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                       Technology and Human Responsibility
    Issue #58       Copyright 1997 Bridge Communications      October 22, 1997
                Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)
                         On the Web: http://netfuture.org
         You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes.
    *** Quotes and Provocations
          Methuselah on Wheels
          You Just Missed It
          Bruce Willis, Information Warrior
          Does Technology Make Us Blind?
    *** Does Information Exist?  (Stephen L. Talbott)
          Only if sexuality does
    *** Announcements and Resources
          Sysops, the Law, and Online Community
          Two Papers:  Media Ecology and Education
    *** About this newsletter

    *** Quotes and Provocations

    Methuselah on Wheels

    In the special issue of the New York Times Magazine dealing with technology (see below), one article was devoted to the "life extension" enthusiasts -- people who are seeking by every available means to stretch the upper limits upon human longevity. Larry Wood, one of the more hardcore eternal lifers, believes that "we could be the first generation that lives forever. Either that, or we'll be the last generation to die."

    Wood takes his prospects seriously. Not about to yield to deathist thinking, he drives around in a huge white truck:

    The vehicle weighs 4,600 pounds. It has a chrome moly-steel roll bar in it. So if some drunk idiot in a 2,500-pound car crashes into me, he's likely to get killed, and I'm likely just to get a few bruises and aches and pains.
    Not exactly a guy I'd want to share a foxhole with.

    You Just Missed It

    The German linguist, novelist, and medievalist, Uwe Poerksen, has written a valuable little book called Plastic Words, in which he relates this story:
    I know an old gentleman who reads newspapers with a ballpoint pen in hand. He reads a great many newspapers and magazines and underlines at the same time; I have had in my hand articles that he had gone over and have wondered on what basis he underlines. Finally it became clear to me that he underlined according to no principle. Almost everything was important to him.

    In his apartment a number of appliances operate simultaneously. When he doesn't want to miss an important radio program and something interests him on TV at the same time, he tapes the radio program. Or vice versa. He is constantly moving between rooms. He never misses the eight o'clock news.

    This is no invention. The gentleman is about seventy-five and has been doing this for a long time. One could of course call him strange. I would say that he has understood something. He has understood what information is. Information is what one has always just missed.

    To which I would add the obvious: if information is always just missed, it is because nothing was ever there. The insatiable craving for more and more information is not an indication of the riches to be had in this universally desired elixir, but rather of its impoverishment. It never satisfies.

    Unfortunately, statements like this often do nothing but add to the confusion, however, because the word "information" today can mean almost anything. In fact, the closest synonym for "information" is probably "anything." This flexibility (and consequent vacuity) gives the words its primary significance in contemporary discussion.

    (For the beginning of an attempt to decipher this significance, see "Does Information Exist?" below.)

    Bruce Willis, Information Warrior

    Back in May, stung by criticism of his latest film, Bruce Willis tried manfully to set us straight:
    No one up here pays any attention to reviews. We don't care about reviews. Frankly, reviews are mostly for people who still read. Like most of the written word, it is going the way of the dinosaurs. Most people get their information from the cinema and electronic media. I don't know any actors or people in show business who have any serious interest in what is written about our world. (The Guardian, May 10, 1997)
    The Guardian passed lightly over Willis' Olympian vantage point ("up here," in "our world"), and fastened some wise commentary upon "get their information":
    It's a fascinating phrase that we hear more and more as people scurry about, imagining that information can be somehow winnowed from the surrounding verbal chaff and fed straight to the processing circuits of an individual's consciousness, allowing him or her to act without doubt, to prioritize and to move swiftly to the essence of everything. Information, in Willis' view, is the pure, intravenous data of the glorious digital age.

    The uncut form of this particular commodity is the image stream that flows straight from the mind of the director through the gate of the camera to the cinema or television audience. Contrast this with the indirect route taken in a book or newspaper, where information must pass from the mind of the author through all those words -- words that have so many pesky shades of meaning and require so much effort and time to absorb.

    But is text going the way of the dinosaurs? I find the notion that the printed word is yielding to the visual image difficult to understand. (See "We Are Not Becoming a More Image-based Society" in NF #52.) We remain, on the one hand, a text-saturated society; on the other hand, our ancestors certainly did not maneuver through their (often perilous) environment with their eyes closed, or rely less on their visual sense than we do.

