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  •                                  NETFUTURE
                        Technology and Human Responsibility
    Issue #84      A Publication of The Nature Institute      February 9, 1999
                Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)
                         On the Web: http://netfuture.org
         You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes.
    NETFUTURE is a reader-supported publication.
                           *** SPECIAL DOUBLE ISSUE ***
                        The Pursuit of Entangled Opposites
    Editor's Note
       Thinking in Opposites, Thinking in Unities
    Quotes and Provocations
       Want to Globalize? Then Localize!
       Please Don't Love Me Only for My Architecture
       Freeman Dyson on the Survival of Craftsmanship
       Brief Notes on Polarity
    There is No Such Thing as Information (Stephen L. Talbott)
       But there is always stuff
    The Great Knowledge Implosion (Stephen L. Talbott)
       We're in an era of unprecedented knowledge loss
       Wholeness and a Society without Gender (Karla Tonella)
    Announcements and Resources
       Where to Go Next
    About this newsletter
                                  EDITOR'S NOTE
    I've wanted to put this Special Issue together for a long time, but never
    felt up to the task.  My desire was to begin sharing with you some of the
    germinal convictions from which nearly all my commentary in NETFUTURE has
    arisen.  Certainly, I thought, the need is there.  I hardly ever finish a
    piece without feeling a note of despair:  "Readers will wonder where that
    came from"; or, "I have hopelessly failed to show the ground for this
    point of view".
    The problem is that the ground is ... the ground.  It's more difficult to
    notice where you are standing than to take in the vista from there.  The
    ground is full of assumptions you may not even be able to identify, let
    alone explain.  And if you have spent decades trying to free yourself from
    the most entrenched assumptions of your culture -- assumptions about self
    and other, matter and spirit, thought and world -- the task of making your
    words accessible to those who stand on other ground begins to seem
    But I have always taken the view that this sense of impossibility
    represents the limitations of my own expressive powers, not the limitation
    of the readership.  Unable to transcend my limitations, I have for a long
    while thought it best to hold silence.  But occasionally one comes to a
    point where risking failure is the necessary choice.  And this issue of
    NETFUTURE feels very much like a failure to me.  Certainly it is
    too "heavy".  (I have some much lighter issues planned for the near
    future.) But I hope it will become one of those salutary failures I could
    not do without, a failure producing the seed of future success.
    Failure and success -- opposites that can't get along without each other.
    I guess we're off and running.
    Thinking in Opposites, Thinking in Unities
    Think of a magnet.  The relation of the two poles is peculiar:  cut off as
    minuscule a slice of the north end as you wish, and the sliver you now
    hold will still be a proper magnet, with both north and south poles.
    Somehow, each pole of the original magnet penetrated all the way through
    to the opposite end.  Each pole, you might say, was "compromised" by the
    But it would be better simply to say that the two poles interpenetrated.
    The relation of part to whole imaged here is not that of a mechanism;
    rather, the whole comes to expression in each of its parts.  Another way
    to put it is this:  each pole of the magnet exists, not only in contrast
    and tension with the opposite pole, but also by virtue of the
    opposite pole.  Neither pole can exist without the other.  If these are
    opposites, they are very odd opposites, deeply entangled in each other.
    ("Entangled opposites" is no allusion to quantum mechanics.  The routine
    meaning of the words is quite adequate to my intention.)
    There are as many productive ways to begin thinking about technology as
    there are individuals doing the thinking.  But I'm convinced that few
    ideas are as fundamental and fruitful as the principle of polar
    opposition, of which the magnet gives us a kind of picture.  But, no,
    that's not quite right.  What we need isn't the idea of polarity so
    much as habits of thinking that have themselves gained a polar quality.
    One's movements of thought need to work against each other while at the
    same time interpenetrating and fertilizing each other, until, out of this
    interaction, a whole, living picture arises that is more than a sum of
    This is not easy considering that we must work with mental "tools" that
    have themselves been shaped by technology.  A defining trait of most
    modern technologies, I'm convinced, is that they work to destroy healthy
    polarity, both in the world and in our thinking.  Conversely, only through
    the fluid grasp of entangled opposites can we gain a proper understanding
    of technology.  This requires a thinking that is always in motion, and the
    quality of this motion -- not the static content of particular thoughts --
    is what bears the truth.
    That, in a nutshell, is what this Special Issue is about.
    Goto table of contents
                             QUOTES AND PROVOCATIONS
    Want to Globalize? Then Localize!
    "Think globally; act locally" -- so we hear almost daily.  Counters
    Wendell Berry:  "Think locally; act locally" -- everything else is
    destructive, since only a local context can ground an action and give it
    profound meaning.
    Sympathetic as I am to Berry's formulation, I worry about it.  The reason
    is that, in the modern world, globalization and localization are polar
    contraries:  they are in a sense opposites, and yet these opposites form
    an interpenetrating unity; each pole exists not only at the expense of the
    other, but also by grace of the other.
    On the one hand, it's obvious enough that you can't achieve meaningful
    globalization if the field over which you globalize has been denatured,
    devalued, deprived of its concrete local significances.  You end up with
    global relations that are relations between nothing.  When all the
    emphasis is on connections and none is on deepening the people and
    institutions you are connecting, then everything loses its individual
    character -- which is much the same as losing its existence.  You perfect
    a global syntax for interaction, but no one is left to do the interacting.
    You have pure activity with no content -- a whirling dervish from which
    the dervish has disappeared, leaving only the whirl.
    On the other hand -- and this may be less obvious -- while a local
    community provides richly textured contexts, it is the very nature of
    context to be unbounded, to open outward without rigid limit.  What makes
    a context a context is a matrix of meaning, and meaning wants to connect
    to meaning in a way that no local geography can wholly contain.  In
    ecological terms, every habitat is bound up with its neighboring habitats,
    and so on ever outward.
    In sum, you cannot become a better local citizen without also becoming a
    better global citizen, and vice versa.  After all (see "Editor's Note"
    above), you can't strengthen the north pole of a magnet without also
    strengthening the south pole.
    Our current, technologically motivated globalization shows every sign of
    simply obliterating the local and thereby sacrificing the truly global as
    well.  As Lowell Monke has shown (NF #49 and 51), even the Internet-based
    multicultural programs in our schools are more a celebration of electronic
    monoculture triumphant than of the invisible local cultures that
    technology is so efficiently marginalizing.
    This is not to say that traditional cultures must be "kept down" and
    prevented from changing.  Surely they must change.  The question is
    whether they will be allowed to do so out of their own inner necessity as
    they confront the modern world, or instead will be steamrollered by alien
    forces of globalization acting wholly from outside.
    The technological society seems radically committed to the latter
    approach.  It is engaged, so to speak, in an attempt to create a magnet
    with only one pole, seeking universality by undermining local character.
