far West” following key insights by French sinologist François Jullien. The distinction is not primarily a grammatical or rhetorical but an existential or moral one. It concerns the relation between man and world. It aims at providing a basis for thinking inter-culturally about ethical questions of the information society. My argument is that information moralities and their ethical reflection in the “Far West” stress the principle of direct speech while in the “Far East” the principle of indirect speech builds the basis of human communication.

What is the goal of this kind of analysis for intercultural debates on information ethics? First, to learn from each other. Western information societies can learn from Taoism and the spirit of the “Far East” not only on how to deal with blocking processes based on fixed moralities, exacerbating the primacy of direct speech.  Information societies in the “Far East” might learn from direct speech, individual freedom, and autonomy as correctives of an idealized harmony that might block social changes. In both cases we should be careful not to oversee the complexity and richness of our traditions including the difference itself between “Far East” and “Far West” that is nothing but a starting point for intercultural information ethics that should be both theoretical and empirical. Makoto Nakada has done pioneer work in this area. I learned a lot from personal and academic exchanges with him as well as from contributions from Western scholars, particularly from Charles Ess.


On Intercultural Information Ethics


I define Intercultural Information Ethics (IIE) in a narrow and in a broad sense. In a narrow sense it focuses on the impact of information and communication technology (ICT) on different cultures as well as on how specific issues are understood from different cultural traditions. In a broad sense IIE deals not only with intercultural issues raised by ICT but by other media as well allowing a large historical comparative view. IIE explores these issues under descriptive and normative perspectives. Such comparative studies can be done either at a concrete or ontic level or at the level of ontological or structural presuppositions.

The first international symposium dealing explicitly with intercultural information ethics was organized by the International Center for Information Ethics (ICIE) and was entitled “Localizing the Internet. Ethical Issues in Intercultural Perspective.” It took place at ZKM / Zentrum für Kunst und Medien (Karlsruhe, Germany) in 2004. As far as I know, my introductory paper to this symposium was the first paper addressing the question of IIE already in its title. The proceedings were published online in the “International Review of Information Ethics” (IRIE 2004). A selection of papers was published as a book in the ICIE series in 2007.

My personal experiences on Intercultural Information Ethics are strongly related to the creation of the African Centre of Excellence for Information Ethics (ACEIE) at the University of Pretoria in 2012 as well as on the conferences and seminars with African colleagues among which I would like to highlight Coetzee Bester and Rachel Fischer. The ACEIE promoted several publications dealing with information ethics issues in Africa which are online available, free of charge. (

Concepts of Information Ethics.

Information Ethics in Africa: Cross Cutting Themes.
Africa Reader on Information Ethics.
Curriculum to teach IE at universities.
Nelson Mandela. A Reader on Information Ethics.


Information Ethics in Africa is a young academic field. Not much has been published on the role that African philosophy can play in thinking about the challenges arising from the impact of ICT on African societies and cultures.

But there is also a long history of Information Ethics in Africa. It concerns Africa’s rich oral and written traditions throughout many centuries about different kinds of information and communication practices using different moral codes and media based on dynamic and complex processes of cultural hybridization. Critical reflection on this history promotes greater awareness of Africa's cultural legacy, which provides the foundations of the digital information and communication technologies that will create unique and genuinely African information societies.

According to Mogobe Ramose, ubuntu is “the central concept of social and political organization in African philosophy, particularly among the Bantu-speaking peoples. It consists of the principles of sharing and caring for one another.” (Ramose 2002, 643). How is the intertwining of information and communication technology with the principles of communalism and humanity expressed in aphorisms such as “Motho ke motho ka batho” which can be translated as “people are other people through other people”? What is the relation between community and privacy in African information society? What kind of questions do African people ask about the effects of information and communication technology in their everyday lives? 

Information ethics opens a space of critical reflection for all stakeholders on established moral norms and values, it provides the catalyst for a social process, and is a space for retrieving the rich African cultural memory necessary to our field. This cultural memory permits to reshape African identities and contribute to the world's information and communication cultures – and to make a valuable contribution to the current debate on international and intercultural information ethics. The function of cultural memory is not just to express what belongs to the collective memory of a community, but to engage the will of its members to connect themselves through the task of creating it. Cultural memory is connective. It is related to our myths and to our dreams.

