Rafael Capurro
Paper presented at a colloquium organized by The Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (USA), September 19-24, 2003. PowerPoint. Also presented in a different version at the "Colloquium on Violence & Religion" COV&R Conference 2003 at University of Innsbruck: "Passions in Economy, Politics, and the Media. In Discussion with Christian Theology" June 18-21, 2003. Published in: Wolfgang Palaver, Petra Steinmair-Pösel (Eds.): Passions in Economy, Politics, and the Media. In Discussion with Christian Theology. Vienna: Lit Verlag 2005, 331-343 (See here). About this paper: Walser, Angelika: Infocalypse now. Gefährlich und erotisch zugleich ist das Internet. Betrachtungen des Philosophen Rafael Capurro über ein antikes Liebespaar im neuen Medium. In: Die Furche (Wien), Nr. 33, 14. August 2003, p. 17.




I. Passions of the Internet
II. Passions in the Internet
III. Information Technology and the Art of Living




The first part of the paper deals with the hackers' visions that gave rise to the internet as analysed by Pekka Himanen in his book "The Hacker Ethic." According to Himanen, hacker ethic is a passionate ethic of work that is seen as an alternative to predominant Protestant ethic in capitalist societies. Hacker ethic is based on such values as openness, information-sharing, and the passionate desire to create something together in a joyful way. In the second part of the paper I discuss how these passions turned into the opposite as the internet grew up, giving rise to cyber-mythology. Taking some insights from Emmanuel Lévinas I suggest a twist of the hacker ethic into a passionate "ethic of the Other." In the third part I deal with information technology from the perspective of the "technologies of the self" (Michel Foucault). 




In the following I will first refer to Pekka Himanen analysis of the hacker's passions that gave rise to the internet. In the second part I will describe how the internet became the ambiguous place of a cyber-mythology. Taking some insights from Emmanuel Lévinas I suggest a twist of the hacker ethic into a passionate "ethic of the Other." In the third part I deal with information technology from the perspective of the "technologies of the self" (Michel Foucault). 

I. Passions of the Internet 

In "A Brief History of Computer Hackerism" Pekka Himanen tells a story concerning the passions that gave birth to the internet. He writes: 

"The hackers transformed computers and the Net into a social medium that was not part of either the governmental nor corporate plans. Email was invented in July 1970 by Ray Tomlinson, who is also the one to thank (or blame) for the @-symbol in email addresses. Abbate describes the consequence of this unexpected innovation: "ARPANET users came to rely on email in their day-to-day activities, and before long email had eclipsed all other network applications in volume of traffic." From then on, e-mail has been the most popular use of the Net." (Himanen 2003)
Himanen stresses how the hacker ideal of openness influenced the creation of new communication forms such as chat, invented by Jarkko Oikarinen, a student at the University of Ouli in Finland, in 1988 or the alt(ernative) news group domain, cofounded in 1987 by California libertarian John Gilmore, and the worlwide hypertext vision of Tim Berners-Lee, working at particle physics research center CERN in Switzerland.  A key issue in the creation of a free digital space, which according to Berner-Lee's dream should be "a space in which anything could be linked to anything," was the elimination of the 'operator' "comparable in experience to the elimination of telephone operators" allowing a free and direct exchange between individuals. Personal computers should be used not to control but to free people (Himanen 2003). At the beginning of the hacker's tradition during the 1960s at MIT there is a leading passionate mood namely enthusiasm. Hackers are people who "program enthusiastically." (Himanen 2003) In the preface of his book Himanen remarks that the concept of 'hacker' has been applied by hackers themselves to "an expert or enthusiast of any kind." In other words, a hacker is a person who is enthusiastically or, as we may also say, passionately dedicated to his/her work (Himanen 2001). The hacker ethic's driving value can be stated as follows: 
"The belief that information-sharing is a powerful positive good, and that it is an ethical duty of hackers to share their expertise by writing free software and facilitating access to information and to computing resources wherever possible." (Himanen 2003)
In the site of his well-known book "The Hacker Ethic" the book was planned as a collaborative work with Linus Torvalds and Manuel Castells, authors of prologue and epilogue Himanen makes a difference between 'hackers' and 'crackers' or between a constructive and a destructive use of computers:
"Here, the word hacker doesn't refer to computer criminals but what the word originally meant: a person who wants to do something that one is passionate about, something in which one can realize oneself creatively, and something in which one can build things for the good of all. The hacker ethic is a new work ethic questioning the old Protestant ethic." (Himanen 2001)
It seems prima facie paradoxical to oppose, as Himanen does, hacker's ethic which is a 'work ethic' to Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism instead of considering it in opposition to an ethic of leisure. But, in fact, this is an opposition between two ethics of work. Hacker's values go, according to Himanen, beyond computer hackerism as they promote "passionate and freely rhythmed work." Its basis is not just utilitarian rationality but creative imagination (Himanen 2001). The same can be said with regard to hacker's money ethic. While in the Protestant ethic, money is made by "information-owning," hacker's money ethic is based on "information-sharing." Instead of being based on the efficient rationality of producing (material) things as a mean to an endless process of economic profit, hacker's activity is guided by "a desire to create something that one's peer community would find valuable -- a common attitude." (Himanen 2001) Finally Himanen mentions a third element of hacker ethic namely their "network ethic or nethic" a dimension most closely related to modern Protestant ideals to freedom of expression seen now as freedom of access to the internet. This seems today's driving passion of the world wide and WWW debate on the so called digital divide 