    What we haven't realized is that -- unlike with mere opposites -- to get
    rid of the unappreciated pole is to destroy the whole.  You can't have a
    magnet with just a north pole.
    I think many have experienced this on the scale of their own lives.  Every
    close-knit community, from commune to college dorm, easily becomes too
    turned-in upon itself.  Its members begin to feel claustrophobic, and they
    talk of "getting out into the real world".  On the other hand, those out
    in the "real world" -- many employees of large corporations, for example
    -- long for a more intimate and fulfilling communal context "where people
    Both extremes are unhappy ones.  They become healthy only when we learn to
    integrate the opposing tendencies in a higher unity -- to "breathe" them
    in harmonious, rhythmic alternation.  That, in fact, is exactly what
    Wendell Berry himself does:  he works his Kentucky farm while regularly
    engaging (with wonderful effectiveness) the larger world that can either
    help to sustain or to destroy his farm.  His effectiveness at the global
    level is a direct consequence of his rootedness at the local level.  I
    think he would say it's a good life.
    Actually, then, we can take Berry's "Think locally; act locally" as a
    sound formula -- provided we possess the mental flexibility and
    imaginative power to recognize a certain globalizing tendency necessarily
    already at work in our healthy striving toward localism, and inseparable
    from it.  So, too, one could say, "Think globally; act globally".  But
    because of society's strong urge to destroy polarity in the interest of a
    purely technological and empty globalization, this second formula is much
    more dangerous.  It will almost certainly be misunderstood.
    The best rule of thumb for today's globalizers:  "If you don't put at
    least half your energy into strengthening local contexts, ask yourself
    whether you are helping to destroy the world."  But even that's an
    understatement.  Given the momentum of community-eroding forces throughout
    the world, the true work of globalization today is overwhelmingly the work
    of strengthening local contexts.
    Please Don't Love Me Only for My Architecture
    Not long ago I listened to a speaker complaining loudly about the lack of
    structured information on the Net.  "Graphic images are useless as
    structured information", he bellowed to his audience of librarians.  We
    have "no standards.  SGML degenerated into HTML .... All we have is
    islands of computerization."  And so today
       we don't need more bandwidth and computing power unless we get an
       architecture for information.
    It's true:  without structure the World Wide Web -- and any other medium
    -- is useless as a vehicle for communication.  At the lowest level,
    structure is given by the syntax of language.  At higher levels you have
    the structure of paragraphs, poems, novels, indexes, cultural discourses,
    and even paintings.  Remove all structure at a particular level and the
    level simply ceases to exist.  No communication of significance occurs at
    that level.  Formlessness says nothing.
    But if communication requires structure (and the emphasis here is on
    logical structure), it also requires meaning.  It's not much use speaking
    or writing in the most precisely structured way if the terms you have
    articulated with such care turn out to be empty.  Effective communication
    requires structure, but structure without content still fails to
    communicate anything.  Moreover, while structure and content need each
    other if communication is to occur, they also stand opposed:  as we will
    see in a moment, the more exquisitely elaborated the structural rules of
    your communication, the harder it is to say anything meaningful.
    This points us to the fundamental polarity between accuracy or reliability
    in communication (requiring the most exactly specified syntax or
    "architecture" possible), and meaning.  Reliability has to do with how
    easily you can guarantee the faithful reproduction of your thought at the
    other end of the communication "channel"; meaning has to do with the
    content of your message, its depth of expression or profundity of insight.
    Personally, I do not see how any deep approach can be made to modern
    technology -- especially digital technology -- without an explicit or
    implicit understanding of these entangled opposites.
    The crucial fact here -- explained further below -- is that, while
    reliability in communication demands well-defined structure,
    meaningfulness in communication is possible only through continual
    subversion of this structure.  If there is one thing I am forever wanting
    to shout at the pundits of the digital era, this is it.  For example, I
    would have liked to say to that speaker at the conference of librarians,
       Yes, there must be an architecture for all communication on the Web, as
       for all communication generally.  But if you leave the matter there --
       if you do not also stress the need for pervasive violation of this
       architecture -- then you are aiming for a "one-pole magnet" (see
       articles above) and you will end up destroying the possibilities for
       meaningful communication altogether.
    One way to see how meaning stands in a kind of opposition to fixed syntax
    is to look at examples of perfectly fixed syntax -- say, pure
    mathematics or logic -- where no syntactic violations are allowed.  In
    these cases there is no meaning in any direct sense.  There is no content.
    Bertrand Russell once characterized pure mathematical logic as "the
    subject in which we never know what we are talking about" (Mysticism
    and Logic).
    Here was perhaps the most accomplished logician of all time, and he was
    not being facetious.  Rather, he was rubbing our noses in the fact that
    when we finally achieve perfect precision, we have also achieved perfect
    abstraction.  That is, we have abstracted ourselves clean out of this
    world, so that our perfect precision is precisely about nothing.  "All
    propositions of logic", Ludwig Wittgenstein drily remarked, "mean the same
    thing, namely nothing."
    Mathematics -- all structure, no meaning -- is, you could say, a one-pole
    magnet.  That's why it's not about anything, why it is not a vehicle for
    communication, not a true language.  The magnet has ceased to exist.  Of
    course, pure mathematics in this sense may be an ideal never quite
    reached, and in any case, as soon as we bring some context to it -- as
    soon as we apply it -- it begins to merge with language.  And what happens
    then?  We must struggle with the tension between precise reliability and
    meaningful content.  Here is how Albert Einstein once put it:
       Insofar as the propositions of mathematics give an account of reality,
       they are not certain; and insofar as they are certain they do not
       describe reality.  (Quoted in Morris Kline, Mathematics: The Loss of
    And Einstein's fellow physicist, Werner Heisenberg, seemed to be
    approaching the same problem when he said, "As facts and knowledge
    accumulate, the claim of the scientist to an understanding of the world in
    a certain sense diminishes" (quoted in Ernst Lehrs, Man or Matter).  The
    greater our collection of "exact facts", the harder it is to invest these
    facts with meaning.  It all reminds one of the remark by William Temple:
    if we attend to things only insofar as they are measurable, we will end
    by having only measurements before our attention.
    But it is one thing to say that precision and meaning are polar opposites
    and that the syntactic rigor conducing to precision is the "sworn enemy"
    of meaning; but it is quite another to get a feel for how this opposition
    plays itself out.  And remember that the enemies are also locked into
    mutual dependence.  Each would expire without the other to fight against.
    Each survives and thrives only in the fighting.
    The fighting and the thriving can be observed most directly in the use of
    If you violate the syntax of a mathematical or logical system, you produce
    gibberish.  If you violate the syntax of a human language -- assuming your
    violation is well-chosen -- you produce metaphor.  A metaphor employs terms
    in ways they are not "supposed" to be employed in order to suggest
    meanings that may not have been available through a more law-abiding
    usage.  Metaphor is the instrument for deepening and expanding meaning,
    and it achieves its end through a kind of inaccuracy or falsehood.  We
    "lie" in order to gain new understanding; one has to look through the lie
    to glimpse the new and unexpected meaning hovering above it.