The main moral responsibility of African academics in the field of information ethics is therefore to enrich African identities by retrieving and re-creating African information and communication traditions. From this perspective, cultural memory is an ethical task if we want to create a humane community based not just on the number of people but on the relations between them. I think that retrieving the African cultural memory with regard to information and communication norms and traditions is the main challenge for African information ethics. It should critically analize the different strategies of social inclusion and exclusion in the history of African societies, including traumatic experiences such as slavery, colonialization  and apartheid. Since the emergence of the Internet, this challenge is discussed under the heading of the digital divide. But African information ethics implies much more than just the access and use of this medium. The problem is not limited to a technical one, but is much more one of social exclusion, manipulation, exploitation and annihilation of human beings.

The final goal of ethics is not just to speak about the good but to do the good and to dream about it. We owe this insight about the relation between ethical thinking and action to Aristotle, the founder of ethics as an academic discipline in the Western tradition. In a comparative study of ethical theories in different cultures, Michael Brannigan addresses African Ethics with the principle “To Be is to Belong” (Brannigan 2005). An analysis of this thesis could lead to a foundation of African information ethics based not upon a metaphysical concept of being but upon the experience of being as communal existence. The task of such an analysis would be to recognize the uniqueness of African perspectives as well as commonalities with other cultures and their theoretical expressions. This analysis could lead to an interpretation of ICT within an African horizon and correspondingly to possible vistas for information policy makers, responsible community leaders and, of course, for African institutions.

Source:Information Ethics in Africa: Past, Present and Future Activities (2007-2010)

I have been also engaged in intercultural information issues in Latin America, particularly in Brazil in cooperation with Marco Schneider, Arthur Bezerra and Gustavo Saldanha from the Instituto Brasileiro de Informação em Ciência e Tecnologia (Ibict). This institute has now taken the lead of the International Center of Information Ethics (ICIE).

In October 2023 the 4th regional meeting of the ICIE in Latin America and the Caribbean and the first Uruguayan symposium on Information ethics will take place in Montevideo (Source: I would like to highlight the longstanding friendship and academic cooperation with Jared Bielby (Canada) who took care of ICIE and IRIE (International Review of Information Ethics). Both, ICIE and IRIE were strongly supported by my colleague Dr. Felix Weil as well as by the ZKM (Zentrum für Kunst und Medien, Karlsruhe) and his director Prof. Peter Weibel (1944-2023).


On Parrhesia and Angeletics

Information ethics has a long and a short history. The long history in the Western tradition goes back to the question of parrhesia or freedom of speech in ancient Greece. In his lectures on parrhesia at the University of California at Berkeley Michel Foucault analyses the difference between parrhesia and rhetoric (Foucault 1983). According to Foucault, dialogue is a major parrhesiastic technique in opposition to a long rhetorical or sophistical speech. Parrhesia is essential to Athenian democracy. It is a form of criticism in which the speaker is in a position of inferiority with regard to his interlocutor. The parrhesiastes is the one who speaks the truth at his – and “he” is the right word in this context – own risk. To tell what one believes to be the truth can be dangerous in a specific situation, for instance when addressing a tyrant, in which case parrhesia becomes a moral quality. But also the democratic parrhesia can be dangerous for a citizen opposing his truth to that of the majority. The aim of such verbal truth-telling activity is to help other people (or himself) by choosing frankness instead of persuasion. As Foucault remarks, Athenian democracy was defined by the equal right of speech (isegoria), the equal participation of all citizens in the exercise of power (isonomia) and the personal attitude of the good citizen as truth-teller (parrhesia). This kind of public speech takes place in the Athenian agora.

Parrhesia is thus not just based on what one believes to be the truth but implies a personal as well as a public commitment to this belief. The knowledge of the believer is linked to his or her being. It concerns the truth about his own being. “To tell the truth” becomes a moral imperative under particular conditions.

Considering the importance of harmony, respect, and courtesy or “indirect speech” in Eastern traditions of moral life and moral philosophy, we might expect a fruitful dialogue regarding parrhesia within the field of what is now being called intercultural information ethics. We are far away from a comprehensive view of this field. In fact, we have just started to look at it as a phenomenon of its own. There is a long path of thinking ahead of us if we want to retrieve and interpret our written and oral traditions under this perspective through different epochs and societies and taking into consideration their mutual influences in practical moral life as well as in academic and literary reflection.

The birth of philosophy in Greece is related to the problematization of the concept of logos, understood as a dialogue between autonomous peers in contrast to the heteronomous concept of angelia (message) as a process by which the communication of a message is sender-dependent, although the receiver can in principle mutate into a sender.

Together with my Australian colleague and friend John Holgate, we developed a messaging theory or ‘angeletics’ and edited a book with interdisciplinary contributions (Messages and Messengers. Angeletics as an Approach to the Phenomenology of Communication. Munich 2011).




