Smart Living in the Digital Age

Rafael Capurro

Keynote at the Online Symposium Ethics in the Age of Smart Systems. April 21, 2021, Edmonton, Canada. Videos of all presentations here.

This paper is based on: Capurro, R. (2020). Digital futures: A brief essay on sustainable life in the digital age. Metode Science Studies Journal, 10, 59-63. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.7203/metode.10.12539


The digital age is the age of smart systems. What does smart mean? According to the "Oxford Learner's Dictionaries" the adjective smart means "intelligent," "showing good judgement," "rude, computer-controlled, clean/neat, fashionable, quick," "opposite to stupid."  As a verb it means "to feel a sharp stinging pain in a part of your body," "to feel upset about a criticism, failure, etc." The "Oxford Etymology Dictionary" records in a concise manner the history of the meanings of smart as follows:

- Smart as verb: "Old English smeortan "be painful," from Proto-Germanic *smarta- [...] Old High German smerzan, German schmerzen "to pain," originally "to bite") [...]. 

- Smart as adjective: "late Old English smeart "painful, severe, stinging; causing a sharp pain," related to smeortan [...] ". Meaning "executed with force and vigor" is from c. 1300. Meaning "quick, active, clever" is attested from c. 1300, from the notion of "cutting" wit, words, etc., or else "keen in bargaining." Meaning "trim in attire" first attested 1718 [...]. In reference to devices, the sense of "behaving as though guided by intelligence" (as in smart bomb) first attested 1972. Smarts "good sense, intelligence," is first recorded 1968 (Middle English had ingeny "intellectual capacity, cleverness" (early 15c.)). Smart cookie is from 1948."

- Smart as noun: "sharp pain," c. 1200, from smart (adj.). Cognate with Middle Dutch smerte, Dutch smart, Old High German smerzo, German Schmerz "pain."

This overview shows a broad spectrum of meanings related to human behaviour until late 20th century when smart is applied to digital devices. A detailed comparative analysis of the etymology and history of ideas of smart and related terms in English would clarify how  "intellectual capacity, cleverness" of Middle English ingeny was replaced (?) by smart and how it came to its widespread use in the context of all kind of systems particularly of those based on digital technology, the early examples "smart bomb," "smart cookie" being paradigmatic for the 20th century, pre-announcing the no less paradigmatic smart phone


Cunning Intelligence


The meanings of smart are closely related to the Greek concept of metis or cunning intelligence as analyzed by Marcel Detienne and Jean-Pierre Vernant (Detienne/Vernant 1991), although the contexts of use are not only human beings but also gods, animals and artificial devices as far as they are intelligently used by gods and humans. This is best exemplified by Athena herself, the goddess of practical intelligence, daughter of Zeus and the goddess Métis (Μῆτις) called polumetis, her prudence being the metis, her knowledge close to the knowledge of Hephaestus, the god of blacksmiths. She is "the goddess with the 'brilliant gaze' (glaukopis) and the power 'with the sharp eye' (oxuderkes)" who "mercilessly transfixes her enemies." (Detienne/Vernant, 1991,182). The parallelism of the meanings of smart and metis, such as quick, active, clever, causing sharp a pain, executed with force and vigor and particularly, behaving as though guided by intelligence, are apparent. What is remarkable in the Greek metis is its use not only with regard to gods and humans but also to animals. Cunning intelligence is something common to all of them but not in the same regard. According to Detienne and Vernant, Western metaphysics, particularly Plato and later on Christianity, gave the primacy to truth and human rationality, overshadowing other kinds of understanding such as cunning, emphasising thus the epistemological divide between humans and other animals (Detienne and Vernant 1991, 318).

Smart is said in many ways, as Aristotle would say, the central sense or pros hen means the human capacity of acting quickly, clever, with "force and vigor" in order to attain a goal which can be "painful, severe, stinging; causing a sharp pain." The 19th century application to "devices in general" and in the 20th century to digital devices and systems in particular opens a new context namely "behaving as though guided by intelligence" for which the central sense, as in the case of artificial intelligence, is at first sight human intelligence, even if not always explicit. But if it is the case that today's leading horizon of interpretation of all beings  in their being, is digitability, then, paradoxically, it is not human but digital intelligence the primum analogatum. This makes a difference also with regard to the meaning of smart, namely: what is smart is digital, but not everything what is digital is smart. Smart intelligence would even take the lead with regard to the meaning of intelligence tout court. What is digitalizable can be implemented in different kinds of devices and systems becoming more or less smart, that is to say, intelligent. The practical sense of intelligence becomes apparent.