    On the way from pure mathematics or logic to language (which I am not
    suggesting is the historical sequence!) you have to develop terms with
    meaning.  And it is a historical fact, as the English philologist Owen
    Barfield reminded us over and over again, that virtually all our words
    have gained their meanings through metaphor.  Our language is made up of
    nothing but more or less faded metaphors.  This is as true of scientific
    words like "function", "impulse", and "gravity" as it is of "right",
    "wrong", "affection", and "soul".  In other words, we have our meanings
    today -- and, as Barfield demonstrates, could only have them -- by grace of a
    long history of inaccuracies -- syntactic violations.  We couldn't have
    gotten from the "gravitas" of the Middle Ages to the "gravity" of Newton,
    or from Newton's "time" to Einstein's "time", without allowing the words
    to shift and shade into something different from what they were.
    If you are a little perplexed at this point, don't feel badly.  I have
    been trying to live my way into this pair of entangled opposites for some
    twenty years, and still have barely gotten my toe into the tangle.  Let me
    just suggest in conclusion a couple of the places where the polarity of
    accuracy and meaning may lead us:
    ** One of the polarity's many faces is displayed in the opposition between
    syntax and semantics (meaning).  Because this is a polarity, you cannot
    separate syntax from semantics in an absolute way.  The rules of a word's
    usage are bound up with its meaning (and must change with the expansions
    and contractions of meaning) -- and the same can be said of every other unit
    of meaning beyond the individual word.  If as our library speaker
    lamented, SGML "degenerated" into HTML, it is at least in part because
    every effort cleanly to isolate and specify the structure of a
    communication is compromised by the living, breathing, syntax-escaping
    dynamism of all meaningful communication.
    ** Every computer program is, by itself, a purely syntactical operation.
    The syntax is inviolable.  (A computer's failure to adhere to the syntax
    of the software is a malfunction, not a metaphor.)  The computer, capable
    of near-miraculous accuracy, never means anything by its
    operations.  That's why the mass of the world's software is, considered
    by itself, frightfully inhuman.
    To see how the computer can be humanized, you have to look at more than
    "what we can get it to do with more sophisticated programming".  You have
    to abandon the notion that the computer can do anything human or human-
    like in its own right and begin to look at its context.  In particular,
    you need to look at the programmer's continuing activity of revision,
    which depends on his semantic grasp of the tasks he is reducing to a fixed
    syntax, and you also need to look at the user's ability to transcend -- to
    violate -- the syntactic necessities the computer would impose upon its
    context of use.
    The programmer and user both mean something (or can do so) by their
    activities with the computer, and this is why they must both be prepared
    to subvert the software's syntax -- the programmer by revising it, and the
    user by refusing to march blindly to its logic.  Of course, neither of
    these acts is meaningful unless -- well, unless the individual is capable of
    investing it with meaning.  The computer itself may be absolutely
    syntax-bound, but we can make of it a metaphor in the evolving syntax of
    our lives.
    Freeman Dyson on the Survival of Craftsmanship
    In the May 15, 1998 issue of Science the eminent physicist, Freeman
    J. Dyson, wrote about "Science as a Craft Industry".  He described how the
    old tradition of the skilled craftsman led to the first industrial
    revolution, and then retreated before the advance of the great industrial
    enterprises built by Andrew Carnegie and others.
    But craft shops, Dyson tells us, never died out.  They were continually
    reborn -- first (during the early twentieth century) in order to build
    radios, microscopes and telescopes, motor bicycles, and flying machines,
    and then, later in the century, to contrive all sorts of scientific
    instruments, including computers.  But the craft era in computer
    manufacture is coming to an end.  Is there anything to replace it?
    Yes, Dyson answers.  The even larger, software craft industry still
    flourishes, and has been joined by the biotechnology industry.  In the
    same way, he expects science to spawn ever new craft industries in the
    All this is fine if by "craft industry" you mean little more than "an
    industry where individuals and small shops can find their competitive
    niches" -- which, as nearly as I can tell, is Dyson's meaning.  But this
    is strangely to omit the one thing that mattered most in the old craft
    shops: the artistic element -- the qualitative, expressive gesture that
    put an individual stamp of meaning upon a piece of work.  Two urns from
    different artisans may have had the same function, the same volume, the
    same hardness, and so on, but no such sharing of technical specifications
    would have made the two urns "the same".  And that artistic difference
    counted for a great deal.
    The human being is incorrigibly expressive, so you will doubtless find
    some of the marks of creative authorship on any given piece of software.
    You can look for certain patterns of organization, certain particular
    usages, and the "elegance" of the overall design.  But there is no denying
    that the history of craft as Dyson outlines it is in fact a history of the
    loss of craft, if we take the artistic, individually expressive element as
    essential to craftsmanship.
    I am reminded here of those "Perl poets" who try to write poems in the
    form of syntactically correct -- if computationally tortured -- Perl
    programs.  It's plenty of fun, of course, but we should remember that the
    meaningful and expressive side of these Perl poems, such as it is, comes
    from the intentional conflation of the programming language with natural
    language.  As I indicated above (see "Please Don't Love Me Only for My
    Architecture"), a programming language is an inviolable syntax and
    therefore offers no room for meaningful expression -- which is why a
    computer executing a Perl poem steadfastly refuses to "get" all the little
    jokes that titillate human readers.  It responds only to the proper and
    decidedly non-poetic syntax of the programming language.
    You can hardly argue that this sort of poetic stage whispering figures
    prominently in real-world programming tasks.  Nor have we found much in
    the way of alternative routes to artistic expression in programming.  In
    fact, if we regard the programmer's task to be nothing but programming in
    the narrow sense -- nothing more than taking something given and adapting it
    to the computer's mechanisms -- then we need to realize that the task is
    precisely to help eliminate expressive possibilities from particular human
    domains.  It is to reduce one or more aspects of those domains to a fixed,
    unyielding syntax.  Those who fail to see this ("Look at how I can now
    express myself to people all over the world!") typically confuse new,
    technically supported occasions for expression, on the one hand, with
    increasing expressive depth, on the other.
    Everything I've said here can be understood in terms of the polarity of
    precision and meaning discussed in the previous article.  The one-sided
    striving toward reliability and accuracy, without recognition of the
    necessity for the polar opposite, is a striving toward rigid syntax,
    toward radical abstraction and quantification, toward effective
    manipulation of matter.  When elevated to the status of sole principle of
    cognition, it gives us precision without content.  We have wonderfully
    exact numbers, but have forgotten what they are about.  (See "Editor's
    Note" in NF #83.)