According to Himanen, hacker ethic is passionate Platonic:  

"This passionate relationship to work is not an attitude found only among computer hackers. For example, the academic world can be seen as its much older predecessor. The researcher's passionate intellectual inquiry received similar expression nearly 2,500 years ago when Plato, founder of the first academy, said of philosophy, "like light flashing forth when a fire is kindled, it is born in the soul and straightway nourishes itself." (Himanen 2001)
The context of the quotation from the "Seventh Letter" (Ep. VII, 341 c-d) concerns Plato's famous thesis that true philosophic insight cannot be communicated through writing but arises "suddenly" ("exaiphnes") when people live together ("syzen") and talk often and familiarly to each other ("synousias") about such matters. But hackers are not said to be true Platonists no less than followers of the Protestant ethic are said to belong necessary to the Western civilisation, so that for instance, no Japanese could adhere to it. In other words Plato and Weber are less historic examples than symbols of a specific view of work and society. Hacker ethic is a passionate or erotic one and, in this regard, it is the opposite to the kind of ascetic work ethics described by Max Weber (Weber 2000). Its historical precursor was not the academy but the monastery. Hackers activity is described by Linus Torvalds in the Prologue as "entertainment" because it is "interesting, exciting, and joyous" and goes beyond the realm of surviving or of economic life. Himanen prefers Eric Raymond's word "passion" instead of "entertainment." (Himanen 2001) In his essay "The Academy and the Monastery" dedicated to Eric Raymond, Himanen writes: 
"The reason why the hackers' open-source model works so effectively seems to be - in addition to the facts that they are realizing their passions and are motivated by peer recognition, as scientists are, too -- that to a great degree it conforms to the ideal open academic model, which is historically the best adapted for information creation." (Himanen 2003a)
Raymond considered the bazaar instead of the cathedral as model for the spirit of open-source. Himanen prefers another pair namely the academy and the monastery. Following the ideal of the academic model hackers abhor plagiarism and submit themselves freely to the internal sanctions of their peers. Hacker's passion is learning in an "informal way, following their passions" the task of teaching being "to strengthen the learners' ability to pose problems, develop lines of thought, and present criticism." (Himanen 2003a) 

Hacker ethic is a Socratic one. But hacker's passionate learning is not directed as Plato's passionate search for truth towards a world beyond the appearances. Computer programming is an embedded activity and near to "flesh life." Sandy Lerner liked riding naked on horseback. Richard Stallman was a "bearded and longhaired guru." Eric Raymond liked role-playing games (Himanen 2001). These examples are as far from Max Weber's monks, protestants, and bureaucrats as they are from the Platonic contempt of the material world with its sensorial and sensual pleasures. This kind of work ethic is closer to the Epicurean than to the Platonic tradition. 

