A first reflection by Paolo Cirio on the Aesthetics of Information Ethics
This essay was composed for fall 2017 presentations at UC Berkeley, MIT Museum in Boston, UIC Chicago, ISCP in NYC commissioned by NEA, and MozFest in London commissioned by the V&A and Tate museums education departments.
The Aesthetics of Information Ethics discusses methodologies, strategies, and practices of art addressing the personal and societal spheres affected by information systems.
Information Ethics is broadly defined as "the branch of ethics that focuses on the relationship between the creation, organization, dissemination, and use of information." The so-called information revolution brings us an increasing number of pressing ethical issues. Artists can be particularly sensitive to these issues and they are able to question ethics by proposing and challenging perceptions and scenarios beyond common understanding.
Artworks can creatively discuss and play with distribution systems of sensitive information, ethereal economies, flexible labor and property, circulating bodies and goods, manipulated and monitored relationships, expanded public spaces, exploited opinion formation, and, generally, technological apparatuses affecting social systems. Nowadays, social contracts are fluid; they constantly reorganize society and produce new social conditions. These active spaces are where information ethics emerge and where artists intervene in questioning, revealing, and reassembling the agents and environments of their artworks.
Ethics of Aesthetics concerns the ethical frameworks in arranging the sensibility of the audience and the subjects of the artworks. The aesthetic methodologies of intervention, discourse, and representation of information systems can include the production of critique, distress, fear, empathy, alienation, complicity, spectacle, confusion, awareness, and other artistic devices. The aesthetic qualities of the works can be called into question through the articulation of the ethical conditions of the works and their subjects. The responsibility and conscience of the artists - as well as of the art critics and curators - are integrated in the analysis and validation of the social and artistic efficacy of the artworks. Concurrently, the ethical and social relations created by these artworks produce aesthetic forms, which concerns the field of the Aesthetics of Ethics.
Social fields and norms are increasingly interdependent with technological advancements of information computation, sharing, and control. Information technology has become the heart of the social order. However, it can be understood not from a technological point of view, but rather through a constant reflexive examination of what it produces in the social sphere. The ethical discussion can't be limited to technocrats, legislators, coders, and the opaque internal policies of private entities. Art can play a role in this process of creating awareness and reflection on difficult ethical questions by making them relevant and engaging.
The material of these aesthetic examinations is not limited to the Internet, algorithms, big data, and other technologies. These technical elements are mutually influenced by the political, cultural, legal, and economic systems, as well as several other social fields and infrastructures. Information systems should be understood as interconnected networks of social systems in which reflection and intervention have the potential to reverberate throughout the whole web of networks, consequently impacting a variety of conventions, entities, and individuals which are inevitably connected.
The ethics of the power of these information systems are directly embodied in artworks that use and address such power. The ethical inquiries and relations activated by art with information systems create aesthetic forms. This aesthetics is discussed by measuring, comparing, and evaluating the strategies, consequences, conditions, and circumstances of the works of art. Such analysis needs to take into account a broad social context, therefore integrating the distribution of the work, the mode of presentation within the site of execution, and ultimately the intended and unintended recipients, critiques, and results that the work generates.
Ethics are negotiated, developed, and balanced through reflections on the consequences and intentions of human activity. Differentiating themselves from morals - which are often static and ideological - ethics are dynamic, reflexive, and evolving principles that must be constantly discussed and confronted. Art plays a central role in this process. Evolving cultural forms and critical art are essential instruments for sensing and signaling the forming of ethics.
The Ethics of Representation and information systems
Social transactions and contracts are discussed, created, rearranged, or accentuated by artists for making visible the complexity, contradictions, and complicity within such social relations activated by information systems. However, only an attentive examination of the effects, causes, and nature of such systems can fully address them. Thus, representations of social and technological systems should engage with the dialectics of the construction of ethical values. The integrity of the agenda pursued is a responsibility of the artist in relation to the system addressed, while the critical reception should assess the means and ends of the artworks within the whole spectrum of forms and contexts of presentation.
As such, techniques like the exposure and appropriation of sensitive information as well as the manipulation and disruption of social relations should be balanced with the parameters of intentions, receptions, and outcomes of the artwork. In the Aesthetics of Information Ethics
, context is main the principle from which we can assess the ethics of artworks. Meaning and impact vary based on the context of presentation, execution, and results. The context needs to account for all the properties of the information systems involved. These methodologies, techniques, and practices of art production and critique are ultimately oriented to maximize and develop the common good within the notion of ethics as the making and understanding of a dignified existence for humans and the environment surrounding them.
Polarities in Ethics of Representation
In the Aesthetics of Information Ethics
, the appearances, perceptions, and sensations of reality created by artists should take into account the formation of polarities. Mystifications and oversimplifications about the social impacts of information systems are instances of the Ethics of Representation. As such, the creation of falsehoods, hype, confusion, anxiety, or fatalism sustained by the producers and reporters of information systems create polarities in understanding ever-changing technological apparatuses and their social impacts. The Aesthetics of Information Ethics
is about breaking down polarities to offer a broader understanding of the conditions within these systems.
Examples of problematic issues in Information Ethics
The Aesthetics of Information Ethics
can be applied to examining the liability of algorithms, responsibility in anonymous networks, exploitation of shared content and labor, censorship on social media, freedom of speech used to harass, public shaming to condemn, hacking to protest or leak, and micro-targeting for political campaigning. In order to inspire inquiry, the artist questions how to balance freedom, empathy, justice, and accountability.
By Paolo Cirio.
Misleading Polarities in Information Ethics:
|Participation -VS- Coercion
Emancipation -VS- Exploitation
Freedom -VS- Control
Inclusion -VS- Exclusion
Access -VS- Withholding
Commons -VS- Property
Private -VS- Public
Opacity -VS- Transparency
Privacy -VS- Surveillance
|Obscurity -VS- Exposure
Empathy -VS- Humiliation
Anonymity -VS- Accountability
Responsibility -VS- Impunity
Reputation -VS- Scoring
Autonomy -VS- Manipulation
Educating -VS- Misinforming
Quantifiable -VS- Undetectable
Simplicity -VS- Complexity
Some problematic issues concerning information ethics:
Search engines & social media moderation:
Social score & bias
Privacy and surveillance:
State and corporate surveillance
Cryptography for power structures
Cryptography for individuals
Media and politics:
Accountability of coders
Artificial Intelligence control
Blockchain, deepweb, and darknet:
Access to means
Internet of things policy
 Joan, Reitz M. "Information Ethics." Online Dictionary For Library And Information Science. N.p., 2010.