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Duration 01:02:32

The Annual Digital Lecture: Semantic Capital: what it is and how to protect it

In this talk Luciano Floridi presents new research on ‘semantic capital’, which he defines as the capital of ideas, knowledge, meaning and culture, and how it can be protected and fostered by the digital. What may digital ethics do to ensure its care, protection, and development?

Luciano Floridi is Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Information at the University of Oxford, where he directs the Digital Ethics Lab (DELab) of the Oxford Internet Institute. He is also Faculty Fellow of the Alan Turing Institute and Chair of its Data Ethics research Group, and Chairman of the Ethics Advisory Board of the European Medical Information Framework. He sits on the EU’s Ethics Advisory Group on Ethical Dimensions of Data Protection, on the Royal Society and British Academy Working Group on Data Governance, and on Google Advisory Board on ‘the right to be forgotten’. His areas of expertise include the philosophy of information, digital ethics, and the philosophy of technology. His recent books include ‘The Fourth Revolution – How the infosphere is reshaping human reality’ (2014), ‘The Ethics of Information’ (2013), and ‘The Philosophy of Information’ (2011).

This lecture was followed by a poster exhibition of digital research projects conducted by The National Archives. From investigating the potential of blockchain to experimenting with Handwritten Text Recognition, you can view the digital research posters in this PDF (0.41 MB). If you would like to find out more about the projects featured, or to explore opportunities for collaboration, please contact



The National Archives podcast series. The annual digital lecture. ‘Semantic capital, what is it and how to protect it?’ It was presented by Luciano Floridi and recorded on the 8 June 2018 at The National Archives, Kew.

I’m Dr. Anna Sexton, and I am Head of Research here at The National Archives, and it is my pleasure to welcome you to our inaugural digital lecture. As this is the first in what we anticipate to be a long-running series, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on why convening an annual event which focuses on exploring digital and technological innovations around record keeping, and the wider societal ramifications of such innovations, is so important to us here.

We know that digital is our biggest strategic challenge and that The National Archives is not alone in this. Archives around the world are grappling with that digital challenge too. Our ability to preserve and make available digital records will decide what evidence people in the future will have of today. Archivists and record keepers, therefore, need to develop extraordinary new capabilities to ensure digital records can be kept and accessed for future generations. Our digital strategy articulates the conceptual and technological shifts required of us to meet the challenges we face. And these also run as a thread through our emerging research priorities, which will be published on our website next month.

As we rethink the record in the light of digital, we, at The National Archives, are actively asking, how can we utilise emergent technologies to improve our record keeping practise? How are the roles and responsibilities of record keeping institutions evolving alongside emergent technologies? And importantly, what are the ethical implications of these shifts?

Convening an annual event that brings together people who share these challenges and questions and can offer insights at the intersection between archives, society, technology, and ethics is what this annual lecture series is designed to achieve. The annual digital lecture is led by our research and academic engagement team, and in particular, I would like to highlight the work of my colleague, Dr Eirini Goudarouli, who has been the main driving force behind this evening.

But of course, digital research itself cuts across The National Archives. And therefore, this evening is a collaborative, cross-directorate initiative. So I would also like to thank my colleagues from across The National Archives, particularly those from our digital directorate and from our collections expertise and engagement department, who’ve worked on producing the posters, which you will be engaging with later and have been so enthusiastic about being here this evening and sharing their digital initiatives with you.

So following the lecture we invite you to join us for a glass of wine, and we encourage you to look at our poster exhibition, which is happening just next door, where you can meet the practitioners and researchers from across The National Archives who are actively engaged with our digital challenges and learn more about our current digital research activities. And after this evening, we will be sending you an email to gather feedback from you to inform our future planning.

So now onto our main event, the lecture itself, which we anticipate will last for about 45 minutes. And that will be followed by a Q&A, which will be chaired by our digital director, John Sheridan.

It is my pleasure to introduce our speaker, who I would also like to thank for being with us, and who I know will provide us with plenty of insights and reflections that we can use as entry points into discussion with each other around our digital challenges as part of this evening’s event.

Luciano Floridi is Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Information at the University of Oxford, where he directs the digital ethics lab at the Oxford Internet Institute. He is also faculty fellow of the Alan Turing Institute and Chair of its data ethics research group, and Chairman of the ethics advisory board of the European Medical Information Framework. He sits on the EU’s ethics advisory group on ethical dimensions of data protection, on the Royal Society and British Academy working group on data governance, and on Google’s advisory board on the right to be forgotten.

His areas of expertise include the philosophy of information, digital ethics, and the philosophy of technology, in which he has published extensively. He is therefore one of the leading voices shaping the debate around the intersection between ethics, society, and technology. It is therefore my great pleasure to welcome him to the stage to speak to us this evening on semantic capital, what it is, and how to protect it.


Thank you so much. Thank you. Many thanks. First of all, thank you, sincerely, for managing to be here, and the invitation. Thank you to manage to be here, it’s obvious, some of us didn’t quite get here. And we will have to be a little bit patient if anyone sort of percolates through while we are engaging.

But the thank you for the invitation has a special twist, which is not exactly a polite way of thanking people who have been so nice, the colleagues from the archive to get me here. I will present half-baked ideas. And I should have guessed that’s the last thing you want to do. No? You invite them to dinner and then you say, oh, I tried a new recipe. You say, with me? Tonight? Really? Why? I was expecting something good that you know how to cook. I say, no, no, no, but I treat you specially. You’re really special. And therefore, I’ve never done this before.

