Michal Lorenz - Rafael Capurro

Interview by Michal Lorenz, Masaryk University, Division of Information and Library Studies, Brno, Czech Republic, published in Czech in the journal Ikaros (2009).

1.  You were born in Uruguay and studied in Argentina, is that right? Tell me, what is it exactly that brought you to Europe and what caused you stayed there?

Yes, I was born in Montevideo in 1945. I entered the Jesuit order in Uruguay in 1963 and left it in 1970. During these eight years I did the usual Jesuit studies in Humanities and Philosophy. After the novitiate, I studied first Humanities at the Jesuit's college in Padre Hurtado, in Santiago de Chile. Then I went to the Faculty of Philosophy and Theology (also called Colegio Máximo) in San Miguel, near Buenos Aires, which was part of the Universidad del Salvador, a Jesuit university. There I obtained a Licentiate in Philosophy in 1970.

After leaving the Jesuit order, I first worked in the field of documentation in Buenos Aires and subsequently applied for a scientific exchange programme between Argentina and Germany. At that time, the first international data bases were built in fields such as atomic energy and medicine. I got the opportunity for a two years research residence (1972-1973) at the Zentralstelle für Atomkernenergie-Dokumentation (ZAED) in Karlsruhe (Germany), which was a leading institution in the field of computerized documentation and later became the basis for the Fachinformationszentrum Karlsruhe. During the first year I got a Diploma in Documentation from the Lehrinstitut für Dokumentation in Frankfurt am Main.

Due to political instability in Argentina I remained in Germany after these two years and worked as a documentalist at ZAED for two years (1974-1975). After that I worked for the Federal Plan on Information and Documentation (IuD-Programm) for one year. What also caused me to stay here was – my wife!

2. Originally you studied philosophy. Why did you choose to devote your life to information science?

Yes, I studied philosophy in Buenos Aires, as I already said, but when I got confronted with the information science field I was soon intrigued by the concept of information from a philosophical perspective. I tried not to divorce my philosophical background from the technological field I was dealing with. This is the reason why I asked Prof. Norbert Henrichs from Düsseldorf University who was building the Philosophy Documentation Center there, if he would supervise a dissertation dealing with this subject. He agreed. It took me some three years to write: "Information. A Contribution to the Foundation of the Information Concept from an Etymological and History of Ideas Perspective" (Munich 1978).

My interest in information science was theoretical as well as practical. It gave me the opportunity to start a professional career in Germany and at the same time I could connect it with my philosophical background. This interrelation became more and more important in the following years.

3. In Brno, you held a lecture about several current problems in information ethics. Which of them is, in your point of view, the most important one and why?

My lecture in Brno in June 2009 intended to give an overview on current research and future trends in Information Ethics. I highlighted some forthcoming topics like robotics, e-waste, ubiquitous computing, surveillance society, convergent technologies and ICT-Implants and enhancements. All these technologies deal implicitly or explicitly with values, attitudes, preferences, social conflicts, dreams and anxieties that are in some cases common to everybody, but at the same time they are specific or singular not only because human societies have different historical experiences, projects, geographical settings etc., but also because the interpretation of our being-in-the-world itself has been enriched during a long cultural evolution with different views of the world and ourselves.

Because of the local and global impact of ICT I believe that we need philosophical as well as empirical research in Intercultural Information Ethics (IIE) that can also be of practical help when looking, for instance, for a common ethical and legal basis of the Internet particularly with regard to questions of governance and the environmental consequences of ICT

4. Your lecture was a minor part of your visit in Czech Republic. The major part related to the meeting of the EGE (European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies), CZ NEC (Czech Bioethical Commission of the Research and Development Council) and NEC Forum (Forum of the National Ethics Councils) held under the auspice of the Czech Presidency. Can you explain to our readers the objectives of these meetings and outline the results of the negotiations?

Concerning the EGE, let me first quote from the website:

"The Group is a neutral, independent, pluralist and multidisciplinary body, composed of fifteen experts appointed by the Commission for their expertise and personal qualities. The task of the Group is to examine ethical questions arising from science and new technologies and on this basis to issue Opinions to the European Commission in connection with the preparation and implementation of Community legislation or policies. In order to face the ethical issues that are arising with the rapid advances in science and technology, the Members represent a broader range of professional competences in different disciples such as, inter alia, biology and genetics, medicine, pharmacology, agricultural sciences, ICT, law, ethics, philosophy, and theology. For every full Opinion to be issued by the Group, a roundtable is held before the Opinion is adopted, to which representatives of the Institutions of the European Union, experts of the fields, parties representing different interests, including NGOs, patients and consumer organisations and industrial stakeholders, are invited to participate in the debate." 