The angeletic turn allowed me to leave, and then come back to, the semantic network of information as well as to leave and then come back to hermeneutics. How can we manifest the relationship between message and information that is inscribed in Shannon's scheme but remains unthought? How can we conceive of the relationship between interpreting a message (hermeneutics) and the act of its transmission (angeletics)?

It is evident, at least for me, that a message must be codified and transmitted before it is interpreted. Angeletics, semiotics and hemeneutics build a knot in which language is at stake and with it human as well as non-human Being to which Weizsäcker and Heidegger refer. But in which way(s) does this twisting take place in other languages, cultures, and ways of being? What terms were used and are used today and to what extend do they deal with cultural and/or historical hiatuses such as in the case of news, that recall us to be humble and modest when we translate a thesis like the one written in 1978 within the background of Western metaphysics being aware that it is apparently the same person who wrote it and now translates it? And, eventually, up to what extent are questions regarding these ties originally ethical questions or, better, messages, in which our being-in-the-digital-world is at stake, that which is referred to today as digital ethics?

We often have the tendency to answer such questions with a list of well-meant advice or, in some cases, with a critical discussion dealing with an ethics of artificial intelligence addressing sustainable life in a society which conceives itself as a commodity managed by the digital empires. But we would need, in fact, a broad philosophical foundation of such ethical considerations.

Let me mention two issues that are being discussed today also under ethical perspective. One concerns Artificial Intelligence in general and ChatGPT in particular. The other deals with the issue of fake news and what is being called the ‘society of disinformation’. Both issues are critical and need a thorough ethical analysis.

On the second issue I would like to point to the Call for Papers of IRIE Vol. 33. I quote:

The collective phenomenon of disinformation, structured in multiple dimensions such as marketing, communicational, informational, educational, discursive, political and ideological, among others, has provoked reactions that seek to surround the phenomenon on all sides, calling on scientists, researchers, journalists and professionals from the most different areas who jointly make an unprecedented effort to contain or at least minimize the harmful effects that disinformation has on a global scale.
A profusion of intervention actions in the social fabric and theoretical efforts emerge with the intention of shedding light on the shadows that hide the full visibility of the phenomenon of disinformation that ends up putting in suspicion consolidated paradigms in communication and information sciences, as well as in biological sciences, history and many other areas.

In this sense, epistemological gestures become necessary and must seek to find the aforementioned synergistic efforts, with a view to establishing ethical parameters for information in the digital flows of the media diet of contemporary societies.

Concerning ChatGPT I think that we must address the issue about in which contexts this technology might or might not or even should not be used also from the perspective of copyright, privacy and data protection.


Excerpt from a dialogue with Dr. Nakada in 2011

In my view, in order for communication to take place, we need a shared field or Ba (= place). In order to keep or create this Ba, we need such utterances and facial expressions that can be seen as meta-communication. They determine or characterize the nature of communication taking place in accordance with or under the influence of this ‘meta-communication.’ In my view, using mobile phones or being engaged in communication via SMS provides the participants with a certain sort of phatic function or meta-communication. We need a certain sort of meta-communication when we talk with each other or are engaged in interactive actions. We always say such things, ‘this is just a joke,’ ‘honestly speaking,’ ‘are you teasing me?’ These utterances are something that determines the situations within which a variety of deeds, interactive actions, or talks can occur.

The concept of Ba as used by Kitaro Nishida or Bin Kimura means a place where the subject and the object or mono (things, objects) and koto (events, human interpretation of objects and experiences) encounter. Take for instance the following poem (haiku) by Matsuo Basho (1644-1694):

Furu ike ya / kawazu tobikomu / mizu no oto

An ancient pond / a frog jumps in / the splash of water

With this poetic expression, we experience some sort of oneness (Ichinyo) of the poet, frog, old pond, sound of jumping frog, Basho’s ears, our own ears. In this case, Ba is the place where these mono, koto, kotoba (words, expressions) come together. In the case of communication by mobile phone or the internet, Ba might be considered as the place where meta-communication and communication come together (Nakamura 1998; Kimura 1994).