You say, OK, I can see the special nature of this special dinner, but if anything here sounds really sort of work in progress, we never speak about half-baked in that could be a work in progress, well, I would sort of emphasise the progress. The truth is that I’ve been trying to understand a very simple idea, semantic capital, which I will spend some time describing, for some time. And I thought when the very kind invitation arrived, I thought, this is a unique opportunity. I could cook something I’ve never cooked before.

And therefore, this talk, you will not find it on YouTube. And it’s not something that I’ve given before. So forgive me if some of the ideas I’m going to present really are tentative, which also means that – and I tend to stop and show you something interesting, I hope – that I’m particularly keen, even more than in other contexts, to hear what is the reception of this idea, a bit of Q&A as we go towards the end of the evening.

For those of us who are a little bit less young, you know that you reach a point when nobody reads your stuff ever. You’re not a student. You’re not a candidate. And to force colleagues to read something when everybody’s busy, everybody’s – it’s hard. So a Q&A is a precious moment. It’s when you get some feedback. When you finally know, did I say something OK? Or is that something totally out of line?

So I will try really my best to be quick on the presentation to leave time for an interchange that is going to be entirely selfish. I might actually learn. And that’s priceless.

Now because the presentation is hopefully rather quick, there will be a map. And this map will come up again. So if we get lost just wait for the next time you see this picture. I will start from a definition, understanding what exactly I mean by semantic capital, so we know what we’re talking about.

A few examples, so we are covering the ground. And then not just a philosophy or semiotics, theory symbols, or a semantics, theory of meaning of this particular object, which I haven’t described yet, namely, semantic capital. But rather, its internal logic. What are the formal features that this semantic capital might have?

And its value. Why do we value – I guess anyone here might already have half an idea of what semantic capital may not be. But why do we value? And what the risks are.

Towards this – as we move from left to right, you will see that there is an emphasis between the lines and on the lines about the ethics, protecting, fostering, making sure that this special thing that we as entities in this universe are the only one able to generate. Simplifying in the moment, meaning it’s actually at the centre of our concerns.

And at the time when meaningfulness seems to be slightly disregarded by almost anyone who’s in power, whether here, in Rome, or in Washington, I trust that you will also understand that this has a political implication.

Now the definition first. So what I meant – and I’m sorry if I have to turn – this lesson number one whenever you give a lecture, don’t turn, but there’s no other way.

So there’s a wealth of intangible products. Intangible not because we do not have a record of physical support, but because we may actually replace the figures support and yet the value of that intangible remains. Such as ideas, insights, discoveries, invention, traditions, conscious languages, art religious, sciences, narrative, customer norms, add songs, music, et cetera. More on this because the object is quite fuzzy at the moment, bear with me, that we as humans produce. No one else does that we know of. We refine it. We consume it. We transmit it. We inherit it. And we do this through time.

I know we know that’s the right place we’re not to spend time discussing this, but what I want to emphasise is that I hope that the shift is sufficiently significant to make a difference. I do not talk about this in terms of how meaningful this is, but what is the use of it.

And to me, it means that this semantic capital to be defined in a slide or two is what gives meaning to and makes sense of something to be defined as well – remember I do come from half of my life where I was a mathematical logician. So definitions will come – of our own existences, of the realities that surround us, and helps us to develop as individual and social life. So they also contribute to define who we are.

What complete destroy, annihilate, burn the books of that culture, and you aren’t really affecting also the nature of those individuals, the nature of society. All this is well known. We all know it’s just warming up to get to the right page.

So I just thought, well, surely this is such an obvious idea, they must have plenty of literature that I can read on before doing something. And so this is quite recent. I asked for an exemption. And extension, then when last 24 hours I was all, I really need those slides. OK. So that was yesterday. And when I searched Google for semantic capital, there were 596 results, which everybody knows here is nothing.

Most of them are about a particular company called Semantic Capital for economic reasons. And the views that are not related to this company are actually about this talk. So you know that there is no such thing as semantic capital. And I sort of had to cope with that. I knew that in advance, but that’s the most recent results. It might be 597 if anyone has tweeted a moment ago.

So I couldn’t just rely on – as we know what you do in a scholarly approach, in a university and academia, and say, oh, who has said something before. We had to enter into uncharted territory. And so here is a definition, and it’s a working definition, as all definitions will have to do for the moment, but of course to be refined, also thanks to the Q&A. Any content – more on that – that can enhance someone’s power – someone to be defined – to give meaning to and make sense of – well, let’s introduce a new or newish word – semanticize something. And each of those keywords needs to be understood properly, which is the task for the next slides.

So content, well, I’m happy to go with well-formed and meaningful data. The data in question are any particular sign, physical, that makes somewhat of a difference against the background. So it could be a dot on a white page. It could be a light in the darkness. It could be an old alphabet. It could be a music script. It could be a scratch on a vinyl. It could be – you get it, a physical difference in the world.

So to put it more philosophically, a lack of uniformity. Think of it for a moment if you have a uniform space, there’s no data there. And in fact, we lose data immediately when you have a single sound that never changes in the room. After a while, you don’t hear it anymore. You don’t hear it because it makes no difference.

And when we went in the army we were told, never look at a particular point of light in the darkness because after a while the eye doesn’t see it anymore. Look just next to it and the eye will keep seeing it. So that is the difference I’m talking about, data as that physicality down there.

The meaningfulness is whatever interpretation we give to that particular dot of light in the darkness, or to that particular scratch on a piece of paper. Well-formed is more important because it’s the syntax, it’s not the semantics. It has to have somewhat of a rule-based form. So once you have the well-formed, the meaningfulness, the data. Well, that’s the kind of content that I’m talking about in the definition. And I’m happy to go into more details if we want to scratch this.