    All this precludes the artistic element, which requires meaning and
    expressive depth.  These are flexible, qualitative, and pictorial.  They
    have more to do with understanding, aesthetic sensibility, and moral
    insight than with manipulation.
    The science that Dyson sees fostering an endless stream of craft
    industries is a science that declared, early on, "Leave qualities out of
    the matter."  It opted for quantification and effective manipulation.  But
    what if we need more than the ability to manipulate things?  What if the
    artistic form of the buildings we live in, the implements we eat with, and
    the machines we operate have a lot to do with our physical and mental
    health?  What if it is even the case -- as I believe Rudolf Steiner, the
    founder of Waldorf education, once suggested -- that we must learn to
    treat certain illnesses by designing healing structures for the sufferers
    to live in?
    All these things I consider possible, if not likely.  But, if there is
    truth to be found in this direction, none of the craft industries Dyson
    celebrates looks like contributing much of the necessary artistic insight.
    Of course, many scientists would actively belittle the possibilities I've
    just listed as strange, if not downright crazy.  But such disparagement
    would be an unfortunate lapse on their part.  A science that long ago
    swore off paying attention to the expressive qualities of the world is not
    a science in a good position to pronounce on the unexplored potentials of
    those qualities.  It is, rather, a science that has approached ever closer
    to perfect accuracy devoid of meaning, so that now, unsurprisingly, we
    begin to hear talk of the "end of science".  When the questions science
    addresses become so thin and mathematically reduced as to take leave of
    all content, it is no wonder that some conclude there is no content left
    worth worrying about.
    Dyson rounds off his essay by fairly shouting its contradiction at us:
       We remain tool-making animals, and science will continue to exercise
       the creativity programmed into our genes.
    But if anything is really "programmed" into our genes, then it most
    certainly is not creativity.  More like its opposite.  Perhaps some would
    hope that our programming at least included a Perl poem or two, but, even
    if that were so, we would never know it.
    Brief Notes on Polarity
    ** Various observers have noted two opposing principles at work in
    communication, language, and thought.  For example, Heidegger
    distinguishes language as disclosure from language as representation,
    where the former reveals the world and the latter merely points to
    something that is already fully and precisely given.  (See his On the
    Way to Language.)
    Similarly, the economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen distinguishes between
    dialectical and analytical concepts in economic thought.  As Herman Daly
    and John Cobb, Jr., summarize the distinction:
       Well-defined, self-identical, analytical concepts cannot capture
       evolutionary change.  Nothing can evolve into its other if it at no
       stage overlaps with its other.  Without admitting dialectical concepts,
       and a certain amount of contradiction, we cannot deal with change.
       (See Daly and Cobb's For the Common Good)
    But the only person I know who has thoroughly explored these tensions in
    language and elucidated their fundamentally polar character is Owen
    ** Polarity, Barfield writes in What Coleridge Thought, "is dynamic, not
       It is not "a mere balance or compromise" [quoting Coleridge], but "a
       living and generative interpenetration."  Where logical opposites are
       contradictory, polar opposites are generative of each other -- and
       together generative of new product.
    "The apprehension of polarity", Barfield claims, "is itself the basic
    act of imagination."  As illustrations of polarity he cites not only
    the magnet but also the tendency of some creatures to re-grow a whole
    organism from either a severed head or a severed tail.  Then he offers
    this fanciful picture:
       To think of directionally opposed mechanical forces, giving rise by
       their equilibrium to a state of rest, is very well; and at least it
       shakes us out of any obsession with merely logical contradictories.
       But to think only of that will in the end prove more of a
       hindrance than a help.  We do better to envisage something like two
       nations at total war, each with a network of spies and a resistance
       movement, distributed throughout the whole of the other's territory --
       and each with a secret underground passage opening into the citadel in
       the heart of the enemy's metropolis.
    ** One of the most blatant failures to recognize the polar counter-
    movements of thought required for all understanding shows itself in the
    widespread notion that "data are the building blocks of knowledge".  The
    idea is generally that the fixed bits of data are the givens, and one
    somehow extracts from these, or synthesizes them into, ever more profound
    understandings.  As the conventional formula has it, you levitate step by
    step from data to information to knowledge to understanding to wisdom.
    But, if anything, this has it backward.  Data are the worn-down,
    cognitively empty end-products of analysis, and the analysis presupposes
    that you had something meaningful and whole to analyze in the first place.
    Wholes always come before parts.  Moreover, data that are "fixed and
    given" cannot be meaningfully synthesized; they can only be set side by
    side in their mutual impenetrability.  They can only be endlessly
    rearranged upon a logical lattice.
    What is really required for true understanding and true synthesis is the
    counter-movement of mind that puts the data themselves at risk.  As I
    pointed out in "Can Open Standards Suffocate Us?" (NF #82), every true
    synthesis, every seeing with new eyes, is likely to alter, however subtly,
    all the structures and elements from which the old picture had been built
    up -- or, rather, into which the old picture had been analyzed.
    It's much the same as the relation between words and sentences.  With our
    atomizing mindsets we are tempted to think that we "build up" the sentence
    by placing fixed, unchanging words side by side.  But if that were the
    case, language would be dead and there could be no meaningful sentences.
    In reality, the primary movement is the opposite of "building up":  we are
    first in possession of the whole -- the overall thought of the sentence -- and
    we proceed to manifest that whole through the word-parts we select.  And,
    crucially, the whole helps to make the individual words what they are; the
    same word in different sentences always has different nuances of meaning.
    There couldn't be a whole if the whole were unable to penetrate the parts,
    re-shaping them to its own image.
    Of course, words have their given side as well, and having chosen a word
    for my sentence, I may find that its rich, historically layered semantic
    texture begins to react on my larger thought and to alter it.  It turns
    out that, while the whole is prior and primary, both movements -- from the
    whole to the part and from the part to the whole -- are mutually necessary
    to all our cognitive enterprises.  They are polar opposites.
    Ironically, though, the purer our data -- the closer their approach to
    unadulterated number -- the more they have fallen out of the polar
    relationship.  They are less and less about anything, and therefore lack
    the semantic texture that would allow them to react upon larger thoughts.
    Even if we are pursuing true cognitive synthesis, these data are scarcely
    available as meaningful elements of the synthesis.  So the data-to-wisdom
    chain, as it is usually portrayed, is a hollow fabrication.  The
    significance of the formulation is that it testifies to a loss of
    cognitive balance.
    ** The number three is about as clear-cut as any abstract concept can get.
    But what if I point at the three objects on my desk and say, "Three
    oranges"?  What has now become of my number three?
    It has, to begin with, been forced to leave its state of perfect, abstract
    isolation, so as to link its fate with all the uncertainties of "orange".
    What, after all, is an orange?  We need to answer this question because to
    say "There are three of something" isn't to say much of anything until
    we've also said what the something is.  In fact, until we know what the
    something is, we can't even be sure that "three" is the right number.