RC I think that we in the West can and should learn a lot from your angeletic experiences with robots and particularly from the underlying ontological Japanese perspective that does not give to the human being such a predominance as in the West, separating from the world as an autonomous subject. A de-centred human subject that, strictly speaking is no longer (an underlying) subject, but understands him/herself as being-out-there-in-the-world as messenger for Being’s sendings in the sense I tried to explain, might be more flexible in his/her interchange with other non-human agents such as robots, being able to translate, if I may say so, the world-less phatic utterances of robots as something that mimic ontically the ontological experience of loneliness and finitude. By the way, in Plato's dialogues, Socrates’ interlocutors often answer with phatic utterances such as: ‘I see,’ ‘I follow you,’ ‘certainly,’ ‘of course’, etc. that allow the dialogue to continue or, better, that allow Socrates to pass on ‘his’ ideas that are supposed to lead to an existential self-questioning on the part of the partner and not to an indoctrination by Socrates’ message. From this perspective, Socrates is not a sender but a messenger of ideas that come to him from beyond. As soon as such ideas are considered as one’s own they turn into an opinion (doxa) and become the object of endless discussions. The Socratic dialogue is a place or Ba where language (logos) passes through (dia) the participants’ shared being-in-the-world. This is also Lacan’s interpretation of Plato’s Symposium in his seminar on transference, where he compares the psychoanalyst’s task with the Socratic erotic method of letting love messages to pass on (Lacan 1991).

Let us take an example from your tradition such as The Tale of Genji or Genji monogatari (Murasaki Shikibu 2010). In the middle of the tale we read about Princess Asagao, daughter of Prince Momozono, brother of the Emperor, who has been courted in vain by Prince Genji, her cousin, from his seventeenth year onward. Genji is now thirty-three years old. Lady Fujitsubo, the Emperor’s consort, loved by Genji, and Asagao’s father have both died. In Chapter 20 Murasaki Shikibu tells the story of the problematic relationship between Genji and Asagao. At the beginning of Chapter 21 she writes:

From Genji came a note in which he said: “Does it not give you a strange feeling to witness a Day of Cleansing in which you take no part?” And remembering that she was still in mourning for her father, he added the poem: “Little thought I that, like a wave in the swirl of the flood, you would come back so soon, a dark-robed mourner swept along time’s hurrying stream.” It was written on purple paper in a bold script, and a spray of wisteria was attached to it. Moved by all that was going on around her she replied: “It seems but yesterday that I first wore my somber dress; but now the pool of days has grown into a flood wherein I soon shall wash my grief away.” The poem was sent without explanation or comment and constituted, indeed, a meager reply; but, as usual, he found himself constantly holding it in front of him [self] and gazing at it as though it had been much more than a few poor lines of verse. When the end of the mourning actually came, the lady who acted as messenger and intermediary in general was overwhelmed by the number of packages from the Nijo-in [Genji’s palace] which now began to arrive. Lady Asagao expressed great displeasure at this lavishness and, if the presents had been accompanied by letters or poems of at all a familiar or impertinent kind, she would at once have put a stop to these attentions. But for a year past there had been nothing in his conduct to complain of. From time to time, he came to the house and enquired after her, but always quite openly. His letters were frequent and affectionate, but he took no liberties, and what nowadays troubled her chiefly was the difficulty of inventing anything to say in reply. (Murasaki Shikibu 2010, 398-399)

Genji’s letter is written in prose and a direct style while the poem that usually accompanies a letter is full of indirect messages including the purple paper on which it is written, the bold script, a spray of wisteria and, of course, the poem itself. Cultures in the “Far East” as well as in the “Far West” – using the terminology of the French sinologist François Jullien (Jullien 2003) – differ on the issue of direct and indirect style (Capurro 2011).

Princess Asagao is in trouble. Should she answer or not? Should she continue a formal and, at least for her, meaningless phatic communication? She writes a “meager reply” that is brought to Genji by a messenger, a lady, without “any explanation or comment”. Genji “as usual” does not know what to think about it and holds the message “constantly ... in front of him [self] and gazing at it as though it had been more than a few poor lines of verse.” Later on, Genji sends a lot of gifts including letters and poems but he must be careful of “taking no liberties”, otherwise she would stop the communication. Both Asagao and Genji express through messages and messengers different kinds of loneliness and other forms of emotional perception of the Ba of their time. But, of course, it is Murasaki Shikibu herself who gives such an answer by writing this story.

Of course, an in-depth interpretation of this and many other examples in this wonderful tale presupposes an analysis of the structure or Ba of Japanese society during the Heian period (794-1192), particularly of the mores and values governing communication with regard to gender roles, possibilities of transgressing such mores and roles, the role of messengers, the different kinds of messages, including their materiality and calligraphy. Some of the moral dilemmas arising from such mores and values are made explicit by Murasaki Shikibu, such as Asagao’s doubts about continuing the communication and Genji’s concern about not transgressing certain limits when sending her gifts and messages. The historian of the Heian period, George Sansom, calls such mores “rules of taste” (Sansom 1958).


by the Audience

SSI 2023


1. What do you think about the future of Brazilian or Latin American activities on information ethics; its task or your expectation?