But what about someone? Well, here is an assumption. The assumption is that in order to have semantic capital you have to be human, or human-like or based on a human conglomerate of humans. So for example, a physical or legal person. And therefore, say the archives could semanticize the world. A political party can give meaning to and make sense of the world. A whole government can, but because there’s human stuff are there.

If you think that this is a too obvious a distinction – like, could anyone think otherwise – well, you should meet some of my colleagues from the robotics department. There’s current discussion – and by the way, I’m pro-European – but there is current discussion in Brussels – you can always make fun of Brussels, one way or another – where some members of parliament are considering whether we should discuss robots of some kind, maybe very advanced, as digital or electronic persons.

Why? Because they’re pretty much like a company. If a company can be a person of a legal kind, why not a robot of an electronic kind? The difference is that a company contains humans. And the humans make the difference in terms of, for example, teachability, motivation, intentions, life of the mind.

And that’s not what happens in a pure artefact. So my fridge cannot semanticize the world. The only way the fridge can semanticize the world is because I use it to semanticize the world. And therefore that big, American, two-doors fridge makes a different sense to the world than the little thing that you don’t normally have in your dorm in college that hardly contains a bottle of sparkling water. Yes, different meaning, but because we have used it to do that.

So I would like to say that the someone’s there is a physical legal person, or group or physical legal persons, somewhat, somewhere, at some point, there’s a mental life involved.

Semanticize – a bit more complicated. That’s the process of enriching an experience with an interpretation. And that’s why we need some examples.

What exactly does that mean? It’s easier to refer to the usual joke about pornography. You know, I know, but just in case you missed the joke, the judge or the Supreme Court who said, look, don’t push it too hard. I don’t have a definition for pornography, but I recognise it when I see it. Indeed.

So it’s very hard to have a definition of interpretation, a definition of enriching an experience. But I think we understand each other when I say, look, through this wealth of content you can use it to make sense of the world. You can use it to give meaning to the world, to yourself, to ourselves, to our society, to anything else out there. And because this admittedly is still a little bit too abstract, I thought I could give you an example so that we ground on a more concrete floor.

The example, I thought, should be random, and should be challenging for me. Because if what I’m saying is a bit [INAUDIBLE] to run against myself. If I’m right, then this should apply to anything I select out of the, say, hat. And therefore I decided, OK, where am I? I was in Santa Barbara in California. And I said, OK, how do I apply this to the city of Santa Barbara, California? How can I possibly use some content to make sense of and, say, give meaning to a variety of things by relying on Santa Barbara? And trust me, that is as random as it gets.

Well, guess what? First of all, there’s the sun saint, Barbara, the lady. She is a bit of a mystery, but we think, at least according to documents, that she lived in the third century after Christ, inevitably, to be the Saint. And she was killed, as happens to saints. She is also a martyr.

The point is that she’s always represented with a castle, because – or a tower, because when she was left alone by her father in the tower, the father also required that she would not become Christian, of course, and would build a bath (moat?) next to the tower so that she would not meet anyone. When the father comes back she has built the extra sort of extension of the tower with three windows as a symbol of the Trinity.

The father doesn’t like it. The story goes really awfully wrong. And she’s tortured. She becomes a martyr. The point is that the very interesting part of this story is that what happens with the father. Because the father was involved in the torturing, and up there they didn’t quite like it, he’s killed by lightning.

And so all of a sudden the saint gets associated to lightning. And because you need holy helpers no matter what happens out there, she becomes one of the 14 holy helpers, protector of anyone, whenever there’s, say, a tempest – and I’m using tempest for a reason, you’ll see – a storm, something that is dangerous with extra bang and boom.

So that’s where Santa Barbara comes from. The artillery, the ships have a particular place where they have all that dangerous powder that could explode. And if you need the statue of anyone, there is a statue of Santa Barbara. Even if the saint, it’s not quite clear whether she does or does not exist.

What was the connection between this particular artillery and Santa Barbara where the saint is there to protect us with the city? Well, before I say something wrong, in 1602, Sebastián Vizcaíno was there for exploration. He survived a storm really close to the coast. He decided to thank the saint of the day, which happened to be Santa Barbara. Too precious to miss. And therefore, he founded the city of Santa Barbara.

So this name here has become meaningful, makes sense of the world, et cetera, because of a saint of the 20th century because someone in 1602 was travelling over there, survived a storm. But how do we get to the other things? Well, the distance between Santa Barbara and the barbituric acid is not so big.

It was discovered, or actually synthesised, in 1863 by Dr Bayer. And we don’t know why it’s called barbituric acid in any possible way, but there are three hypotheses. One, because it was the 4th of December. The day where Santa Barbara is celebrated. Two, because he was in love with Barbara, a local lady. And three, because he used to hang out with people from the army, the artillery, that kind of army.

And so all of a sudden the reason why you have barbituric acid is because someone either was in love with Barbara, did that on the 4th of December, or was hanging out with that kind of soldiers. Unless you know that, and I hope from now on you will look at barbituric acid with different eyes, that is the depth that you start getting. So, oh, that’s interesting, but what’s the connection with Mildred in Fahrenheit 451, as you know. I know you know.

This is not a place where I need to explain what Fahrenheit 451 is, but just in case, you know, the world has gone very wrongly. They burn books. You shouldn’t be allowed to have books, but there’s a community that memorise the books by heart. And every individual is a book, is a classic, and recites lines for their book. It’s a wonderful thing, which I discovered only late.