    No, what really seems to lie behind the contention by Willis and others is a change in the cultural role of word and image. The images that shape our lives are increasingly manufactured and arbitrary, and for the first time in history huge populations are heavily exposed to exactly the same images. More importantly, both word and image are coming under attack as instruments of understanding. If you want a symbol for the attack, look at Madison Avenue. There you will find untold billions of dollars devoted to a single goal: subvert conscious understanding and replace it with unconscious choices.

    But any degradation of the word as an instrument of understanding is not the consequence of a supposed historical shift from word to image. Rather, it betokens a shift of concern from the cognitive significance of both word and image toward their manipulative potentials. The prevailing bias is to focus on the word and image as weapons of power -- a bias captured in the slogan, "information empowers."

    But I am not writing simply to abuse Bruce Willis. Something positive needs saying here as well. The artistic image, fully as much as, perhaps even more than the word, could lead us toward understanding. I suspect, in fact, that this healthy potential of the image may prove more critical for our future than the redemption of the printed word. By attending to images, we could conceivably find a path from the inert, static, lifeless constructs of reductionist science toward a more dynamic science of wholeness and becoming.

    An artistic image cannot be understood by the preferred analytic methods of the old science -- for example, by reducing it (in the manner of current artificial vision work) to a sequence of pixels and then cognitively reconstructing it from the ground up. An artistic whole -- any true whole -- presents us, like a hologram, with the whole all over again in every part. You cannot escape the necessity of reading such an image, just as we read a text, by grasping the whole in the part. This requires an imaginative gesture of consciousness nearly opposite to the familiar analysis by which we reduce the whole to supposedly more fundamental elements.

    But we certainly cannot make the image a tool of understanding while we continue to degrade the word. We either seek understanding or we don't. And I leave it to you to decide whether Willis' films are likely harbingers of a twenty-first century renaissance of the image.

    Does Technology Make Us Blind?

    If, like me, you have hoped to see a little more sophistication in the treatment of technology issues by the mainstream press, then, like me, you will find yourself bitterly disappointed by the mostly juvenile coverage in the New York Times Magazine's special issue on technology (September 28, 1997). Running under the overall title, "Technology Makes Us Better," it contains gems like these:
    Technology makes us faster. It also makes us richer, and at times a little crazy. All told, it makes us better. (Introduction)

    The latest technology is providing us with more time, more freedom and a growing sense of community -- the very things mankind has sought since the Pleistocene era. So much for Orwell. (Blurb for John Tierney's article, "Our Oldest Computer, Upgraded")

    Today I used the Internet to find the nearest Wal-Mart (with map and driving directions from my house) and to look up something in the Federal budget. Maybe any American ought to know instinctively where the nearest Wal-Mart is, but I didn't. And maybe any American ought to have a handy copy of the Federal budget, but I don't. These are not the glamorous uses of the Internet. But they're examples of how it's making life better in small but concrete ways. Is technology good or bad for us? The answer is so obvious that the temptation is to be perverse and try to argue (from the corporate campus of Microsoft) that it's bad; that, perhaps, making it easier to find Wal-Mart only exacerbates an unhealthy consumerist culture. Or that facilitating close examination of the Federal budget will only foster widespread depression, thereby increasing health care, or something. The Luddites have always had their arguments and have always turned out to be wrong. (Michael Kinsley, editor of Slate, in a sidebar)

    On the whole (Mark Dery is the major exception) these dozen or so authors prove themselves incapable even of recognizing the deeper questions emerging from the history of technology criticism, let alone addressing them. Their reliance upon the cliches of the day is shameless, as when John Tierney, a staff writer at the magazine, tells us that "today wealth is based more and more on information, not natural resources." One might find something worth talking about in that bromide, but its only effect upon Tierney is to lead him by the nose to the nearest reductio ad absurdum. The bromide, Tierney assures us, explains
    why the Congo is poor despite its vast mineral reserves, and why Hong Kong is rich even though it must import food and drinking water.
    Clearly, the world bank and its fellows should set up Internet terminals in every village and city block of the Congo, thereby transforming the country into a modern, productive economy. The hollowed-out institutions, the legacy of colonialism, the despotism of Mobutu -- if these have been a problem, well, it must be the result of their delaying for so long the arrival of those terminals.