    Maybe it should be four.
    To see this you need only think about the orange for a moment.  To speak
    of an orange as a kind of self-existent entity wholly given by what you
    see on the table is nonsense.  It is to step outside of time.  In reality,
    the orange only makes sense as an entity if you are able to imagine the
    entire life cycle of the plant it comes from.  The orange can only exist
    as part of an organic whole, and any enumeration of discreet parts of that
    whole is bound to be a more or less artificial exercise.  The life cycle
    of one plant is inseparable from the next, the orange on the table is
    already different from an orange on the tree, and, due to processes of
    decay, an orange on the table tomorrow will be different the one that is
    there now.  Simply to say "three oranges" is to reckon with almost none of
    the reality in front of you.
    But as soon as you do reckon with the oranges themselves, the number you
    have applied to them becomes ambiguous.  For example, what about the seeds
    inside?  Each of these is an entire plant (the whole manifested in the
    part!), bearing the germ of many oranges within itself.  Some of the same
    problems arise with a chunk of rock.  They even arise with that model of
    "indivisibility", the atom, whose existence cannot clearly be defined
    apart from all the other atoms in the universe.
    I am not saying you cannot be precise, but only that as you drive toward
    precision you will also tend toward vacuity.  If you want your numbers to
    be about something that is significant, then you face the momentous task
    of forming the clearest and most comprehensive picture of the thing you
    possibly can.  You must embark on the endless exploration of context -- an
    exploration that will be aborted if you are too rigidly protective of your
    In a way, it's a trivial truth:  a pile of numbers is not the world.  If
    you want to approach the dynamic of polarity, all you need to do is to
    pick a number -- any number -- and ask yourself what happens to it when
    you apply it to something.  Ask also what happens to the thing receiving
    this numerical application.  With a little effort, you can begin to
    experience the dynamic as a continual pull in one direction that must ever
    be countered by a thrust in the other direction.
    We have a science that universally believes in the efficacy of "hard
    numbers".  But hard numbers by themselves are a strange thing to honor,
    whereas hard numbers applied to things are no longer hard.  To repeat that
    quote from Einstein given above,
       Insofar as the propositions of mathematics give an account of reality,
       they are not certain; and insofar as they are certain they do not
       describe reality.
    Until we have a science that takes up the challenge and wrestles with how
    these numbers manage to mean anything, we won't have the science we need.
    ** In a fascinating essay, "Form in Art and in Society" (published in the
    journal, Golden Blade, 1951) Barfield addresses the "urgent problem" of
    the relation between part and whole in society.  During the medieval era,
    he says, "this problem was solved for Europeans by a wide acceptance of
    the spiritual principle of hierarchy, and its social expression,
    feudalism."  Today, he observes, "too many people have rendered themselves
    incapable of discerning the healthy principle of hierarchy at all, by
    keeping their eyes narrowly glued on its disease, exploitation."  But in a
    community based on hierarchy,
       where "Degree"...is accepted as of course and felt as divinely
       ordained, no individual human "part" would dream of thinking himself
       from any point of view commensurate with the whole or the equal of
       every other "part".  But neither, on the other hand, would he feel
       isolated or insultingly inferior.
    Barfield does not doubt that this notion of hierarchy and degree has
    rapidly disappeared from society -- and necessarily so.  But he wonders
    whether "the present chaos" is due to the fact that "our thinking has not
    kept pace with" the change.  Our atomic habits of thought, giving us the
    equality of isolated, side-by-side individuals, leads only to the dead
    alternative between laissez faire and the totalitarian reaction against
    What's really needed, Barfield suggests, is a revitalized imagination and
    the polar thinking it supports.  Then the part and whole, the individual
    and society, will be rediscovered as interpenetrating realities:
       The characteristic of a true democracy will be, not the absence of one
       king, but the presence of many, the fact that every member of it will
       feel, however dimly, l'etat c'est moi ["I am the state"].
    Each will have become all, "although -- or rather because the foundation of
    the whole structure is the liberty of the individual human spirit."  The
    strengthening of the individual in such a polar, organic relationship, is
    a prerequisite for the strengthening of the community, and vice versa.
    Barfield saw such a democracy as wholly dependent on a society-wide
    cultivation of the imagination.  Only the imagination can overcome the
    atomic isolation of the individual.  We must grasp the
       principles of mutual penetrability, of a dependence which is at the
       same time independence, and a separableness that is inseparable --
       tensions or polarities which are head-splitting paradoxes to judgmental
       thought, but child's-play to the imagination.
    Goto table of contents
                                Stephen L. Talbott
    In NF #81 ("Here's to the Information Age: A Toast") I pointed out our
    curious usage of the word "information".  On the one hand, it can mean
    anything and everything -- "stuff", as many are apt to put it.  Of course,
    "stuff" is a perfectly legitimate word, and so is "information".  When, at
    the end of a conversation, I say "Okay, send me the information", both
    parties know what is being referred to, since the context has made it
    clear.  Similarly, when I say "Okay, give me that stuff", there's not
    likely to be any confusion.
    But while it may be useful to have a word meaning not much more than
    "whatever it is we were just talking about", you wouldn't expect such a
    spineless and inconsequential term to carry around a halo of glory.  You
    wouldn't expect to hear, for example, about the "Age of Stuff".  Yet we
    hear every day about the "Age of Information".  What is going on?
    Where Information Shines
    This is where the second aspect of "information" comes into the picture --
    the halo-bearing aspect.  Let's look at its distinguishing marks:
    ** Information comes, first of all, in discrete entities of some sort --
    in "bits" or "pieces" -- which we can store in databases.  It's nicely
    countable, so that we can talk, for example, about doubling the size of
    our databases.  (See "The Great Knowledge Implosion" below.)
    ** Second, information is thought to be sharp-edged and unambiguous.  It
    is valid or invalid, up-to-date or out-of-date, true or false.
    ** Also, information can be conveyed without loss or distortion from one
    place to another.  In this way databases can be exactly duplicated.
    ** And, lastly, information is subject to precise manipulation and control
    -- which, of course, is what information-processing tools are all about.
    Now, I hope all this puts you in mind of the preceding discussions of the
    polar relation between accuracy and meaning.  And, if it does, you will
    doubtless have noticed that the idea of information described here looks
    very much like another attempt at a "one-pole magnet".  If, in
    communication, you achieve absolute accuracy -- if the "information" you
    communicate is something you can control and count and transmit reliably,
    bit by well-defined bit, from one database to another -- then you're no
    longer talking about communication at all.  That is, your accurate terms
    aren't any longer about anything, just as the p's and q's of the pure
    logician are no longer about anything.
    The text you transmit may be, say, the text of the Emancipation
    Proclamation.  But the text is not its meaning.  (It's amazing how
    naturally we lose sight of this distinction today.)  The text can be
    reliably transmitted, but the significance of the text cannot.  Meaning,
    Owen Barfield has remarked, cannot be conveyed; it can only be suggested.