I used to go to a bookshop when I was a kid called Fahrenheit 451. I never quite understood why it was called that way until I read the book. Oh, that makes a lot of sense. But what happens to Montag’s wife? She tries to commit suicide. How? By eating barbituric acid. That’s amazing.

So the protection of books in Fahrenheit 451, the protection culture, the semantic capital that is so cherished in that dystopian book has a connection with the wife or the guy who actually will join the resistance who tries to kill theirself through barbituric acid, which was discovered by someone who called that – et cetera. You can see that. I had just chosen Santa Barbara because I was there a few weeks ago. You can do this a million times. That’s what I mean.

That’s the semantic capital that we need to be aware of, cherish, protect, enrich. That is US, capital U, capital S. So surely someone has been there before. Oh, yes, absolutely. So for those of us who are acquainted with bits of literature here and there, the Renaissance people in the room, these semiotics which of course looks the symbols and how the symbols or the signs convey and support all the semantic capital.

Cassirer onwards, or [INAUDIBLE] and Locke, depending on your orientation. This, of course, philosophy. Cassirer has written some of the – one of the great German philosophers from the last century – one of the most beautiful pages on the philosophy of symbolic forms. And what is the philosophy of symbolic forms if not one way of talking about the forms of semantic capital?

Or, more recently, Ricoeur, hermeneutics, the interpretation of. And in fact, if you look at those 500 or so references in Google, a few of them refer to the richness of words in the vocabulary as Ricoeur has mentioned. So the few people actually have ever said, or ever mentioned, semantic capital in one breath had been reading Ricoeur. They didn’t know they were speaking prose, if you’ll pass me the joke – Moliere – but they were talking about something very similar. But what’s the logic of this?

So the hermaneutics, the philosophy, the semiotics, well, all this concentrates, normally, on the richness, the genesis, the value of semantic capital. But I’m interested in the sheer capital aspect of semantics. In other words, what work does it do for me? Almost like the money we have in a bank.

This half, and we’ll get in here – some of them you might cherish, but each of us has his own special selection – explorers of semantic capital. What unifies these authors – Perec, Life: A User’s Manual, Calvino’s Mr. Palomar, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Pirsig, or The Library of Babel by Borges – they are all talking about the richness of semantic capital. They try to identify the patterns, the mysteries, how anything is connected to anything.

That Santa Barbara moment that I just quickly sketched, that could have come from A User’s Manual. If you haven’t read the book, don’t miss it. It’s something that makes you lose your orientation, because someone might pick up a box of biscuits, the box of biscuits might be coming from somewhere with a picture on it. The picture might refer to something historical, and then we are going into understanding all the history of the picture on the tin box. And you keep going, and you understand at some point, that there is no bottom.

In other words, that this semantic capital, the richness of it – also because we can slice it so thinly – it has always a point between any two points. Remember, when we started, that even in the final segment, there is an infinite number of points? Well, that is the infinite amount of meaning you can find, even in the shortest possible story. And so it goes. But that’s not what I want to talk about, so maybe for another day, maybe in another time.

Part of this would connect with another point where I want to touch, briefly. Namely, how the description in literature of the magician, whether it’s Faust or Prospero in The Tempest – remember, The Tempest that I mentioned before – is also a story of handling, or actually being frustrated by, the semantic capital that surrounds you. If you’ll remember the beginning of Faust, he’s surrounded by this enormous vault and room, medieval, this history, and plenty of books. And he’s not very happy about them. And he opens a book, et cetera.

Well, The Tempest ends by throwing away the books, which actually served Prospero pretty well. Either way, it’s semantic capital either at work or not working well enough. What’s the difference here? Is it – these magicians, they are exploiters – not explorers – of semantic capital. They want to use it to achieve something. They want to get some fruit out of it, so I’m a bit more along those lines.

Now because I said I’m interested in looking at the logic of the semantic capital, assuming that we have some idea of what that semantic capital looks like in terms of definition and examples, well, let me just give you one particular bit, which I think it will be part of the story of semantic capital. There’s much more at the individual and communitarian level.

This comes from Aristotle. The Greek word is anagnorisis, which means realisation. Realisation is a special way in which we make sure that the meaningfulness of the narrative we have in our mind is consistent. Something happens in your life. Maybe you were married, and then you divorced. And then maybe you marry again. You better have a lot of anagnorisis, because the anagnorisis of the first story – I’m in love, this the person of my life – has to be completely wiped and start from scratch.

So I remember the young Luciano, when I was a teenager, realising, I’m going to get out of this crash with this lady, who’s a young girl, who is not going to be in love with me until I become a different person. Because my anagnorisis – not that I called it that way, I didn’t know – but my ability to reinterpret who I am will have to be a change of skin. As long as I am who I am, I will always be in this particular predicament. I hope one day I will be someone else, and there will be history.

And, well, guess what? You grow up, things become a little bit more distant. So it’s the protagonist’s – that’s in Aristotle – sudden discovery or recognition, say, on another character’s true identity or nature. Through an anagnorisis, previously unforeseen character information is revealed. It is not falsification, for anyone who has read Popper here, not at all. It’s not something like, oh, I thought you were a friend. Instead, you are a bastard. Goodbye.

No, that’s not anagnorisis of any kind. No, it’s more like Star Wars. They are in love, very much so. Oh, what a drama, because there’s someone else! I’m not giving it away. I mean, surely everybody has watched it, but just in case. And then all of a sudden he says, oh, yes. They’re sister and brother. And so they are aware, and everything is fixed.