Similar groups exist in most EU countries and in other nations as well as in intergovernmental organisations world wide as well. EGE and NEC meet twice a year in the country that has the EU Presidency in order to exchange views and discuss common problems and objectives. The meeting in Prague was also a normal monthly EGE meeting. We discussed matters of the current Opinion on Synthetic Biology that will be finished by October 2009.

The agenda of the EGE/NEC meeting can be found here.

5. In your lecture, you mentioned the term e-waste. Can you explain in detail what it means?

Let me quote from the Call for Papers of the next issue of the  International Review of Information Ethics (IRIE) (Vol. 11, 8/2009): Network Ecologies.  The Ethics of Waste in the Information Society (Guest Editors: Soenke Zehle, Matthias Feilhauer):

“The (emergent) transnational network of organizing around environmental and social justice issues in the global networks of electronics production is arguably the most vital area of 'network culture' when it comes to broader ecopolitical concerns. Given the fetishization of dematerialization-through-technology of an earlier generation of cyberlibertarian theorizing, we consider these efforts to have significance beyond the already broad array of issues related to the toxicity of computers and its implications to workers, users, and the environment.”

In other words, the local and global impact of ICT is ambiguous. It is one of the biggest cultural changes since the invention of the printing press, but at the same time it is producing dangerous toxic waste on a global scale with strong negative impact for humans and nature particularly in developing countries due the “export” of e-waste from developed countries. Take as an example this Greenpeace report (in German) about Ghana  or also this one (in English)as well as several videos on ‘electronic waste’ from India, China and other countries in YouTube.

6. One of today’s main topics is the financial meltdown. Is there any connection with information ethics in the current set of society’s information ecology?

I think that there is an obvious connection between the financial meltdown and ICT since the complexity and speed of global capitalism wouldn’t be possible without the Internet. This is one more paradox of the information society similar to the one I pointed to already concerning e-waste.

We need better international rules, institutions and procedures in order to tame digital capitalism, but we also need a deeper philosophical understanding of its presuppositions and hidden positive as well as negative potentialities. An ethical discourse on the social and ecological issues at stake is extremely important in order to envisage sustainable scenarios for this century. The major challenges humanity is facing are clearly stated in the UN Millenium goals.

7. As a philosopher you scrutinized the concept of information. Which features of information do you rate as essential for a full understanding of this concept?

There are several concepts of information in different scientific disciplines some of them related to its everyday meaning of ‘communication of new (and relevant) knowledge’ which includes the process as well as the content itself. Shannon’s concept of information was and still is extremely useful in the field of telecommunication and electrical engineering but not for social sciences where semantic and pragmatic aspects are particularly relevant. The German sociologist Niklas Luhmann defines information (“Information”) as the result of a selection based on a “meaning offer” (“Mitteilung”). The (psychic or social) system performing this selection integrates it within its own framework (“Verstehen”).

This is a similar perspective as the one based on hermeneutics, where semantic and pragmatic understanding is based on a (tacit) pre-understanding (“Vorverständnis”) that is (partly) shared by sender(s) and receiver(s). In both theories information means nothing that is being transmitted from A to B. Also in the case of Shannon’s theory, what is being transmitted is a message, not information. The relation between these two concepts, information and message, seems to me essential. It has been mostly overseen.

8. Are there some ontological consequences of the information concept?

This depends on what is meant by ontology. As you know, ontology is an important concept in philosophy since its very beginning. There is a long and complex history related to ontology and metaphysics, where ontology deals with a general theory of being(s) while metaphysics deals with specifically with some higher order beings such as god or the human soul. Today, the concept of ontology is used in information and computer science when dealing with some specific area whose objects are conceptually identified and clarified. This has been done for a long time in the LIS field with regard to classification schemes and thesauri.

Following Nietzsche’s and Heidegger’s questioning of Western metaphysics as aiming at fixing one possible interpretation of Being – a questioning that was also done by other philosophical schools in the 20th century – I believe that the concept of information and particularly of digital information builds a pervasive horizon not only in today’s scientific research, but also in social life. We believe that we understand something when we are able to grasp it as a digital phenomenon. If we are aware that is one possible interpretation of Being, we have to do with a digital ontology. In case we believe that this is the only and true possibility for understanding the Being of beings, we create a digital metaphysics.