    Information as Statistical Artifact
    In a sense, none of this is as controversial as you might think.  The
    criteria for information listed above derive historically from the
    mathematical theory of communication, developed at mid-century by Norbert
    Wiener and Claude Shannon, among others.  Their aim was for reliability,
    precision, and control, but along the way a funny thing happened:  meaning
    disappeared from view.
    As Warren Weaver famously put it in one of the first essays explicating
    the new theory of communication:  in a given context the word "yes" might
    well represent the same "amount" of information as the entire text of the
    King James Bible.  (See Shannon and Weaver, The Mathematical Theory of
    Communication.)  That's just the way the theory works.  Information,
    according to this theory, is a statistical artifact of the communication
    process and must not be confused with the content of communication, or
    with meaning.
    The upshot of this fact is that the easiest way to maximize the amount of
    information over a communication line (in the theory's terms) is to hook
    up a random noise generator to it.  (You will be forgiven the thought that
    the Internet is just one massive attempt to illustrate this point.)
    Weaver, when mentioning the direct connection between noise and
    information, goes on to remark that this connection "beautifully
    illustrates the semantic trap into which one can fall if he does not
    remember that `information' is used here with a special meaning".
    The trap is one few people any longer care to avoid.  While the earlier
    theorists were careful to point out (again, in Weaver's words) that
    "information must not be confused with meaning", the term quickly
    overleapt all such hedges, even as the speakers tried to retain the mantle
    of authority derived from the technical theory.
    Toward the Destruction of Polarity
    So we come back to those observations by Russell and Einstein.  (See
    "Please Don't Love Me Only for My Architecture" above.)  You can drive
    single-mindedly toward the pole of accuracy only by excluding meaning from
    consideration.  Perfectly quantified relationships are precise,
    unambiguous -- and empty.  Bring their meaningful content into view, and
    they're no longer empty, but neither are they any longer precise and
    Finding our way into the productive interplay of these polar opposites is
    part of our job today.  We must seek the greatest accuracy possible in all
    our cognitive undertakings.  And we must probe the deepest meaning of the
    terms we are trying to be accurate about.
    This is not a simple trade-off -- a polarity never is.  It's not that you
    have to give up one or the other pole.  Magnets can be strengthened; you
    strengthen one pole by also strengthening the other.  It's a matter of
    struggling to hold the two poles together in unity despite the ever
    greater tension between them.  This work, of course, gets harder and
    harder the further we carry it, but it is the work we are called to do.
    It is, most fundamentally, the way our minds need to work.
    The problem is that nearly everything in the technological society presses
    toward the destruction of this polar tension and balance.  We find
    ourselves on a series of impossible quests for a one-pole magnet, as
    indicated by many of the most prestigious keywords of our day:
    information, efficiency, precision, productivity, logic .... Even when a
    polar dynamic is glimpsed, it is almost immediately denied.  In The
    Mathematical Theory of Communication, Weaver articulates
       the vague feeling that information [mathematically defined] and meaning
       may prove to be something like a pair of canonically conjugate
       variables in quantum theory, they being subject to some joint
       restriction that condemns a person to the sacrifice of the one as he
       insists on having much of the other.
    I was shocked when I first came across these words.  Had this pillar of
    conventional science actually discerned the richly textured polarity that
    underscores the drive toward emptiness in so many scientific disciplines?
    But, no, it immediately became clear that Weaver didn't "get it" at all.
    For in the same essay, when he is imagining how one might begin to treat
    meaning theoretically, he foresees our being able to talk about the "sum
    of message meaning plus semantic noise", and also the "statistical
    semantic characteristics" of a message.  Clearly this was not a person who
    recognized a polar interplay between quantifiable precision and some
    opposing principle.  Rather, he believed that any such opposing principle
    could itself be quantified.  What was going to enable his information-
    related numbers to be about something was merely another set of
    numbers.  Given this fact, we can only shake our heads at Weaver's
    expression of hope:
       The concept of information developed in this theory at first seems
       disappointing and bizarre -- disappointing because it has nothing to do
       with meaning, and bizarre because it deals not with a single message
       but rather with the statistical character of a whole ensemble of
       messages, bizarre also because in these statistical terms the two words
       information and uncertainty find themselves to be
       I think, however, that these should be only temporary reactions; and
       that one should say, at the end, that this analysis has so
       penetratingly cleared the air that one is now, perhaps for the first
       time, ready for a real theory of meaning.
    Almost exactly fifty years later we are still waiting for this theory from
    cognitive scientists who, despite their protestations, remain fixated on
    mathematics, logic, and syntax -- "one-pole researchers".  Signs of
    progress are hard to find.
    The Loss of Balance
    This brings us back to the two aspects of "information":  on the one hand,
    "stuff", and on the other hand, all the glamor of an influential technical
    usage -- but one in which the notion of information has been stripped of
    meaning.  In both popular and scientific discourse, these two usages are
    mixed up in a hopelessly incoherent way.  We want the prestige of the
    technical theory, but we also want to believe we're talking about the
    meaningful content of communication rather than an obscure statistical
    feature of the communication process.  Unfortunately, we can't have both.
    But that doesn't keep us from trying.  Every laudatory reference to "The
    Age of Information" is an attempt to have it both ways.  The only thing to
    be said about this contradictory, informational currency of the modern age
    is that it doesn't exist.
    The one-sided drive toward a purely mathematical grasp of something pre-
    empts the polar balance of thought required for all understanding, and
    finally deprives us of the "thing" we began to investigate in the first
    place.  But the human mind cannot function entirely without content, so we
    inevitably import some sort of content through the back door, illicitly.
    You will often find that even those who are explicating the technical
    theory of information occasionally slip into a usage whereby information
    becomes a content that can be transmitted -- an outrage against the
    I think you have here a pretty good picture of the imbalance of the
    technological society.  At the pole of accurate abstraction and precise
    manipulation, we find a well developed technical theory of information,
    with its terms relatively sharp-edged and unambiguous.  But at the other
    pole, where we might hope to penetrate the depths of meaning with a
    muscular "polar logic", we find Weaver's hope unfulfilled.  Instead, we
    see a word like "information" -- so far as it does aim toward meaningful
    context -- dissolving into the limp shapelessness of "stuff".  And we see
    everywhere the confused assumption that, if we just concentrate a little
    harder on the glamorous pole of precision, somehow profound revelation
    will follow.
    The alternative is to arrest the drive toward quantification before it
    becomes absolute and destructive, and to bring it into tension with the
    qualities of mind that give us content.  We need to pursue meaning with
    the kind of intensity that can counter and elevate our pursuit of
    quantity, logic, and syntax.