When I had the privilege to co-organize the first Brazilian symposium on Information Ethics that took place in 2010 in Jo
ão Pessoa (Paraíba), I could not imagine what followed in the next fifteen years in this field in Brazilian universities and research institutions such as Ibict (Brazilian institute of information in science and technology, Perfil-i) that you can find documented at

In fact, my colleagues from Ibict, namely, Prof. Marco Schneider and Prof. Arthur Bezerra, to mention just two of them, have taken the lead of the International Center for Information Ethics (ICIE) that is now hosted by Ibict.

They are at the core of what I call The School of Rio, i.e., a group of critical intellectuals engaged theoretically and practically in transforming their country in a place free of information exclusions, which is also the case in many Latin American countries. The task of information ethics has to be reinvented according to the specific challenges of this region.

iKrítika: estudos críticos em informação


Arthur Coelho Bezerra, Marco Schneider,
Ricardo M. Pimenta, Gustavo S. Saldanha


"This book brings together contributions on a critical information theory for the past 50 years, relating it to its history since the 19th century and its roots in modernity. Within a broad framework that encompasses theories and authors such as Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Lukács, Frankfurt School, Bourdieu, Foucault, Žižek, as well as the classics of librarianship and information and communication, the guiding thread of these texts is social and critical thinking. That is, it is thinking of information theory as inseparable from an interpretation and practice of social, economic and political processes of communicational and informational processes in the face of structural transformations of oppression, control, surveillance and discrimination that has historically appeared since the middle of the 20th century in relation to digital technologies."

4to. Encuentro ICIE (International Center for Information Ethics) América Latina y el Caribe
y 1er. Simposio uruguayo de ética de la información y la comunicación

Montevideo, Universidad de la República,
Facultad de Información y Comunicación,
9-11 October 2023

2. Prof. Charles Ess (US) discussed intercultural information ethics based on Confucianism while you based on Taoism. Why did you focus on Taoism instead of Confucianism?

At the first International Conference on China's Information Ethics that took place at Renmin University of China, Beijing, in 2010 I presented a paper based in key insights by French sinologist Francois
Jullien. Let me quote the following:

It is still an open question whether the renaissance of Confucianism in China today will lead to an information society shaped by this kind of ethics and morality. Since some ten years or so the ideal of a “harmonious society” has been officially announced in contrast to the concept of class struggle (Siemons 2006). The model of a Confucian information society and the predominance of indirect speech serving the power seem to be opposed to the Western model that gives individual freedom the highest value. While libertarian information society tends towards atomization and eventually to chaos, the Confucian model might grow stiff and end suffocated. Confucius wants to regulate social communication with the help of morality the most useful instrument being censorship. In the “Far West” the opposite form of blockage seems to endanger societal development, namely information overload for individuals and corporations as well as some forms of general and open struggle.

A possible way out of both models can be found in the taoist view of indirect speech. At the beginning of Laozi’s “Daodejing” it is said:

“A dao that can be defined.

Is not the eternal dao,

Concepts that can be conceived,

Are not eternal concepts” (Laozi, 2002 , Ch. 1, 1-4)

The Chinese thinker does not separate reality in two different levels as the Greeks did. The “dao” refers indirectly to the beginning of a process of becoming and growing. In contrast to the Aristotelian model, the goal (‘telos’) of this process is not the realization or fulfilment of potentiality (‘dynamis’) but the passing on itself that is in permanent danger of solidifying.

I think that these ideas might give you a hint on the different approaches to Information Ethics between Charles Ess and myself. It would be, I think, small-minded to build an opposition between them.
In a contribution for The Handbook of Information and Computer Ethics, ed. Kenneth E. Himma & Herman T. Tavani (New Jersey 2008, 639-665), I analyzed our approaches in dialogue with Toru Nishigaki in this way:

I. The Foundational Debate

1. On the Sources of Morality
Morality is not founded on independent facts about the world but arises spontaneously (sponte sua) from (Greek: hothen) the awareness and respect for the abyssal facticity and uniqueness of the world itself and human existence which are the invaluable and theoretically nonprovable truth-values on which all moral claims rest. (Lévinas, 1968). Beliefs, institutions, and practices of cultures give a long term stability to such claims and make them obvious. Cultural frameworks are not conceived as closed worlds but as grounded in common affective human experiences of sharing a finite existence in a common world. In other words, the ontic differences between human cultures are refractions of the common world awareness. Every effort to determine the nature of this awareness gives rise to different experiences and interpretations. We speak of multicultural ethics in case we juxtapose such interpretations instead of comparing them. The opposite is a monocultural view that conceives itself as the only valid one. Human reason is genuinely plural with regard to common tentative transcultural expressions of this common ground such as the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” whose principles are subject to permanent scrutiny and intercultural interpretation and, being linguistic utterances, build the necessary but not sufficient condition for moving the will of, say, the member states of the United Nations to put it into practice (Ladd, 1985).