The network society as such does not simply deny or supersede industrial society and its Protestant work ethics. It would be an illusion to believe that technological advances would "somehow, automatically, make our lives less work-centered." (Himanen 2001) In other words, it is not the technological passion of the internet that is going to change society but "an alternative spirit" that may be able to "crack the lock of the iron cage" which, according to Max Weber, would be the stage of a lifeless and materialistic work-centered ethic (Weber 2000, 188). But even if work in the sense of labor will not end, as Himanen stresses following Manuel Castells, hacker work-ethic is considered as the opposite to the view of a society in which work has become an end in itself. If Protestant ethic moved the centre of gravity from Sunday to Friday, then hacker ethic is itself moved by a "pre-Protestant" ethic. Why this expression instead of "Catholic ethic"? Answer: because, although Catholic ethic is more near to Sunday and to joy, it is hierarchical, dogmatic, and monastic. Hackers  take the best of both traditions and meet at the Academy not at the cathedral. To put it in Greek mythological terms, their leading gods are not Sisyphus and Ares but Hephaistos and Eros -- working in the Academia. In order to realise their passions, hackers: 

"are ready to accept that the pursuit even of interesting tasks may not always be unmitigated bliss. For hackers, passion describes the general tenor of their activity, though its fulfilment may not be sheer joyful play in all aspects. (...) Passionate and creative, hacking also entails hard work." (Himanen 2001)
We may conclude that the hacker's passion is this networking of joy and work, of Sunday and Friday that goes beyond the alternative 'either pure work or pure leisure.' The object of this passion is life itself, passionate life, creativity. The key issue is that such a fundamental attitude is not restricted to computer hackerism. This means that the passion of life is stronger and broader than the passion of the internet. In order to make sense, the passion of the internet, hacker ethic in a narrow sense, has to become a passion for life. But there is an ambiguity in hacker ethic as it seems to blur the difference between the passion of doing good work with the passion of being good or of joyful and creative activity. The tension between technical knowledge ('techne'') concerning how to produce ('poiesis') something and ethical knowledge ('phronesis') dealing with what kind of action ('praxis') makes ourselves better and happier is, according to Aristotle, a crucial one.  It seems to me as if this tension is particularly difficult to perceive within the perspective of information technology as far as we intend to program not just production processes but human action. There is a tension between ethics and informatics, i.e., between the passion of programming life and the passions of life itself (Capurro 1990, 2003). This tension shines forth when we explore them in the internet. 

II. Passions in the Internet 

Passions are overall present in the internet particularly the passions of the body but also, of course, the ones of the soul. This sounds paradoxical since according to John Perry Barlow: 

"Cyberspace consists of transactions, relationships, and thought itself, arrayed like a standing wave in the web of our communications. Ours is a world that is both everywhere and nowhere, but it is not where bodies live." (Barlow 1996)
Barlow's "Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace" is based on the dichotomy between body and thinking or, more precisely, between an ontology of matter and a digital ontology (Capurro 2002). The exclusion of the body from cyberspace concerns no less the political and economic life. Barlow proclaims: 
"Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereingty where we gather. (Barlow 1996)
This kind of digital divide is, of course, not eliminated in case every human being has access to the internet and/or a homepage. In contrast to Barlow's proclamation the internet has become a common place for all kinds of sexual, economic, and political transactions with their corresponding passions and inequities. The "global conversation of bits" between "virtual selves" (Barlow 1996) looks like a parody of an angelic society (Capurro 1995, Esterbauer 1998). The prophets of the internet promise no less than "salvation in cyberspace" (Niewiandomski 2002). This is indeed a kind of "cyber-gnosis" (Wertheim 1999). The alternative "bits or bodies" (Frohmann 2000) means no less than the exclusion of the social and material basis of human existence. The Canadian information scientist Bernd Frohmann writes: 
"Since information always refers us to materiality and social practices, a leading issue of information ethics, such as access, cannot be construed simply as access to something called "information". Access to information refers us to access to social practices. The problem for the poor, the marginal, the outsiders, is not that they lack laptops, but that they are unjustly excluded from the social networks essential for trust in documents, in utterances, in representations and texts of any kind, in short, for information to emerge for them at all." (Frohmann 2000, 434)
The leading passion of our time is the passion of communication which is indeed an angeletic passion. I use the neologism 'angeletic' in order to draw the attention to the phenomenon of messages and messengers. According to sociologist Niklas Luhmann, there is a difference between message ("Mitteilung"), i.e., the action of offering something (potentially) meaningful to a social system ("Sinnangebot"), information ("Information"), i.e., the process of selecting meaning from different possibilities offered by a message, and understanding ("Verstehen"), i.e., the integration of the selected meaning within the system, as the three dimensions of communication within social systems (Luhmann 1987, 196). Message and information are related but not identical concepts: 
  • a message is sender-dependent, i.e. it is based on a heteronomic or asymmetric structure. This is not the case of information: we receive a message, but we ask for information,
  • a message is supposed to bring something new and/or relevant to the receiver. This is also the case of information,
  • a message can be coded and transmitted through different media or messengers. This is also the case of information, a message is an utterance that gives rise to the receiver's selection through a release mechanism or interpretation.
The message phenomenon implies thus a heteronomic structure between sender and receiver. I have suggested that we need not only a theory of media but a theory of messages and messengers or an angeletics (Capurro 2003a). 