    Actually, while we do not have the theory of meaning Weaver hoped for (the
    very idea of such a theory may be a contradiction), we do have some
    remarkable elucidations of the meaning of meaning in the work of Owen
    Barfield (see "Announcements and Resources" below), and I suspect that
    the puzzles of the information age will yield to nothing less than a
    serious reckoning with his work.
    Goto table of contents
                          THE GREAT KNOWLEDGE IMPLOSION
                                Stephen L. Talbott
    I'm now looking at an advertisement proclaiming the "explosion of
    information and knowledge".  During the 150 years from 1750-1900, the ad
    tells its readers, knowledge doubled.  During the next 50 years it doubled
    again.  Today the cycle is just one year long.  And, we are assured,
    "knowledge will double every 73 days by the year 2020."
    You've heard this sort of thing many times before.  What you're much less
    likely to hear is the more fateful truth:  we live in the midst of a
    knowledge implosion, unprecedented in scale and threatening to suck
    our entire culture into the vacuum at the center of an accelerating vortex
    of flotsam and jetsam.
    How Does Knowledge Disappear?
    Actually, I think we've at least vaguely sensed this implosion for a long
    time.  Certainly the familiar idea that "we're getting to know more and
    more about less and less" suggests that the purported knowledge explosion
    might have a negative correlate.
    I'm not speaking primarily of the much-discussed loss of digital data,
    although this loss is certainly relevant to the implosion.  As Stewart
    Brand summarizes the situation:
       Paper at least degrades gracefully.  Digital files are utterly brittle;
       they're complexly immersed in a temporary collusion of a certain
       version of a certain application running on a certain version of a
       certain operating system in a certain generation of a certain box, and
       kept on a certain passing medium such as a five-inch floppy.  (Quoted
       in James Gleick, "Fast Forward", New York Times Magazine, Apr.
       12, 1998)
    The upshot of this, according to Brand, is that "there has never been a
    time of such drastic and irretrievable information loss.  We've turned
    into a total amnesiac.  We do short-term memory, period."  But this
    doesn't seem quite the main point to me.  And, in any case, certainly the
    gaseous, suffocating smog of data does go on compounding itself daily,
    however short-term the life-expectancy of an individual datum.
    Perhaps more serious in its implications is the disappearance of huge
    tracts of human knowledge into computer code.  Ellen Ullman tells how IBM
    advised the Federal Aviation Administration to replace its entire air-
    traffic control system, because it would stop functioning reliably at the
    turn of the millennium, and there is "no one left who understands the
    inner workings of the host computer".  Ullman goes on:
       No one left who understands.  Air-traffic control systems, bookkeeping,
       drafting, circuit design, spelling, differential equations, assembly
       lines, ordering systems, network object communications, rocket
       launchers, atom-bomb silos, electric generators, operating systems,
       fuel injectors, CAT scans, air conditioners -- an exploding list of
       subjects, objects and processes rushing into code, which eventually
       will be left running without anyone left who understands them.
       (Salon, May 13, 1998)
    But I am not sure this is altogether convincing either.  Or, rather, it
    looks to me like the final stage of a much more significant loss.
    Knowledge that can be transferred to a computer and forgotten is knowledge
    that has already come close to disappearing into thin abstraction -- and
    that disappearance is the root of the problem.
    Abandonment of the World
    The biologist and conservationist, David Ehrenfeld, chronicles our
    disturbing loss of knowledge about the natural world.  "We are on the
    verge of losing our ability to tell one plant or animal from another and
    of forgetting how the known species interact among themselves and with
    their environments" (Beginning Again: People and Nature in the New
    Millennium).  He tells us that almost no one is left who can recognize
    and distinguish the various species of earthworms -- one of the creatures
    most essential for the survival of the human race.  The problem is
    repeated in one field after another.
    For example, Ehrenfeld ticks off the subjects for which universities are
    having a harder and harder time finding teachers:  "Classification of
    Higher Plants", "Marine Invertebrates", "Ornithology", "Mammalogy",
    "Biogeography", "Comparative Physiology", "Entomology".
    In other words, subjects where you actually have to get to know part of
    the world.  Subjects where qualitative observation, and not merely
    measuring, still counts for something.  Not that teachers in these fields
    are always needed.  Many of the young turn instead to molecular genetics
    and other glamorous disciplines of the Information Age, where mastering
    the technical procedures of the laboratory and the abstractions that drive
    them is more important than understanding very much about the world.
    This, I think, hints at what is really going on.  It's the loss of our
    qualitative experience of the world, the disappearance of concrete
    knowledge into abstraction.  Just consider a few of the symptoms:
    ** I've previously written (NF #74) about the loss of farmers' knowledge
    of their land:  they no longer select their own seeds based on knowledge
    of local climate, soil, diseases, pests, and so on; there is currently a
    conversion to satellite-driven fertilization schemes; as Craig Holdrege
    remarked in NF #80, the farmer receives, along with his seed, a kind of
    universal, artificial environment designed to render local conditions
    irrelevant; and, in general, the manufacturing mindset at work in "factory
    farming" discourages any sense of stewardship for the land.
    ** Thanks in part to elements of chip-making technology, the individual
    chemist -- who not long ago could synthesize maybe fifty or a hundred new
    compounds per year -- can now synthesize tens of thousands of compounds.
    The amounts may be too small to see, but they're quite adequate for the
    new testing and screening techniques.  Long gone is any need for the
    chemist to smell or taste the new substances he brings into being, to feel
    their texture or note their subtleties of color.  He need not know
    them in any intimate or substantial sense.  What knowledge there is, is
    abstract and embedded in the effective procedures of the laboratory and
    its computers, not in the chemist's direct, qualitative experience of
    ** Much the same could be said about the genetic engineer who devises new
    animal breeds in petri dishes without the messy bother of having to
    cohabit with and understand the living creatures -- or sometimes the
    monsters -- whose destinies he manipulates.
    ** Some time ago the Economist described the noisy, chaotic,
    spark-filled, bone-jarring reality of most automobile manufacturing
    plants, such as the one in Sao Paulo where giant presses stamp out body
    panels with 300-ton blows -- the power of a jumbo jet taking off.  But
    now, the article continues, some of the newest plants are a different
       Twenty years ago you could not see across the welding hall of the plant
       in Aurora, Illinois, because of the smoke.  Today the welding hall is
       completely clear; the giant slabs of thick sheet steel are quietly cut
       into shape by high-voltage plasma guns, which produce a much more
       precise cut and no smoke.  (Economist, June 20, 1998)
    So even our working with brute material is less brutely material today.
    We don't need to gain the first-hand knowledge that comes from wrestling
    with things.  The abstract patterns in the computer program activate the
    plasma gun, which in turn reproduces the patterns in the metal itself, all
    without anyone -- or even any machine -- having to bang away in an
    unseemly manner.  We manipulate a few abstractions on a screen, and then
    hidden, precisely guided forces automatically reconfigure the stuff of the
    world.  It's a long way from the anvil of strong-armed Hephaestus.