2. On the Foundations of IIE

a) Charles Ess

Charles Ess’ “global information ethics” seeks to avoid imperialistic homogenization while simultaneously preserving the irreducible differences between cultures and peoples (Ess, 2006). He analyzes the connections of such an ethical pluralism between contemporary Western ethics and Confucian thought. Both traditions invoke notions of resonance and harmony to articulate pluralistic structures of connection alongside irreducible differences. Ess explores such a pros hen pluralism in Eastern and Western conceptions of privacy and data privacy protection. This kind of pluralism is the opposite to a purely modus vivendi  pluralism that leaves tensions and conflicts unresolved and giving thus rise to a cycle of violence. Another more robust form of pluralism presupposes a shared set of ethical norms and standards but without overcoming deep contradictions. An even stronger form of pluralism does not search identity but only some kind of coherence or, as Ess suggests, complementarity between two irreducible different entities. The problem with this position is that it still asks for some kind of unity between irreducible positions. In order to make this goal plausible and somehow rational one must show where the possible focus that allows complementary lies. Otherwise I see a contradiction between irreducibility and  complementarity. This is a similar problem as the one raised by Thomas Kuhn concerning the question of the incommensurability of scientific theories arising from a paradigm change through scientific revolutions (Kuhn, 1962). Ess’ concepts of resonance, or complementarity raise the Aristotelian question of equivocity, analogy and univocity. I think that irreducible positions cannot be logically reduced to some kind of complementarity but it may be a deeper experimental source of unity such as the one I suggested at the beginning that is beyond the sphere of ontic or, to put it in Kantian terms, categorial oppositions. Kant’s solution was the presupposition of a nouomenal world that manifests itself practically through the categorical imperative. I believe that the facticity and uniqueness of the world and human life offers an empirical hothen dimension if not for overcoming categorial differences at least for a dialogue on cognitive-emotive fundamental experiences of our common being in the world (Eldred 2006).

b) Toru Nishigaki

In his contribution on information ethics in Japan, Toru Nishigaki makes a difference between the search of ethical norms in the context of new information technologies (IT) on the one hand, and the changes “on our views of human beings and society” becoming “necessary to accompany the emergence of the information society” on the other hand (Nishigaki, 2006, p. 237). Such changes concern, for instance, the Western idea of a “coherent self” being questioned by information processing in robots. Although this change may lead from a Western perspective to nihilism, Buddhist philosophy teaches that there is no such a thing as a “coherent self” ethics having to do with compassion as well as with the relationship between the individual and the community, instead, as with the preservation of a “coherent self,” the key ethical question being how our communities are changing instead how far the “self” is endangered. As Nishigaki remarks: “It is possible to say, therefore, that in a sense the West now stands in need of Eastern ethics, while the East stands in need of Western ethics.” Nishigaki stresses at the same time that there is no “easy bridge” between IT and Eastern philosophy. IT as looked from a cultural standpoint “has a strong affinity with the Judeo-Christian pursuit for a universal interpretation of sacred texts.” Although we in the West look for some kind of unchanged meaning of terms, such as in Charles Ess' pros hen search for shared values and a tolerant or benevolent view on judgment diversity, the Zen master is eager to exercise himself in his disciple “by doing away with universal or conventional interpretations of the meanings of words” (Nishigaki 2006, p. 238). In other words, the Buddhist stance teaches us, Westerners another strategy beyond the controversy between monism and pluralism, by way of a different kind of practice from the Socratic dialogue. Nishigaki points to the controversy in the West between cognitive science and its view of cognition as a “representation” of the “outer world” and the view shared by our everyday experience as well as, for instance, phenomenology. Biologist Francisco Varela’s theory of autopoiesis offers an alternative based on the Buddhist view on cognition as “a history of actions performed by a subject in the world” being then not representation of a pregiven world by a pregiven mind but “enactment” of such a history in the world (Nishigaki, 2006, p. 239). Nishigaki calls “ethical norms” the code or “behaviour pattern” as perceived by a social system’s observer. I would prefer to speak here of “moral norms” and reserve the concept of ethics for the reflection of such an observer on the factual norm. This is no less than the Aristotelian distinction between "ethos" and "techne ethike" or between morality and ethics. This terminological and conceptual difference has been proposed, for instance, by sociologist Niklas Luhmann (1990), being also broadly used in Western ethics.The undifferentiated use of these terms, as is mostly the case in everyday life, might lead to an uncritical approach of the role of ethics as observer-dependent reflection, which is the standpoint addressed by Nishigaki’s “fundamental informatics.” From this perspective, the conflict raised by globalization does not consist in the universal application of Western ethics but of Western morality. The universal application of Western ethics means that the discussion on morality would take place only on the basis of Western conceptual schemes. This is exactly what intercultural information ethics questions, understood as a permanent process of reflection and "translation," intend to avoid. For a comprehensive view of this East/West dialogue see Nishigaki and Takenouchi (Eds.) The Thought of Information Ethics. Communis 05 (in Japanese) Tokyo, 2007.