The same can be said with regard to the concept of information, independently of the question concerning its (potential) digitization. To understand, for instance, evolution as an information process, i.e., as a process where forms are produced, ‘in-formed’ and ‘trans-formed’ at different levels is an old philosophical idea going back to Plato’s metaphysics whose concept of ‘idea’ is not far away from what we say about that evolution is ‘in-formation’. The interrelation between an objective and a subjective concept of information was clearly analyzed by the German physicist and philosopher Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker. It was Weizsäcker who gave me first hints for exploring this issue in my PhD.

Your can find more on this matter in my 2005 paper: Towards an ontological foundation of information ethics

9. You give birth to several new fields of investigation. I think, the least known of them is angeletics. Can you outline what the subject of angeletics deals with?

While exploring the modern uses of information while writing my PhD I asked myself what could be the concept(s) used in ancient Greek and Latin. Weizsäcker put me on the track of ‘eidos’, ‘idea’ and ‘mophe’ that are key concepts of Plato’s and Aristotle’s philosophy and of the following history of ideas. On this track I came to the Latin concept of ‘informatio’ that proved to be highly relevant for authors like Cicero, Augustine or Thomas Aquinas. But I still was not happy with this result. The concept of ‘logos’ (language, reason) seemed to me too broad. I cannot exactly remember how and why I came to look for the concept of message (Greek: ‘angelia’) and messenger (Greek: ‘angelos’) and wrote a short note on them in my dissertation.

Later on, the difference between information and message became more and more tangible, particularly trying to understand Shannon’s theory of message (!) transmission, but also the broad impact of digital messages since the rise of the Internet. One important difference between these two concepts is that information is a ‘horizontal’ concept based on the autonomy of a subject that asks for it. Message is something that comes from the other: I receive a message, but I cannot ask for it even when I say: ‘please, send me a message’ it is the other who decides to do it or not. Message is a ‘vertical’ or ‘heteronomous’ concept. Another important aspect is the difference between a ‘medium’ and a ‘messenger’. Both are related concepts. A subtle analysis is needed in order to work out their differences.

Since 1995, when I published my book “Leben im Informationszeitalter,” I have been writing contributions to a message theory or ‘angeletics’ as you can see here. There is also an impact of this theory in several disciplines and authors including LIS as you can see here.

10. You are interested in information management as well. If knowledge is deeply rooted in humans and there is no real knowledge in knowledge systems or books, just data, can we speak about a new field or are we dealing just with old, new-like looking field hidden under a buzzword title?

Information and knowledge management are indeed influential labels, not only in LIS, but also in economics. Companies are being said to be information (and knowledge) processing systems no less that society as a whole. There is indeed an inflationary use of these concepts in society, as well as in science and nowadays also in philosophy. Knowledge stored in books or data banks or the Internet or… is indeed always potential knowledge. There is no ‘objective knowledge’ out there like a stone or a chair or even a ‘third world’ of ‘objective knowledge’ as proposed by Karl Popper. If humans, or any other system capable of interpreting a text would completely disappear then libraries or the Internet or… would be strictly speaking meaningless. In other words, meaning is not a property of something, but a second-order category. It is a social construct. I wrote about this in my book “Hermeneutik der Fachinformation” that was my ‘Habilitation’ thesis published in 1986.


11. What are you going to work on next? What is the next project you are going to work on or next problem you would like to focus on?

From a practical, or managerial point of view I am engaged in several projects dealing with the creation of regional research networks on information ethics in Africa, Latin America and Asia, particularly Japan and China. The basis for these activities are the International Center for Information Ethics (ICIE) as well as the Steinbeis-Transfer-Institut Information Ethics (STI-IE). I participate at several European and international projects on information ethics like, for instance, ETICA (Ethical Issues of Emerging ICT Applications. And I also want to develop angeletics from a philosophical, as well as from an empirical perspective. The proceedings of a German speaking symposium held in March this year at the Karlsruhe Center for Art and Media will be published next year. I hope to write a short contribution, but I am happy that several colleagues have discovered the issue and will enrich the discussion further.

Last update: August  22, 2017


Copyright © 2009 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 author is 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 author.


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