Information: Is Less More?

Holding On To Reality: The Nature of Information at the Turn of the Millennium

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.

This story is part of our May/June 1999 Issue
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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.

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