3. What do you think is important to understand Nelson Mandela as an information ethicist as a result of study on the African information ethics?

In his autobiography  "Long Walk to Freedom" Nelson Mandela calls himself a "freedom fighter". Freedom with regard to what? To Apartheid, of course, i.e., to the racial segregation that excluded  the majority black population from social and political life. At the core of this segregation was information Apartheid. The "freedom fighter" was, in fact, a freedom of information fighter.

I quote from the draft of my introduction to "Nelson Mandela. A Reader on Information Ethics" edited by Coetzee Bester, Johannes Britz, Rafael Capurro and Rachel Fischer, published by the ICIE in 2021, where it is available free of charge

The idea to write this essay on Nelson Mandela arose during the International Policy Dialogue on IFAP (Information for all Programme, UNESCO) Priority Areas focused on BRICS organized by UNESCO and the Department of Information Science, African Centre of Excellence for Information Ethics (ACEIE) at the University of Pretoria in collaboration with UNESCO and representatives of the BRICS group (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) held in Cape Town on July 4-6, 2018 (Capurro 2020). During the meeting a speech by Frederik Willem de Klerk as well as a visit to Robben Island took place. In the aftermath both events made evident to me that particularly Nelson Mandela's autobiography Long Walk to Freedom as well as his letters and speeches (Mandela 2003, 2010) deal with IFAP topics such as information for development, information literacy, information preservation, information accessibility, and multilingualism. Mandela's life and his reflection upon particularly in his autobiography is an example of how freedom of information that is at the core of a free society can take place in heterotopian spaces (Wikipedia: Heterotopia). A jail is such a heterotopian space, but also a whole country ruled by Apartheid.

Mandela spent 27 years in jail, 18 of them in Robben Island (1964-1982), prisoner number 466/64, in a cell measuring 8 feet (2.4 m) by 7 feet (2.1 m). A heterotopian space within another one. He imagined his country as a place in which the rule of law, freedom of speech, and social justice are the common basis for all South Africans. Mandela describes his experience in Robben Island in a letter to Winnie Mandela dated 16 November 1970 as follows: 

You looked much better than I expected, but far from what you were when we last met in Dec. '68. The cumulative effect of a thousand and one strains was clearly visible. As I walked back to the jail after the interview, I was preoccupied with the fear that now that you have to live alone for 12 hours in the night, loneliness and anxiety might worsen your condition. This fear still haunts me.

Incidentally, on my way down to the visiting rooms on Nov. 7, I managed to see the boat on which you came as it steamed gracefully to harbour, beautiful in its bright colours. Even at a distance it looked a real prisoners' friend, and I became more anxious as it approached. You know why! I saw it again as it sailed back to the mainland. This time the picture was altogether different. Though it still retained its brightness, the beauty I had seen only a few hours before was gone. Now it looked grotesque and quite unfriendly. As it drifted slowly away with you, I felt all alone in the world and the books that fill my cell, which have kept me company all these years, seemed mute and unresponsive. Have I seen my darling for the last time, it is a question that kept recurring. (Mandela 2010, 187; Dixon 2013)

Every word of this letter is worth being meditated. The incoming boat bringing Winnie back after two years of separation looks like "a real prisoners' friend" while the boat leaving Robben Island "looked grotesque and quite unfriendly." The difference between the incoming and the leaving boat corresponds to the difference between the heterotopian space in which Mandela is living and the 'normal' Apartheid world in which she lives. The separation from Winnie lets him feel "alone in the world" disconnected from any social experience where not even the surrogate of social life that books can be what they are, i.e. a written expression of human conversation. They "seemed  mute and unresponsive." Books cannot speak or give an answer to a question if they are not seen as belonging implicitly or explicitly to social life. This experience of meeting and separating from each other is a limit experience concerning all what is excluded in a jail, within another heterotopian space, the Apartheid state.