Leibniz dictum: "Cum DEUS calculat et cogitationem exercet, fit mundus" (When God calculates and develops thought, he creates the world)  (Leibniz 1996, 30) turns into "Cum homo calculat et computationem exercet, fit mundus." The "et cogitationem exercet" means the practical application of theoretical intelligence, not reduced to situations in which cunning intelligence is needed in order to find a way out of what resists the aims of the agent, but enlarged to the whole of reality. Leibniz envisages a divine smart intelligence that is echoed in Hegel's "List der Vernunft" ("cunning reason"). This was criticized by Nietzsche as giving the power of instrumental reason to a high level intelligence instead of letting practical intelligence play different roles in which the outwitted can take the lead (Guzzoni 1999).


Ethics in the Age of Smart Systems


Artificial smart systems "behaving as though guided by intelligence" interact with natural human and animal smart intelligence. What makes the difference? Firstly, natural smart intelligence arise from the being itself and concerns its own goals. Artificial smart systems get their goals from the outside even if they can further develop it by giving the impression "as though" they were their own. Secondly, their intelligence is based on stochastic processes. Such processes are random as opposed to deterministic ones. The Greek word στοχαστικός (stochastikós) is derived from στοχάζομαι (stocházomai)  meaning aim at a target, from Greek στόχος (stóchos) aim. Artificial smart systems — or, better to say, their human designers let — calculate the best way to attain a goal given to them based on stochastic models that they can change as if they were learning not only by themselves but also for themselves as in the case of natural smart systems. They can do this quickly and shrewd as if they were making a conjecture about the best way to attain a goal as if it were their own goal. Hubert Dreyfus did foundational work on the difference between expert systems, the smart systems at that time, and human experts (Dreyfus 1972). His phenomenological and hermeneutic arguments are as fresh as they were fifty years ago.

Ethics in the age of smart systems means to ask the question of the relation between cunning intelligence and moral intelligence called prudence (phronesis) by Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics (Aristotle 1962; Capurro 2020). Although Aristotle does not use the term metis he uses other similar terms such as skill (deinotes) and cunning (panourgia). Skill is praised in case the goals are good, otherwise it is just cunning. Prudence (phronesis) implies cunning but not vice versa. Wickedness (mochtheria) and falsehood (diapseudesthai) distort the judgement of reason (Aristotle, NE 1143 b 23-36). Phronesis mediates between the knowledge of what is permanent (sophia) and the realm of human action (ta anthrophina) particularly regarding the means to attain happiness (eudaimonia) (Aristotle, NE 1143 b 20). The reason why metis is not mentioned by Aristotle in his analysis of the relation between phronesis and cunning intelligence might be his taking a critical distance of mythical metis as well as its use in human and non-human contexts blurring the differences. Aristotle acknowledges that some animals have the capacity of previewing (dynamin pronoetiken) but he does not agree with "some people" who believe that "animals have prudence (phronima)." (Aristotle, NE 1141 a 27). Detienne and Vernant remark that the link between human logos and living beings without logos (aloga zoia) might become problematic if human phronesis interferes with animal intelligence although he gives conjectural knowledge a positive value in contrast to Plato who devalues knowledge based on probability as contrary to the ethical value of temperance (sophrosyne). For Aristotle, sagacity (anchinoia) implies a certain flexibility of the soul in contrast to the quietness (hesuchia) of temperance (Detienne and Vernant 1974, 304-306).

The Aristotelian analysis of the relation between phronesis and cunning intelligence provides a framework for dealing with today's ethical issues of smart systems that can be compared, for instance, with the famous Chinese "Thirty-six stratagems" as analyzed by Swiss sinologist Harro von Senger (Senger 1993).


Smart Living


Smart living has already emerged as the conceptual hallmark of the digital future. Not only will we — but, indeed, who? — have or will have  smart homes, cities, and all sorts of smart interconnected objects, but we (who?) ourselves will become smart, overcoming natural human intelligence, which is the product of biological evolution. In a nod to Hamlet, «to be digital or not to be» is the choice we need to make when we imagine a future in which the difference between what is real and what is digital, as a potential vision of life, is perceived as confusing or may have been invalidated. But every future, with its potential successes and failures, can only be partially glimpsed from the present. We cannot seize it, we can only allow it to manifest itself, instead of projecting it from our subjectivity and our willpower. We need two things to open ourselves to potential futures that appear and disappear: critical thinking and time. Both are scarce in the age of smart systems. Being smart means to resist the temptation to let smart systems take quick decisions for us. Prudence is a key virtue in the age of smart systems. But in order to be prudent we have to take our time. 'Take your time!' is an ethical maxim. It means to resist the time regime of digital technology which is the "vulgar understanding of time" (Heidegger) as a sequence of 'nows'. We can unmask some of the negative aspects of digital futures that appear as being smart, especially the one that imagines the smart digital future as a monolithic, unambiguous, and ultimate entity (Morozov, 2013). Sceptical thinking about digital futures means resisting the obsession of digital order planned with absolute ambitions. This sort of «foresight» is a digital gnosis, i.e., a substitute for religious dogmatism.