    (Unfortunately, Tierney's non-engagement with the critical history of technology is the closest engagement the special issue offers. Look for more detailed commentary on his article in the next issue.)


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    *** Does Information Exist?
    From Stephen L. Talbott


    Only if sexuality does

    "Information" may well be the most significantly empty word ever to find widespread use. It refers to everything and anything, and therefore to nothing much at all. As a ballooning blank space, or hole, in our language, it allows itself to be shaped and re-shaped by the surrounding text -- or, rather, subtext -- into the form of our hopes and fears and above all our pathologies.

    The remarkable thing is that we of the information age, the information society, and the information economy have chosen precisely this gaping vacuity as the sign of our identity, the password granting access to our emerging future.

    If Only We Knew What It Meant

    The virtues of this word "information" are almost past enumerating:

    The mathematical theory of communication has lent it an aura of absolute rigor and precision. (Ignore the fact that the theory explicitly pursues a precision without meaning or content.)

    Cybernetics contributes a connotation of perfect control -- for example, cybernetic mechanisms strike their pre-ordained targets with uncanny accuracy through informational feedback. (But don't expect feedback to tell you how targets get selected or why the button is pushed in the first place.)

    Systems theory and complexity theory then add the notion of self-organizing systems, in which information seems to stand for an in-built, self-guided, automatically functioning intelligence. (It's nice not to be responsible for choosing our future.)

    Information is said to be the basis for invention, personal success, and commercial effectiveness. ("In the Information Age, information joins capital, labor, and land as a factor of production.") It is the raw material, or distilled essence, of knowledge and wisdom. It lends power to its possessor.

    Within more systematic thought, information is variously defined as almost any more or less abstract, formal characteristic that can be reliably transmitted from one computer or program or mind or organism or system to another.

    All this without undue worry about fine distinctions. Time was when the sort of information that came one's way counted for a great deal. After all, there's nothing particularly glamorous about living in an Age of Opinion, or an Age of Gossip, or an Age of Random Bits. But "information" conveniently glosses over all such distinctions; our future, it seems, lies in the electrifying presence of the bits themselves, not in any meaning they carry.

    I'm a long way from being the first to point these things out. For example, Theodore Roszak, noting that "information" had come to mean "all good things to all people," went on to say:

    Words that come to mean everything may finally mean nothing; yet their very emptiness may allow them to be filled with a mesmerizing glamour .... People who have no clear idea what they mean by information or why they should want so much of it are nonetheless prepared to believe that we live in an Information Age, which makes every computer around us what the relics of the True Cross were in the Age of Faith: emblems of salvation.
    Not that such observations have made much difference. One of the first questions any observer of contemporary society must answer is this: What does it mean that we have come to bow before an utterly empty -- or at best hopelessly obscure -- verbal icon? A visitor from another planet, scanning our speech and writing, could hardly escape being convinced that we had somehow discovered the fifth essence -- if only he could figure out what it was.

    The Tyranny of Modular Language

    The remainder of this essay will take the form of a review of Plastic Words: The Tyranny of a Modular Language, by Uwe Poerksen. /1/ A linguist, Poerksen has looked at a historically recent class of words whose passage through science has given them a narrow, technical meaning, and whose re-emergence in the popular lexicon is marked by the following features, among others:

    "Information," as you will have recognized, exhibits all these features. Poerksen identifies some forty other plastic words, including "communication," "solution," "management," "system," "education," "structure," "problem," and "relationship." He notes how easily these words combine into "phrases that have a life of their own and do your thinking for you." George Orwell once described a writer this way: "His words, like cavalry horses answering the bugle, group themselves automatically into the familiar dreary pattern." Poerksen adds: "Even when one has neither an overview nor any insight into a subject, one can still speak quite easily of `system' and `structures.'"

    It's a useful exercise to try the many, all too natural-sounding combinations of the words listed above. Then ask yourself how well you can articulate the meanings of the various phrases.

    The `Information' Module

    As Poerksen reminds us, in the technical theory of communication "information" means something like the opposite of "redundancy" and "noise" In this usage, information is basically a numerical value. But that is not at all the meaning of the word in the vernacular, where, as we have seen, the usage is all over the map. Yet the technical prestige of the word is nevertheless carried over into the vernacular, where "information" is now imagined (ironically, in view of the vague meaning of the word itself) to constitute the hard core of meaning in an utterance.