Well, that is still love. But, thanks to anagnorisis, it’s not the erotic kind. It is the sisterly-brotherly kind. Everything gets fine. You do not change the facts. They are in love. But they’re brother and sister, not as lovers. And therefore, someone like Solo can come in. Well, I almost gave it away, yeah?

So the classic is, of course, Oedipus. Oedipus has to go through a dramatic anagnorisis. Nothing changes in what he has been told. You will kill your father, you will marry and have sex, to be clear, with your mother. It’s just that he doesn’t quite know.

He meets a foreigner, and he kills him. He gets to a city and he marries the queen, who naturally is available because someone killed the other guy. He doesn’t quite know it, et cetera. Then all of a sudden, oops. Well, that’s the other way of anagnorisis. It doesn’t work as well as in Star Wars.

Now, we know all this – I’m giving away some other classics from the past. The Sixth Sense or The Others – if you haven’t watched them, I’ve already ruined for you both movies. There is a moment of anagnorisis there where nothing in the narrative changes apart from the complete interpretation is utterly upside down. So what do we have here?

This point here is the point of anagnorisis. From that point onwards, you reinterpret the past not factually but in terms of what he meant. Remember, your semantic capital remains consistent. It’s just that the facts get re-organised differently. And the difference between falsification and anagnorisis is that it works, also, for the future. From that moment onwards, your ability to reinterpret the future is constrained.

That’s why – no, we have Oedipus and a soap opera. In Oedipus, you stop at it’s my mother, it was my father. In a soap opera, you have another say, oh, no, it was not true! It looked like your mother but it wasn’t! The soap opera keeps anagnorisying.

At some point you get tired, because anything can happen to the opera. So nothing makes sense. Because, of course, all of a sudden the who was guy was dead reappears. The one who was alive was a ghost. Nothing makes – no. Anything, no. Because you break the logic of it.

You decided, I don’t care. This is season 27. We need that character from 25 years ago back in place. Now, this means that – given information flow, or content, or the semantic capital – the process means the extent of change that a later stage in the information flow acquires a new meaning. From that moment onwards, they have to be brother and sister. I will not accept that, oh, no, no, no, sorry. We’re going to re-do it again.

That’s why it’s very difficult to fall in love more than once. How many times can you do that? Once, twice, maybe three times? If you do it all the time, that’s not love. That’s called something else – that’s Don Juan. So the idea that you can constantly reshuffle your semantic capital, no matter what, that is not true – but there is a lot of re-adaptation that can go in it.

So that’s one of the items I have in the logic of semantic capital, this ability to re-organise our story. As in, we were always meant to leave the European Union. I always meant that as a good story. I know I’m the Prime Minister, but that’s really, really what I meant in the past, despite the vetoes. I never meant to sustain or support something else.

You can do that once. Were you able to do it again, that would be hugely suspicious. So the value of this? Why should we care? Well, I guess everybody has his own interpretation, but – strictly speaking – why does it matter?

Well, I have some almost religious approach to this. I used to be Catholic. I am no longer, so I’m no longer a believer, meaning that I have lost the ability to project – onto semantic capital that we are generating – a transcendent value, sort of a non-imminent value. But if you have that, well, that just adds to the picture.

And I know I knew, so I’m glad that that is possible. If you are unable to attach to that semantic capital a transcendent, non-secular, eternal value, well then we need to be able, also, to do something a little bit more minimalistic – a bit more sort of down to earth. In that case, I treat semantic capital as the topsoil of our lives.

If you’ve seen any country where people have removed all the trees, you know that those hills, those mountains, they become bare. At some point they are only stones, rocks, nothing else. That special little layer of living biological richness, sometimes called the humus – not the spread, but the topsoil – well, that is exactly where life develops. Only there. And you need to be careful. It’s a very fine balance.

So that’s the analogy I have in mind, or had in mind before googling and thinking, oh, surely everybody must be thinking this way. And if I have to have a catchphrase, to me it’s meaning that gives meaning. Remember, this semantic capital is what semanticises anything else. It’s in itself sort of the outcome, the result, of giving meaning and giving sense. But at the same time, it’s also the same capital that gets there.

Now, the point being that not only a meaningless life is not worth reading, but it’s not livable. Anyone who has had that moment of crash where their semantic capital disappears completely and there’s only bare bones, only stones, only rocks, knows that that is something that we will try to avoid at all costs. That vacuum, that emptiness of meaningfulness is what drives you crazy, what makes you hang yourself, is the moment of desperation, as in loss of any hope.

Now to avoid that, we will do anything, including interpret the world according to the gods, the Greek gods, or thinking that it’s bad luck. Anything will do as long as we can attach some meaning to the life we have, to the experience we enjoy or not – meaning that we’d better do this properly. Because if the problem becomes, I will do anything I can to avoid the emptiness, well, let’s make sure that the alternative is not anything goes, but something decent, something that is the topsoil of your life. Now I know that the meaning of life is 42, but that is exactly what I mean sometimes, in terms of this particular topsoil.

Now because I’m talking about capital in a sort of almost non-metaphorical sense, I thought I should develop a little bit further this value of semantic capital. This is a classic from 101 economy for beginners – people like me – and it tells you, on two axes, imagine a third axis– or this. Imagine, take the picture and make it travel through time, OK?

This thing, meanwhile, is moving through time. I didn’t add the third axis. I thought it was just too complicated, anyway. But there’s a z-axis of time. But the two axes, the classic business school two by two – if you go to a business school, it’s always two by two, by the way.