We have learnt to interact with animal intelligence over thousands of years and we learnt from our failures concerning the dystopia of becoming the masters of nature. How can we deal with smart systems that look as if they were intelligent with own goals which is no more and no less than digital fetishism. Instead, we should ask: what kind of smart systems is needed or not and for whom? When is it a good option for me or others to relinquish personal and social critical reflection and freedom temporarily to smart systems and when is it not? We have been looking for individual and social solutions to this question since at least the time of the Industrial Revolution, albeit with recognised government abuses and a lucky few individuals who think they can solve it in a strictly philanthropic way. Marx critiqued the ways that ideas of order had decomposed in industrial-age capitalist societies, and his criticism also opens the doors to thinking about smart systems in the digital age. If we want to imagine potential liveable smart futures and realize them both in the private and in the public sphere, we must let thinking emerge as a sort of forethought to action with regard to sustainable and unsustainable ways of social and ecological coexistence (Capurro, 2008; Zuboff, 2019). Marx’s famous eleventh thesis on Feuerbach reads: «Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it." (Marx, 1969, 5). Although this thesis is commonly understood as a critique to «philosophers» and a defence of action, what it actually does is indicate that any possibility to change the world is built on a new interpretation.




Where, for whom, to what extent, and at what price do smart systems make sense? What are the limits of their use in private and political life? What is good as a possibility for the community as a whole and what is good for me or for us? What should we promote or forbid by law and what should we not? How can we initiate a lasting (academic and daily) critical reflection on good living with smart systems?

Immanuel Kant wondered: «Do we live in an enlightened age?» (Kant, 1975, 59). Even if the answer was no, he did think it was an age of enlightenment. Kant expected that when the «the urge for and the vocation of free thought» had developed, it would gradually impact not only the population, making citizens more capable of «acting in freedom», but also on «the fundamentals of government», which would treat humans, «who is now more than a machine, in accord with his dignity» (Kant, 1975, p. 61). What better guidance for thinking and acting in digital futures than these words by Kant published in Königsberg  on 30 September 1784? The dignity of the human person that wonders «who am I?» is different to its digitalisation, which can change and answers the question «what am I?» (Capurro, 2017b; Capurro, Eldred, & Nagel, 2013). Smart systems behave "as though guided by intelligence", that is to say, as if they were guided by a 'who' while in fact it is just a reified one, or a 'what'.

The difference between who and what is the basis of ethical thinking particularly in the age of smart systems. We must learn the vocation of free thinking  outside the greenhorn field of algorithms guiding smart systems (Seyfert & Roberge, 2016), and to this end we must expand  the concept of digital enlightenment or digital  literacy (Limberg, Sundin, & Talja, 2012). This is because this concept is generally understood as education in the use of digital technologies in general and smart systems in particular and not as the task of reflecting upon individual and collective life and considering sustainable digital futures. Do we live in a smart age? No, we live in the age of smart systems that looks sometimes as behaving though guided by intelligence while being, in fact, stupid. The ethical challenge is to envisage smart living within and beyond the stochastic horizon of smart systems. To put it shortly: Take your time! Be smart in the age of smart systems.




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Capurro, R., Eldred, M., & Nagel, D. (2013). Digital whoness. Identity, privacy and freedom in the cyberworld. Berlin: De Gruyter.

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Oxford Learner's Dictionaries
Retrieved from https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/american_english/smart_1

Oxford Etymology Dictionary
Retrieved from https://www.etymonline.com/word/smart

Seyfert, R., & Roberge, J. (Eds.). (2016). Algorithmic cultures: Essays on meaning, performance and new technologies. London/New York: Routledge.

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Zuboff, S. (2019). The age of surveillance capitalism: The fight for a human future at the new frontier of power. New York: Public Affairs.

Last update: April 24, 2021


Copyright © 2021 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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