Select your localized edition:

Close ×

More Ways to Connect

Discover one of our 28 local entrepreneurial communities »

Be the first to know as we launch in new countries and markets around the globe.

Interested in bringing MIT Technology Review to your local market?

MIT Technology ReviewMIT Technology Review - logo

 

Unsupported browser: Your browser does not meet modern web standards. See how it scores »

{ action.text }

Totalitarian rulers aren’t the only people who get nervous around new information technologies. In his 1986 book The Cult of Information, cultural critic Theodore Roszak fretted that the flood of electronic data would drown genuine thought and ideas. “It would be a great loss if, by cheapening our conception of experience, memory, and insight, the cult of information blunted [human beings’] creative powers,” Roszak wrote.

Albert Borgmann, a philosopher at the University of Montana, is the latest to sound the so-called humanist alarm against the encroachments of the information revolution. In Holding On to Reality, he divides information into three classes-natural, cultural and technological -and argues that only the first two are
“spare and austere enough to engage memory and imagination.”Technological information, from this point of view, is a usurper that substitutes transistors, Boolean logic and pixels for direct experience and learning.

It’s true that a thunderstorm, a trembling leaf or any other piece of natural information can speak with “unsurpassable eloquence,” as Borgmann writes. And maps, manuscripts, musical scores and other items of cultural information rank among humanity’s greatest innovations. But it is elitist and puritanical of Borgmann
to cast computer-mediated information as something merely parasitic on cultural information. In Borgmann’s world, a person who wanted to get a flavor of Leonardo da Vinci’s thinking would have to spend millions on an original manuscript, study classical Italian and learn to decipher Leonardo’s mirror-script. While it may bring Leonardo into thousands of homes, from Borgmann’s vantage point the $39 CD-ROM with high-resolution images and translations from a Leonardo notebook merely “cheapens” the real thing.

There is a glut of information. But critics such as Roszak and Borgmann fail to recognize that the only way to deal with the glut is more information-especially information like the Leonardo CD-ROM or this book review, which directs audiences to other information and helps them decide whether it should be consumed now, stored or discarded. If you’re open to the idea that less-informed societies are better off, or that new media technologies impoverish rather than enhance information, read Holding On to Reality. Otherwise, hold off.

0 comments about this story. Start the discussion »

Tagged: Communications

Reprints and Permissions | Send feedback to the editor

From the Archives

Close

Introducing MIT Technology Review Insider.

Already a Magazine subscriber?

You're automatically an Insider. It's easy to activate or upgrade your account.

Activate Your Account

Become an Insider

It's the new way to subscribe. Get even more of the tech news, research, and discoveries you crave.

Sign Up

Learn More

Find out why MIT Technology Review Insider is for you and explore your options.

Show Me