    Atoms and Bits
    But enough of examples.  You can find this abandonment of the world in
    favor of abstraction wherever you care to look.  The problem is not that
    abstraction as such is evil.  The problem, rather, is our extreme
    imbalance, which cuts us off from the meaning and wisdom shining through
    the world.
    If you have read the preceding articles in this Special Issue, you will
    recognize that we are again talking about the polarity of accuracy versus
    meaning, of abstraction versus qualitative content.  And here, as
    throughout our culture, we are witnessing the same, destructive drive
    toward a "one-pole magnet", where our precise and effective abstractions
    are no longer about anything we know.  Their manipulative effectiveness
    is our knowledge.  We seek blind power, but blind power is always
    dangerous.  We think we are wise when we are really only fearsome.
    The information glut and the knowledge implosion, it turns out, are
    complementary sides of the same development.  It requires an attention to
    the qualitative side of things -- it requires a pictorial or imaginative
    thinking -- to hold the world's phenomena together in any meaningful way.
    Submit these phenomena to our reigning habits of abstraction in complete
    forgetfulness of the counter-movement by which the phenomena were
    recognized in the first place, and it is no wonder that things begin to
    fall apart.  Having spent a few hundred years analyzing things to "bits",
    we find ourselves with nothing but bits.  What both the information glut
    and the knowledge implosion represent is our loss of synthesizing and
    imaginative powers.
    The world of atoms, according to the exultations of our more wired
    contemporaries, is giving way to the world of bits.  But, no, the world of
    atoms is the world of bits -- and neither of them is the world we actually
    live in.  The lie of the atom -- "a-tomos", "indivisible" -- is that the world
    comes in tiny bits, side by side, perfectly well-defined and therefore
    utterly incapable of interpenetration.  More and more these supposedly
    physical bits just are bits in software -- abstractions within a purely
    formal system -- and the lie we tell about them is the same lie we tell
    about bits of information when we believe they are not only precisely
    transferable, but also meaningful.
    Developments in physics may have overturned the lie, but this has yet to
    transform either physics or popular conceptions.  It has not led to a
    qualitative physics.  But the only way physical entities can gain
    cognitive substance, the only way they can have anything to do with
    each other -- the only way they can interpenetrate in creative ways to
    produce the phenomena of the world -- is by means of their qualities.
    Only in the qualities of things do we gain the possibility of synthesis,
    or of meaning.  Without qualities, we are left with the multiplying shards
    of our analyses.
    The qualitative is the imagistic, and what Owen Barfield says about images
    in relation to logic is also true of images in relation to atoms and any
    other entities whose existence is largely circumscribed by logic or
       It is characteristic of images that they interpenetrate one another.
       Indeed, more than half the art of poetry consists in helping them to do
       so.  That is just what the terms of logic, and the notions we employ in
       logical or would-be logical thinking, must not do.
       There, interpenetration becomes the slovenly confusion of one
       determinate meaning with another determinate meaning, and there, its
       proper name is not interpenetration, but equivocation.... ("Lewis,
       Truth, and Imagination" in Owen Barfield on C. S. Lewis)
    Here is our polarity, starkly sketched.  Can we marry the poles in a
    productive quest for understanding?  Certainly we have carried logic and
    mathematics to a glorious degree of perfection today.  But we have hardly
    begun to learn what it means to approach the world as image in an equally
    devoted and disciplined manner.  Indeed, the very idea of discipline in
    this context rings false in many ears.  As long as that is the case, our
    world will continue to disintegrate into pixels, bits, and atoms, giving
    us a "knowledge explosion" that testifies to our loss of understanding.
    Goto table of contents
    Wholeness and a Society without Gender
    Response to:  "Does NETFUTURE Hold to a Masculine Standard?" (NF-83)
    From:  Karla Tonella (karla-tonella@uiowa.edu)
    [From Stephen L. Talbott writing in NF #83:]
       Nor am I sure what you could mean by "a society where gender does not
       exist" -- which sounds like a hellish place to me, one where both men
       and women are required to deny part of themselves.
    Or, perhaps, a place where both men and women are allowed to experience
    all of themselves.
    Karla Tonella --
    That's an interesting observation.  I take it you are pointing to the
    existence of a masculine element in the "complete" woman, and a feminine
    element in the "complete" man.  If so, I'm very much with you.  But this
    wouldn't lead me to think of the ideally complete woman and the ideally
    complete man as simply identical with respect to gender.  I'd be more
    inclined (as is appropriate for this issue of NETFUTURE!) to think of them
    as standing in a relation of polar contraries -- a unity in opposition --
    where the creative tension between them is also expressed (but with
    opposing emphases) within each of them individually.
    I hope that makes at least some sense.
    Stephen L. Talbott
    Goto table of contents
                           ANNOUNCEMENTS AND RESOURCES
    Where to Go Next
    If you would like to pursue the theme of this Special Issue further, here
    are a few suggestions:
    ** The notion of polarity figures strongly in projective geometry, and I
    don't know any better way to gain a feel for polar opposites than to study
    projective geometry.  But it needs to be a more qualitative approach to
    the subject.  Olive Whicher's Projective Geometry makes a fairly good
    text.  The more mathematically inclined will not have difficulty finding
    works on the subject.
    ** As I have indicated throughout the articles here, Owen Barfield is the
    scholar who has most thoroughly and luminously explored polarity,
    especially in relation to language.  His Poetic Diction does not use the
    term "polarity", but the book, as a study in the historical dimensions of
    meaning, is about nothing other than the polar tension between meaning and
    abstraction, as it has played itself out in the evolution of human
    consciousness.  In his essay on "The Nature of Meaning" (published in the
    journal, Seven, vol. 2, pp. 32-43), Barfield examines the origin of
    meaning in metaphor.  You could scarcely find a more provocative and
    suggestive treatment of the struggle between meaning and truth (insofar as
    we identify truth with precision).
    The best introductions to Barfield's work are probably found in The
    Rediscovery of Meaning and Other Essays and also in Speaker's
    ** For a book-length elucidation of the polarity between whole and part,
    see Henri Bortoft's The wholeness of Nature: Goethe's Way toward a Science
    of Conscious Participation in Nature.  This book is a major milestone
    on the way to a renewed science.
    ** The themes of this Special Issue of NETFUTURE were treated at somewhat
    greater length and in different ways in Chapter 23 of my book, The Future
    Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst.  You'll find
    this chapter online at http://netfuture.org/fdnc/ch23.html.
    You'll also find an appendix giving a (highly inadequate) summary of
    Barfield's work at http://netfuture.org/fdnc/appa.html.
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                              ABOUT THIS NEWSLETTER
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    Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #84 :: February 9, 1999
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