The passion of communication is a modern one ever since the Enlightenment proclaimed the ideal of censorship-free production and distribution of messages that culminated in the principle of freedom of the press. This principle, which can be seen as the modern version of the principle of freedom of speech in oral societies, became a basic element of modern democracy. The passion of communication gave rise in the middle of the 20th century to a new technology of message distribution and use that we call the internet. With its different possibilities of distributing messages (one-to-many, many-to-one, many-to-many, one-to-one) the internet brought about a paradigm shift with regard to the hierarchical structure of mass media particularly since the widespread social use of such tools as e-mail, chat, and mailing lists. With the development of cellular phones these internet tools became ubiquitous. The question of freedom of access is seen as a crucial issue as far as networked mediated communication plays a major role in the economic, political, social, and cultural development of nations. The involuntary exclusion from the internet is called the digital divide. 

But we live indeed in a time of "empty angels" or “mediatic nihilism”, in which we forget what message is to be sent while the messengers multiply as Peter Sloterdijk remarks: “This is the very disangelium of current times” (Sloterdijk 1997). Nietzsche's word "Disangelium" (Nietzsche 1999, 211) in contrast to evangelium, points in this case to the empty nature of the messages disseminated by the mass media, culminating in Marshall McLuhan's dictum: "The medium is the message." This is a paradoxical outcome of hacker ethic with its passions for free, open, and joyful research. Hacker's alternative spirit that would "crack the lock of the iron cage" (Max Weber) has produced an invisible cage of surveillance, oppression, and exclusion. Secondly, the abhorrence of plagiarism has turned into a generalised copy-and-paste syndrome. People lose the ability and the joy to think by themselves.  

This is exactly what Plato put into the mouth of the Egyptian king Thamus who was not convinced about how useful the invention of writing was, as suggested by god Theut, the Hermes of Greek mythology. According to Theut's marketing slogans, writing was a medicine ('pharmakon') for improving memory and making people wiser but, in fact, king Thamus was not convinced with this kind of technology assessment and foresaw that his people would become idle and forget the capability of remembering and thinking on their own (Phaidr. 275 a-b). Finally, the message society suffers from the call syndrome. Everyone seems obsessed with the idea of receiving or not a message that might be of crucial importance for her life, his business, their business etc., and vice versa, everyone seems obsessed with the idea of sending messages all the time, to anybody, and anywhere that might be of no less importance with regard to all these objectives. The first obsession can be called the apocalyptic obsession, the second one the prophet obsession. Between them we can find all possible degrees of passions of and in the internet that becomes more and more the core of society as it turns to be invisible and trivial. 