If you’re a philosopher, it’s always three. This, and this, and someone else. If you go to a business school, it’s one, two, three, four. So the business school analysis here is, bottom, something that depreciates through time, loses value, or something that acquires value. And on the y-axis something that is unproductive – is capital but doesn’t generate any further capital – or is productive.

Now imagine a car. And I want to make you aware of the fact that it’s more complicated than you’ll actually find in the textbook, because the car, normally, is treated as only one kind of capital – not true. Imagine that you have a car. If the car is just a car – your normal car that you take from here to there, to travel around, et cetera – that’s defined as unproductive. It’s not generating more capital and is losing value as we speak.

That’s why you should never buy a new car, obviously. But if you use it as a Uber driver, well, it is true that it’s losing value, but it is productive. It is generating some capital or income. That’s what Uber has done to us.

Or, if you use it as a collector, well, it’s just a beautiful old car. There, an antique in the garage. Well, that is unproductive if there, but it’s acquiring value. You know, you can sell it for more as we go on. Or even better, suppose you use it as an old car for weddings as an Uber driver. Perfect. It’s a car that is productive and appreciating through time. Now you know in which business we need to be.

Clearly, you want to have your semantic capital top right. Now I’ll change slightly the picture, so forgive me for the mismatch But let’s talk about semantic capital, and it’s going to be controversial – but remember, I used to be on the religious side. So no one here needs to take offence. And there’s a question mark at some point. OK? I prepared everybody. Be gentle, OK?

So suppose we are in an academic context. And the semantic capital we’re talking about is the capital S, capital C, something that’s got to do with knowledge and the academic knowledge. Well, there’s a lot of scholasticism that is unproductive. The classic paper nobody reads, publishing, et cetera, which is totally depreciating.

It loses value as we speak. It’s not even worth the paper on which it has been published. Plenty – no, gazillions of that, OK? Fine. We need to know – no secret. You could actually go to something that is equally depreciating as we speak, but it’s fashionable. It generates more papers, it is what we call the cottage industry.

You know you’ve always been exposed to some of this, especially if you’ve not been in a PhD programme. The cottage industry will generate more paper – actually, may land you with a tenure somewhere, a job – this is a very tame sort of analysis. Totally fashionable. Depreciating? Yeah, absolutely. I mean, net generation would not even know that someone had written down anything. It’s as lost stuff, there, or, but someone will have got the job, will you?

Or you could – sorry. You could move to the unproductive and yet appreciating academic area. It’s unproductive – and this is something that I find problematic, once I give you a more general picture, this is just a specific example – because exactly what semantic capital can be in terms of unproductive – there is no generating more meaningfulness, shall we say, in the world – and yet acquires value.

Well, the only thing I can think of – but that’s as far as I went, as far as I can go at the moment – is an archive that no one is using. So they available but not access, not used kind of accumulation of semantic capital, that is appreciating as we go on. Maybe it’s a lost library somewhere. Maybe it’s a lost song somewhere. And yet, it is unproductive. There’s no leaving the mind that’s going through.

And then you have something that I didn’t know what word to use – shall we call it authentic? But I’m happy to find anything else. This sort of semantic capital say, in academia or in investing, which is appreciating in value and productive. It could be Newton for all now, OK?

Now suppose that we want to generalise. This is just a little example. Well, how about unproductive and depreciating semantic capital called gossip, Facebook, trash novels? I hope you can see. Remember, I gave you the example of the car because, oh, it depends. I know. I know it depends.

Maybe that trash novel really change your life, and that’s fine. And maybe we need to put it up there, productive. Fine. But normally, it’s called trash novel for a reason, the kind of stuff you’d pick up at the airport. In fact, you might even throw it away at the end of the day. So allow me, but I know that there’s always – oh, it depends. Of course.

And then the productive but depreciating – fashion. Not just fashionable idea, but fashion. Fashion, as in you should be wearing a tie of their colour. News, of course. News, no. Fish and chips, et cetera. A joke. And what about religion?

That is a big question mark for me. I don’t know. According to some people, yes. According to others, not quite. And I’m happy to leave you there with a big question mark about whether that semantic capital there, the belief, the faith of someone, is actually depreciating as time goes by. In the future, humanity becoming more lay, less, not more secular, less religious, or, in fact, not. You’re wrong. It’s the other way around. You should put it elsewhere.

I’m happy to have a discussion about this. But of course, the classics are there. You know, arts, science classes. This is the semantic capital. And it could be, mind, it could be the Rolling Stones. I’m not talking about necessarily Shakespeare. But something that is there for us to help us to make sense of the world, explain it, give meaning to it. And what do we call here?

The good thing about deadlines is that at some point you have to release the PowerPoint. And if you are serious – I didn’t want to trick anyone into believing that I had an answer at all costs. I don’t know. I’m not quite sure whether there’s any semantic capital in the world that works so well like in the car example. That’s why I spoke previously about a reservoir of meaningfulness somewhere that we’re not using, that we have forgotten about. And I will give you some examples later.

But it shifts from what it is to how. That’s why I’m not satisfied. Are you with me? The first three – one, two, three – the ones where I provide example, is something out there. If I start putting something on the bottom right, in terms of not something but whether it is or is not being accessed by, used by – well then we reshuffle. It’s a different category. So there’s a bit of logical shift which makes me, the logician, unsatisfied.