    Poerksen goes on:

    As a result, "information" becomes superior to mere opinion, or only intuitively grounded suspicion, or even feeling. It is fortified with data. It can be checked. As a datum, it is the essence of the thing.

    It opposes everything that is not information. As soon as it is quantified, its opposite inevitably becomes a zero. One begins to feel the "information gap" or the "information deficit." Something called an "information advantage" also appears. The person who possesses information has preeminence, even in the everyday world. There is such a thing as "freedom of information" and "the need for information." It is a "good," a value. What in 1830 was called "openness" by political liberals opposed to secrecy in government now becomes a demand for access to the masses of data that remain after the scientific reduction that creates "information." It becomes a right of access to the endless and impenetrable domain of verifiable facts.

    It is not, I would add, that access to data has nothing to do with the qualities of a true openness. The desirability of the latter doubtless remains, at least as a half-conscious connotation, in the minds of those whose committees and foundations today are devoted to the "public's right of data access" -- just as the qualities of a true personal respect may still appeal to those who ardently defend our right to data privacy.

    But the point is that the human heart of the matter -- what really counts -- has been neatly excised from the discussion by the words we feel compelled to use. We are asked to be concerned about all the information and data floating around, but we are not at all encouraged by our plastic words to be concerned about the openness and honesty and responsibility without which all the data access and data privacy in the world will leave us functioning in an unknown and alien landscape. (See "Privacy in an Age of Data" in NF #28, #29, and #30.)

    One other comment about information from Poerksen. He mentions phrases like this: "The Federal Republic as an Information Society," and "the responsibilities of the postal service in an information age." The verb is missing, he observes, but

    in our minds we add an indicative: "The Federal Republic is becoming an information society." "We find ourselves in the information age." But what is meant is an imperative. It's an old propaganda trick to present a desired image of the future as a present reality, the hoped-for history of tomorrow as the nature of today. We are required to accept the following: In the information age a human being is a creature in need of information.

    Sexuality and Information

    "Sexuality" is another of Poerksen's plastic words. He pulls off a minor coup by analyzing the usage of "sexuality" and "development" (in the former western and eastern Germany, respectively) and showing that, so far as their meaning is reflected in their pattern of usage, they mean pretty much the same thing.

    I will not linger over "development," since "information" does just as well -- such is the nature of modular words. But it will help to set our discussion of "information" briefly against a word seemingly as remote from it as "sexuality."

    "Sexuality" only enters the language during the nineteenth century, when it has a purely technical (biological) meaning relating to sexual vs. asexual reproduction. In fact, it is only in the last few decades (as with most of our plastic words) that it has taken on its dominant, popular sense. Poerksen cites these two examples of the usage:

    "He can't deal with his sexuality."

    A 1980s novelist "pronounced that in earlier times she could never have admitted her own sexuality but had now become strong enough to live out her sexual needs even in casual relationships, since she had learned to `deal with her sexuality.'"

    This "sexuality," like information, is something one has. Yet, the very fact that one possesses it reveals it to be something separate from the speaker, a problem that brings along its own autonomous context, for which the speaker bears little responsibility.

    Like "information," "`sexuality' is cut off from the rich store of gesture, expression, and pantomime available to ordinary language; it is toneless." Clinical. It displaces other terms relating to personal connection, attraction, friendship, tenderness, love, yielding, passion. Terms that once stood on their own -- "friendship," "brotherly love," "love of humanity" -- are subverted. The new, universal explanation borne by "sexuality" begins to ride roughshod over all distinctions.

    And, like "information," it has been irradiated by the authority of certain technical usages. Pre-eminently, we have the Freudian psyche "as an apparatus inside which measurable or at least estimable quantities of energy circulate." We are subject to instinctual "pressures," energy can be "repressed," and there is a "storing" and "releasing" of tension. (One might think that the human being were a kind of steam engine or hydraulic mechanism.)

    In all this, what might have been most deeply rooted in the person loses its concrete historical and personal dimensions. The language "translates life stories into the terms of natural science and says that everything is basically the same."

    An "I" who gives up the private quality of a relationship, its yielding, its indirection, or its immediacy, in order to speak in a possessive way of "my relationships," "my sexuality," "my overreaction"...transforms the private sphere with an objective language that was intended for a completely different function and assumes a viewpoint distant from her own. She turns herself into an object of science. She becomes a case. In doing this, she at first gets relief, she is able to gain distance -- but she also delivers herself up to science.