The hacker's passion of information sharing turns into the cult of information protection. The Protestant ethic of profit takes the lead of the internet and creates for a few seconds a new economy that immediately blurs and lets the iron cage become even more powerful as it gets more digital intelligence inside. This seems also the case with regard to all kinds of 'flesh cages' that become re-engineered and integrated into a super bio-information system. But, in the meantime, people are still hungry and suffer in their everyday existence. It would be misleading to oppose the passion of eating to the passion of speaking or to believe that there is a simple logic as to what should be done first. But, obviously, first things first!  

"Grand est le manger" - "Eating is great!" is a slogan of Rabbi Yohanan recurrent in the work of Emmanuel Lévinas, particularly in his comments to the Talmud or "the oral law" (Ouaknin 2003). Human beings are not only speaking beings but also hungry ones. Both passions, the passion of eating and the passion of speaking belong together. Emmanuel Lévinas' "ethic of the Other" is a heteronomic or, as we could also call it, an angeletic ethic as it takes the call of the other, namely 'I am hungry', as the basic one. But, at the same time, it reflects on this call in order to be able to answer to it not only with regard to the materiality of her stomach -- usually Lévinas' ethic is well known for the importance he gives to the face of the other --  but in order to give her a message as well. Humans do not live from bread only.  

The passions of the internet and the passions in the internet are passions of speaking. Also with regard to them the ethic of passions, being a pre-Protestant or a Protestant one, that gives the primacy to our own passions can be ethically twisted through a reflection and action that gives the primacy to the passions of the Other, particularly to her stomach, a word whose Greek origin means at the same time open mouth ('stoma') and stomach.   

III. Information Technology and Technologies of the Self 

Michel Foucault distinguishes the following kinds of technologies, namely:  

  • "technologies of production, which permit us to produce, transform, or manipulate things," 
  • "technologies of sign systems, which permit us to use signs, meanings, symbols, or significations," 
  • "technologies of power which determine the conduct of individuals and submit them to certain ends or domination, an objectivizing of the subject," 
  • "technologies of the self, which permit individuals to effect by their own means or with the help of others a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality." (Foucault 1988, 18) 
How can we ensure that the benefits of information technology are not only distributed equitably, but that they can also be used by the people to shape their own lives? The first part of the question refers to legal and institutional aspects. The second part goes further, and asks not only for living norms but also for living forms. All three aspects include questions of truth, power and desire, that is, they include individual and social options concerning these questions. Under these premises we can ask, How can we ensure that institutional, normative and "life-forming" options remain open? My answer is that a legal control of information technology is not enough, but that these normative aspects should rest not only on a "code-oriented" but also on a "self-oriented" morality.  

Foucault's distinction between code-oriented and self-oriented morality does not imply a contradiction between moral rules on the one hand and individual freedom on the other. It stresses, on the contrary, their complementarity. In order to become moral subjects, it is not enough to have a code of ethics and to act according to it. There is another aspect concerning the different options through which we can put rules into practice within the context of our personal lives and within the cultural and historical context of different kinds of communities. In this case we are not simply agents but we become, as individuals and as communities, moral subjects of our actions. We are not an unchangeable "I" or "we," but an intersection of possible choices in a process of becoming, individually and socially, ourselves within a field of linguistic and institutional practices (Dreyfus and Rabinow 1983).  

The "self" is not the abstract subject invented by epistemological theories but a dynamic intersection of traditions and life projects through which individual and social identity is permanently created and questioned. But the ethical quest for authenticity is not only a process through which we become different by mutually recognizing our differences. It means, more radically, to be interpellated by the other, "face to face," as Emmanuel Lévinas (1961) says, particularly by the have-nots. The quest for our "selves" is ethically preceded by the questioning through the other, and the care of the self would be completely misunderstood if it were not interpreted as the intersection where we take care of our mutual relationships in the face of anonymous rules, practices, and institutions. 

If we conceive information society as a deliberative and an imaginative one where the practice of advising and consulting plays a key role, as should indeed be the case in democracies, information networks could become the artificial marketplace for different kinds of deliberation, dissent and advice, according to the insight that "in designing tools we are designing ways of being" (Winograd and Flores 1986 p. xi). We have to learn not just to store, retrieve, and manage information but to become aware that what we primary do is to handle with biased knowledge, i.e., that our basic ability in an information society should be a hermeneutical one, which includes such critical arts as interpretation, aesthetic or creative design, and responsibility towards our lives. In other words, we need information technology and technologies of the self: the art of friendship, the art choosing, the art of silence and the art of laughter. Let us try to think about these technologies of the self and about information technology. 