So I’m leaving that open, and I might even end up by saying, well, that’s where the analogy with capital ends. Well, that doesn’t have to be. Now in all this, what about classics? Where classics are, normally – and that’s because it’s the easy example – this kind of reservoir of semantic capital. Now, they’re normally appreciated in many ways. This is a classic way of defining a classic, as I know you know.

Open – a classic is something that can be read 1,000 times in 1,000 years and it still tells us something about ourselves, the world, et cetera. True. But remember what I said at the beginning, where I wasn’t going to do semiotics, or philosophy of that kind, or hermeneutics? Because interpreting the classics as an open text – classic analysis by, for example, Umberto Eco, that’s fine and I don’t dispute that, but I’m not interested. That’s not what I mean here. Because it’s a way of saying, what can I do to it, not what can you do for me?

And so what I like to say is that is a major resource of semanticization. It’s what I can use a million times to say, oh, that reminds me of the Macbeth. What a tragic figure that politician is, for example. Or, as I was just in Rome the other day, and there was a moment when we had to face, are we in charge of our destiny? And what else if not Julius Caesar?

And you can actually quote, in Rome, Julius Caesar by Shakespeare, saying, we are not underlings. Beautiful. And that’s what helps you to make sense of the world. So that’s what I mean, not just what is, in itself – how open it is. Of course, the two are one beside of the other. The openness provides the applicability. Applicability is due to the openness, and vise versa. But I would like to see this side of the middle.

And so what risks do we have? And finally, you must have perceived some ethical underling here, some sort of aftertaste, but I want to focus on this. So if, at the moment, this is the sort of semantic capital that we might be discussing, it may or may not be a powerful concept. It has been around, but we may get a new one.

If the definition makes some sense, if the examples are kind of OK in terms of running with them, and if the logic starts looking like a logic of coherence of the narrative – not the anagnorisis, et cetera – if there are analogies with respect to how you can extract more capital from that capital or not, it becomes useless, fruitful, or fruitless – well, then, some of the things that we are learning here are the risks and the advantages.

And this is really about ethics. So there are some risks which I tried to present in the sort of capital-oriented, almost economy of, semantic capital. The potential of loss – that’s the risk – of part or all of the value of some content – remember, the content as defined in terms of meaningful and well-informed data, that kind of content – that can no longer enhance someone’s power to give meaning to, and make sense of, semanticized something. Well, it just a tame definition by saying, well, if this is this stuff that we cherish and value, any decrease of it will be the particular risk we’re running.

And so semantic capital risk can occur through projects that go wrong – investments in something that fail to semanticize, the choice you made, the choice we made as a society, the decision not to do something, or to do something with the wrong means, that didn’t turn out to be as fruitful as we thought. I’m going to be a bit more precise, but that’s the line of reasoning I want to pursue.

So here is a concrete example of semantic capital risk. Cultural appropriation. I know there’s a huge debate these days, but this is where the digital – and I want to connect now to digital quite strongly to what I’ve said so far – is reshaping, dramatically, the risk we are running. The more we know each other, the more closely we interact with each other, the easier it becomes to borrow, in these three forms for example, things from other people that means something else for those people.

In those cases, these are religious semantic capital. And the appropriation of that religious semantic capital by the wrong people in the wrong way – it maybe making fun, maybe in the wrong context, or inadvertently even, because of course, we all make mistakes without meaning – but there is a huge risk that the digital can, at the same time, increase and counteract. It can increase in terms of how much we have more access to semantic capitals that are not ours.

The more cultures I can be one click away from, the Facebook moment where I saw someone dressed like this, and I thought, oh, that was funny, funny, I can do that on Sunday – without knowing more, without understanding more. And yet, at the same time, the dual nature of the digital, well, that’s exactly where it takes one moment to google what that means, to understand, oh, whoa, whoa. No, wait. Wait a minute. This is improper. It would not be respectful.

So in this particular sense, cultural appropriation as a form of disrespect for someone as capital, to me is also a way of saying, well, is misappropriation of semantic capital. Now, if you go and read, or if you have heard a lot about some of this cultural appropriation as a problem, you know that normally it’s linked to colonialism. And I agree with that. Full stop. There’s no but.

There’s an end, and it doesn’t even have to be that. It’s wrong even when no colonial interaction is in question. It’s wrong when where I’m taking from maybe is a great power, maybe is a great culture, and I’m still disrespectful towards that great power and that great culture. So normally, usually, it is the powerful versus the weak. Yes.

Normally, it is someone, probably from Europe or the usual suspects, taking advantage of cultures – say, U.S. – no, sorry, over here – of things they do not understand. They think that is a joke. Fine, yes. Don’t get me wrong. However, even if that were not the case, it will still be a misappropriation of someone else’s semantic capital if that semantic capital comes from a powerful, and enormously energetic, et cetera, place.

Maybe less offensive? I don’t think so. Disrespect is disrespect. And it doesn’t matter whether you are disrespectful towards the powerful or the weak, although the weak – there is something more aggravating there. The other one, the other example, is, again, of semantic capital risk – is the filter bubble. The redundancy, the noise. The filter bubble can also be read in terms of impoverishment of the semantic capital.

It is almost the other side of the previous, the culture appropriation, because if you could go from one extreme – appropriating anyone, no matter what, it’s a big shop out there. Ideas, two penny a kilo. Who cares? I don’t mind whether that means a lot in your culture, whether the semantic capital that you invested as in society there is enormous, because I need a costume for the next Halloween. Well, the other side, the extreme, is like, I’m going to talk only to my semantic capital people. We always and only exchange the same tokens.