    Such an "I" takes an assigned place. "Did you have your orgasm?" asks the mother in a novel by John Updike. The use of the possessive pronoun is significant. It shows paradoxically that one is under the control of others. Such a word -- in fact the whole vocabulary being discussed here -- is used less to impart something in ordinary language than to serve a function .... It builds a bridge to the world of the experts. The content of the word "sexuality" is only a nebulous white spot for us, but it hints at another world in which others know more about it. Knowledgeable persons exist who can teach us how to cope with this foreign body, which they administer. Such a word increases the need for expert help.

    So, too, does "information." And if you want to know who its premier experts are, look at any high-tech advertisement. Here's one from the magazine I'm now reading. Its headline (in a dramatically rendered font suggesting a hospital emergency room) says, "IF INFORMATION IS THE LIFEBLOOD OF YOUR BUSINESS, GET READY FOR A TRANSFUSION." The text then continues:
    Consider this a triple shot of iron and adrenaline, headed right for the heart of your company's information systems. It's called the Adaptive Component Architecture from Sybase. It's a complete, integrated, end-to-end architecture for handling all your information needs, from high performance database servers to leading edge middleware and enterprise development tools. /2/
    There you have it. An all-in-one information module that brings its own solutions with it and takes care of everything. The experts? Computer wizards, of course. And, heck, you've gotta admit it -- their information solution looks just about as sure, salvific, and universal as any good aphrodisiac.
    As you may have noticed, I never quite answered the question of my title.
    Does information exist?  No.  Or, if you prefer, read my lips:  THERE IS
    NO SUCH THING AS INFORMATION.  The sequel essay will run under that title.
    It's no trick either.  The answer is straightforward and can be stated
    rigorously -- a claim, however, which you will no doubt want to judge for
    1. Poerksen, Uwe, Plastic Words: The
    Tyranny of a Modular Language.  Translated by Jutta Mason and David
    Cayley.  University Park, Penn.: Pennsylvania State University Press,
    2. I have nothing in particular against
    Sybase.  My son, James, works for it.  It's a good company.  Buy some
    stock.  Give NETFUTURE 10 percent of your gain.

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    *** Announcements and Resources

    Sysops, the Law, and Online Community

    Jonathan Zittrain has a piece in the Harvard Journal of Law and Technology (Summer, 1997) entitled "The Rise and Fall of Sysopdom." It's just about the most level-headed discussion of community on the Net I've ever seen. And along the way, Zittrain characterizes the various forms of Net-based communication (one-to-one, one-to-many, many-to-many, and so on) with his feet firmly on the ground -- a rare achievement. It's definitely an article worth checking out. You'll find it at http://jolt.law.harvard.edu/articles/10hjolt495.html.

    Two Papers: Media Ecology and Education

    I've placed two conference papers on my web site. Here are the titles and descriptions:

    "Help Me! I Can't Stop Shoveling Facts!"

    Paper delivered at the conference on Education and Technology at Pennsylvania State University, September 17 - 20, 1997. It addresses the question, Why can't we help ourselves when it comes to treating students as receptacles for facts? The problem has to do with the abstract habits of thought we have cultivated for the past few centuries. They leave us with almost no choice but to treat all knowledge as shovel-able facts. We call it "information" today. See http://natureinstitute.org/txt/st/facts.htm.
    "Media Ecology: Taking Account of the Knower"
    Paper presented at the New York State Speech Communication Association annual conference, October, 1996. It's argument: Technology does not determine cultural developments in a cause-and-effect sense; rather, it plays the kind of role that powerful meanings play, and its meanings always turn out to be our own. The paper deals in substantial part with the evolution of consciousness. See http://natureinstitute.org/txt/st/knower.htm.

    (This paper has also been published in the online journal, Media Ecology. Since the site is not Lynx-friendly, I have not been able to verify that the article is present in good shape there. You can check out the journal at http://raven.ubalt.edu/features/media_ecology/.)

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    *** About this newsletter

    Copyright 1997 by The Nature Institute. You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes. You may also redistribute individual articles in their entirety, provided the NetFuture url and this paragraph are attached.

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    Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #58 :: October 22, 1997

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