This is the second post in our series where we put a member of our society in the spotlight, and allow them to introduce themselves on the basis of a short interview.
Interview with John Sullins
Q: The philosophy of information is a diverse field, and attracts people with very different backgrounds. Could you tell us a bit more about your academic background, and your current research?
A: For me the biggest attraction to the philosophy of information is the
diverse group of scholars it attracts. My background is primarily in the
philosophy of technology with a good deal of cognitive science and philosophy
of mind mixed in. I took the long way through academia with my first stop
being a Master’s degree in Philosophy where I trained with Dr. S.D.N. Cook in
the philosophy of technology and did a thesis on the philosophical impacts of
Artificial Life with Dr. Cook and the Mathematician and science fiction writer
Dr. Ruddy Rucker. Concurrent with that I was hired as a research assistant by
Dr. Cook for work he was doing at the famous XEROX Palo Alto Research Center
(PARC). Even though this was less than a year, I learned quite a bit about the
workings of Silicon Valley and technology design while I was there and was
able to meet and work with people like Brian Cantwell Smith who was just then
finishing up his master work “On the Origins of Objects.” When that
opportunity dried up with the end of the dot com bubble I decided to go back
My doctorate work was done in the department of Philosophy, Computers and Cognitive Science at Binghamton University in New York, USA. The program was a wonderfully multidisciplinary degree that was primarily philosophical in nature. There I worked mostly with Professor Eric Dietrich but I also did significant amounts of studies with the theoretical Biologist David Sloan Wilson and I took a number of classes with the Oxford Philosopher Rom Harré. I had chosen this program initially because of its course offerings and the fact that one could do a semester or two study with Rom at Oxford. Unfortunately, the interdisciplinary nature of the department lead naturally to much internecine warfare and everything came to a crashing halt there before I got my chance to study in Oxford. I did finish my degree in time and my luck held out and I received a position to teach philosophy at Sonoma State University in sunny California after less than a year on the job market. I have been there for the past nine years and I am expected to receive a promotion to full professor this summer.
Q: How did you learn about the philosophy of information? How does your
research fit in, and what is the impact of PI on your research.
A: Well the fault lies entirely with Professor Luciano Floridi of course. The first time I met him, almost a decade ago, I was struck by how much our philosophical positions aligned. I looked into his work and much of it helped shed some light on issues that I have always been interested in. While I do not always agree with him, it was in those writings that I first encountered PI and I felt that the language being developed there would provide a good scaffolding to hang some of my own ideas on. Since my work deals almost exclusively with the philosophy of information technology, it is natural to also look at the concept of information as a subject of philosophical investigation and so far it is proving to b e a fruitful field that is attracting interesting scholars.
Q: How do you envisage the future of PI within philosophy, within your own
field, and as part of the information society?
A: At this point it seems poised to grow greatly in importance as more and more people are attracted to it. I think that it provides a method for moving beyond some of the unhelpful philosophical stalemates that have become particularly raucous over the last few generations. In my particular field it is vitally important since the philosophy of information technology must be built in the end on a coherent understanding of the nature of information. Scholars in my field must have a coherent position, either pro or con, on PI. I also feel that PI will be of interest well beyond academia since the information society is all but ubiquitous now. I find purely academic debates tedious and therefore I am only interested in topics that will eventually result in new and better designed sciences and technologies. So far PI has proven to be interesting at all levels of philosophical inquiry, but if all other lines of research were to fail and it can deliver only on the ethics of information, that will still be a significant achievement and make a real difference in people’s lives.