And you know, a closed economy is a bad economy. That richness in the exchange with the other dies. There’s no enrichment, there is no challenging, and all of a sudden one mistake leads to the other mistake. Oh, there’s plenty of respect in the filter bubble, because I’m respecting myself. By talking to you, I’m just projecting onto you what I think anyway. And as long as you say the same thing I said, and we all love dogs here and no cats allowed, that’s fine.

Now that is the other risk that we need to prick, because, once again, the digital allows this. We know this even more from the previous case, but it’s also what can challenge that, enormously. Nothing like, again, one click away to get out of the bubble.

To summarise, and coming to the end of the talk, these are classically – now you just have to do a bit of logical analysis of what happens to your capital, whether semantic or not. You might have a loss, you might be not lost, but it’s in your pocket, unproductive. You don’t do anything with it, it might be under-used. You may have it, use it, but not use it well enough per opportunity cost. Or, you may have it, use it, and perhaps use it even well, but it’s still inflated. It’s still depreciating as we go.

All these four risks that cover all possible alternatives here are connected to, again, digital questions. Fake news. Well, the fake news is another form of vandalism. Vandalism of what? Well now that I have this special expression, I like to think, oh, it’s vandalism of semantic capital.

We have a huge wealth of, say, well-established truth, all things that we think are pretty OK. And anyone, every time, you know – is sending another tweet from the White House, it is eroding, vandalising, that semantic capital. I don’t like it. No matter who is the owner of that semantic capital. So it’s a propaganda, fake news, lies, what is exactly what is ruining – and there is a loss of semantic capital. A depreciation as we speak.

Or, you could have the unproductive or under-used. Here, Matthew counts as particularly helpful. Remember that story? You know, that Matthew recounts, says, that the master has to leave, and he give five talents, three talents, and one talent to the servants. And he said, I’m coming back, make sure you do something with this money, the talents. We call them talents today for a reason.

And he comes back and says, what have you done with the money? I said, oh, I’ve got five. Here is the other five. I got 10. Oh, well done. You have plenty. And someone who says, oh, I got three. I doubled them. Six, fantastic, go ahead.

And then there’s the guy who said, I got one. I put it away in the back. So dig the hole, et cetera. Here, because you’re a nasty guy, so I’ll give you back what you gave me. You should be glad. He said, oh, you beast up! And he gets punished robustly.

Didn’t do anything with it. So here, the Matthew thing, unproductive, and so under-used, is the risk of mosaification. The digital should not freeze and mosaify whatever it touches. On the contrary, it’s conservation, restoration of the culture adage, and you can see why I couldn’t miss the opportunity of this talk, here, now. Surely if I dare to speak about this stuff, it is here and no where else to try it for the first time. Surely there is the counterpart.

So is the digital helping us here? Or is it playing the wrong role in maybe just making sure that something gets there, recorded, and forgot? Is the digital the new hole in the soil where I put my talent, and goodbye? Or is, actually, the five, the three talents, could get more?

Well, we really have to decide. This is a matter of governance of the digital. It is not just a matter of, oh, it happens. Let’s see how it goes. It’s a decision that we have to take, and an ethical one as well. And then finally, depreciation. Well, that education and the digital go hand-in-hand. All this, unfortunately, loses value unless you keep adding to it.

There’s a sort of inflation in some of the semantic capital we have that gets lost – not its value – generation through generation. We tend to forget that the role of education is also to make sure that the value of the semantic capital we have taken millennia to create, that topsoil, is passed onto, in the right format, with the richness that it deserves, to the next generation.

I love – there is an advertisement. I don’t know if you saw it, but there’s someone who had a brilliant idea. So you never own this particular watch. You just take care of it for the next generation. I’ve forgotten the watch, so it’s not very successful advertisment, but the phrase is beautiful. It gives you this sense of, I’m a passing point. I’m the receiver, the carer, and the sender, of this semantic capital. I’ve inherited, I’m enriching and cherishing, and protecting for you, next generation.

Now unless we have this sense of service, we’re going to destroy this because, oh, it’s just consumable, which is more than, nothing else than, a trash novel in the previous example.

So we come to an end here, and you can see that the next step in my intellectual development and research – unless someone puts out something out there and I can rely on someone else’s research – is to develop a care for semantic capital. An ethical framework that tells us, well, so what exactly are we here for? What are we doing?

And I don’t want to hear just this story of, oh, this heritage is important. Why? Well, because it does work for us. So I want to add to the value in and of itself, to the, I have no courage in destroying the watch that belonged to my grandfather moment, also say, no, no – this watch also does work for me, in terms of meaning more, in terms of wider sense, than just what it is in itself.

Now with this, I’d like to thank the rest of the lab because that’s the digital ethics lab people with whom I have plenty of conversations. So some of the ideas I presented, they also come from our sameness. And thank you so much for your patience and your kindness in your questions. Thank you.


This podcast is copyright The National Archives, all rights reserved. It is available for re-use under the terms of the Open Government Licence.


  1. Rod Harris (in Australia) says:

    Dear Archives

    I downloaded and listened to this podcast, thank you.

    I found it is in stereo, but with only one channel used — and that at low volume.

    whilst other tools are available, could I suggest you use “Audacity” to issue the podcast in mono (if the source is single channel) and use the function “Normalise” to give the output about the same level as podcasts from other content creators?



    1. Rod Harris (in Australia) says:


      The first 27 seconds and last 17 seconds are in stereo but the content between is Right channel only.

      It looks like the recording level of applause at the end of the session has caused the “normalising” to be limited to the higher level of the applause and thus the talk is at a low level.


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