In a letter to Winnie dated 1 February 1975 Mandela writes that the cell as the place where he feels as "alone in the world" can be experienced as a place where the human self can perceive himself as sharing a common world. How is this change of perspective possible? It is possible because, as Aristotle puts it, "the psyche is in a way all beings" (he psyche ta onta pos esti panta) (Aristotle 1974, De Anima III 431b21). Mandela writes:

Incidentally, you may find that the cell is an ideal place to learn to know yourself, to search realistically and regularly the process of your mind and feelings. In judging our progress as individuals we tend to concentrate on external factors such as one's social position, influence and popularity, wealth and standard of education. There are, of course, important in measuring one's success in material matters and it is perfectly understandable if many people exert themselves mainly to achieve all these. But internal factors may be even more crucial in assessing one's development as a human being. Honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, pure generosity, absence of vanity, readiness to serve others – qualities which are within easy reach of every soul – are the foundation of one's spiritual life. Development in matters of this nature is inconceivable without serious introspection, without knowing yourself, your weaknesses and mistakes. At least, if for nothing else, the cell gives you the opportunity  to look daily into your entire conduct, to overcome the bad and develop whatever is good in you. Regular meditation, say about 15 minutes a day before you turn in, can be very fruitful in this regard. You may find it difficult at first to pinpoint the negative features in your life, but the 10th attempt may yield rich rewards. Never forget that a saint is a sinner who keeps on trying. (Mandela 2010, 211-212)

Mandela's cell becomes "incidentally" the place where his soul has the opportunity to reflect about being "in a way all beings" (Aristotle). In a letter dated 25 February 1987, five years after leaving Robben Island, he writes to Frieda Matthews, married to Professor Zachariah Keodirelang (Z K) Matthews (1901-1968), academic, politician and anti-apartheid activist, member of the ANC:

A visit to a prisoner always has significance difficult to put into words. Routine is the supreme law of a prison in almost every country of the world, and every day is for all practical purposes like the day before: the same surroundings, same faces, same dialogue, same odour, walls rising to the skies, and the ever-present feeling that outside the prison gates there is an exciting world to which you have no access. A visit from your beloved ones, from friends and even from strangers is always an unforgettable occasion, when that frustrating monotony is broken and the entire world is literally ushered into the cell. (Mandela 2010, 150)

The world that "literally ushered into the cell" was brought by each visitor, their souls being "in a way all beings" (Aristotle). The visitors made manifest to him the difference between the heterotopian space of the jail and the "exiting world to which you have no access." This difference was the source for Mandela's becoming a freedom fighter. In an unpublished autobiographical manuscript written in prison he states:

I am also aware that massive efforts have been made here and abroad for my release and that of other political prisoners, a campaign which has given us much inspiration and shown us that we have hundreds of thousands of friends. Next to my wife's affection and that of the family as a whole, few things have inspired me more that the knowledge that in spite of all that the enemy is doing to isolate and discredit us people everywhere never forget us. But we know the enemy very well – they would like to release us from a position of strength and not of weakness and this is an opportunity they have missed forever. However inspiring it is to know that our friends are insisting on our release, a realistic approach clearly shows that we must rule out completely the possibility that such a demand will succeed. But I am highly optimistic, even behind prison walls I can see the heavy clouds and the blue sky over the horizon, that however wrong our calculations have been and whatever difficulties we still must face, that in my lifetime I shall step out into the sunshine, walk with firm feet because that event will be brought by the strength of my organisation and the sheer determination of our people. (Mandela 2010, 243-244)

Mandela can see the common world "even behind prison walls" as an open natural and human world of "heavy clouds and the blue sky over the horizon" that he shares, despite living in prison, with all his friends, his family, his organisation and his people. Being a prisoner but knowing that he is a free man aiming at living in a free society is the ethical foundation of Mandela's life and work as a "freedom fighter." It enables him not only to fight for freedom and to reflect upon it becoming a fighter committed to live according to his maxims and to render himself accountability about his deeds and aspirations.


I believe that this experience of living many years in a heterotopian place like the jail in Robben Island, as it was also South Africa itself under Apartheid, is an outstanding example of practical experience and theoretical reflection for people excluded in different forms from social life nowadays and, of course, for people engaged in a critical information ethical discourse in teaching and research institutions. This is the main task of global Information Ethics in the 21st century.

Last update: July 21, 2023


Copyright © 2023 by Rafael Capurro, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. and international copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the authors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the authors.

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