The Art of Friendship in the Face of Power  

In a "healing vision," (Christiane Floyd 1992) information technology should be questioned insofar as structures of power and oppression do not allow its transformation by people who try to help themselves and to help each other in shaping their lives. This transformation means a radical change of perspective: information technology is not just the subject that transforms us and our world, but at the same time, we have to incorporate it within different projects for saving and promoting the variety of life on this planet. We have been developing modern technology under the banner of mastery. Nature is giving us a last chance to do it under the banner of friendship. Hans Jonas (1984) has shown that we cannot limit friendship to our present world but have to extend it to the generations to come.  

The Art of Choosing in the Face of Oppression 

Information technology gives us means for reality construction, but it would be fatal if we did not make our choices dialogically, that is, through awareness of and respect of people and other living beings. As Christiane Floyd (1992) writes, "An important aspect of computer science is that it deals with creating reality: the technical reality of the programs executed on the computer, and the conditions for the human reality which unfolds around the computer in use. Therefore, the conceptual categories 'true' and 'false' it relies on are not sufficient in themselves. We have to go beyond them by finding categories for expressing the felicity of our choices, for distinguishing 'more or less desirable' as we proceed in making distinctions and decisions in communal design processes. This is essential for dealing with quality in software development and use" (p. 20). 

The Art of Silence in the Face of Verbosity 

Information technology is a loquacious technology. We have to learn the art of silence in order to hear what others say and have to say and to be able to overcome the art of taboo-silence issuing from the old paradigm of value-free science and technology. We need a universal ethical "logos" for coexistence in a common world. But this "logos" may remain monologic when it takes the technological shape of mass media. We have to learn to hear the differences between the "logoi" and to respect them. And we have to learn to hear our silent dimensions, namely finitude and suffering. To learn the art of silence means, on the one hand, to learn to confront ourselves with nothingness, i.e., with this nothingness we call our existence (Goguen, 1992), and, on the other hand, to feel responsible for the suffering of others, particularly when they are just a picture on the TV-screen.  

The Art of Laughter in the Face of Fear 

Technology possesses some of the characteristics of religious belief. In his famous novel The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco has shown that the art of laughter is a dangerous art for all dogmatic beliefs. Just as there are many senses of silence, there are also many kinds of laughter. I am referring now to a kind of laughter as an expression of insight into the basic weakness of all our technological projects. In Antiquity, laughter was considered a sign of madness as well as wisdom. The art of laughter means our ability to question our personal and social identity. It is a sign of our personal or social openness for what we are not, or for what we do not understand, for the Other. This gives us an opportunity to question our values from a not just "political" but also "poli-ethical" perspective. An "ethics of care", as Thomas Froehlich (1991, p. 299) remarks, cannot be blind to the individuality and contextuality of problems and needs, by using Rawls' technique of a "veil of ignorance". To care is, of course, not the same thing as to be fair (Rawls 1971). We should make sure that the practices of information become part of the practices of deliberation, advising, and dissenting; they should become part of our self-questioning so that they do not give rise to a new form of power, which strengthens the discourse of the panopticon into a super-panopticon (Poster, 1990).  


I call our being aware of the relationships between humans, world and technology, i.e., being aware of the fallacies of humanism, naturalism and technicism, synthetic thinking. The "care of the self" is synthetic thinking in the sense that we positively acknowledge our mutual dependencies: dependency of humans on nature and technology, of technology on nature and humans, and of nature on humans and technology. How can we ensure that the benefits of information technology are not only distributed equitably, but that they can also be used by people to shape their own lives? I think that the technologies of the self are an essential part of the answer to this question. 




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-: (2003) A Brief History of Computer Hackerism (nicht mehr online verfügbar)
-: (2003a) The Academy and the Monastery (nicht mehr online verfügbar)
Vgl. Wikipedia

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Last update: February 4, 2017


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