Observing Thinking

Observing Thinking
Observing Thinking

Sunday, April 10, 2011

April 10, 2011 Information Please...

Let me be honest. This is not the column I had planned to write for today. I had been doing research on computer simulation and especially climate change models. But then on Saturday March 19, two things changed. First I read Lois Clermont’s editorial, “Internet complicates decisions” and then I read the New York Times’ review by Geoffrey Nunberg  of  “The Information” by James Gleick --- which led me to related links which led me to…this column.

So, in the interest of keeping up with fast-breaking current events (due to the Internet and one of my favorite newspapers), I have decided to change course, but only a bit. Look for the computer modeling and simulation article next time in a PR near you.

As you may recall, Lois was pointing out the double-edged nature of the Internet version of the newspaper. Because of its speed and omnipresence, the news can be constantly and almost continuously updated and this can magnify misunderstandings as well as clarify and deliver timely information.

Of the four categories that I proposed in my first column:
(Personal Freedom vs Societal Security
Intellectual Property Rights vs Freedom of Expression
Dehumanization/ReHumanization and Loss of Autonomy
Artificial Intelligence and the Limits of Technology) I would have to place this issue into the third: Dehumanization/ReHumanization and Loss of Autonomy. While there is a certain loss of control when we rely on the Internet, does it also dehumanize our interactions or is it a more benign rehumanization?  After all, we humans have a long history of being reshaped by our technology --- we create and shape our technology and it returns the favor.  One only has to consider society  before the advent of the automobile, air-conditioning, and television to see their rehumanization effects. Even Time itself has been reshaped by the technology of the Railroads which demanded a global time structure so that “the trains would run on time”.

But it is not just Time that the Internet has warped, it is also Space. In his new book, James Gleick has chosen the startling title, “The Information” not merely “Information” to stress the universal, ubiquitous nature of the stuff. We know the Internet inundates us with this stuff (some wag used as a metaphor for the Internet a gigantic library full of information --- but instead of being organized into books on shelves with indexes to reach the right book, it is like the indexes had been destroyed every page ripped from every book laying in a huge hodge-podge heap of paper in the main lobby.  Of course, our library and computer scientists are working hard to rectify this problem but the size of the problem seems to be growing faster than they can address it; in fact, as soon as I post this column on my Tec-Soc blog and it appears on the PR blog, the size of the Internet will have increased even further. And so I am in the paradoxical position of enlarging (ever so slightly) the problem that I am describing. But I do have one final point I wish to make.

How the Internet has reshaped our notions of time and space may be small potatoes compared to the practical issues raised by Neil Postman In his paper, “Informing Ourselves to Death”,  written way back in 1990.  He makes a passionate case against the information glut made possible by computer technology:

“If you and your spouse are unhappy together, and end your marriage in divorce, will it happen because of a lack of information?  If your children misbehave and bring shame to
your family, does it happen because of a lack of information?  If someone in your family has a mental breakdown, , will it happen because of a lack of information?”

He does ameliorate this strong stance with a more measured assessment:

“Anyone who has studied the history of technology knows that
technological change is always a Faustian bargain: Technology giveth
and technology taketh away, and not always in equal measure.  A new
technology sometimes creates more than it destroys.  Sometimes, it
destroys more than it creates.  But it is never one-sided.”

That said, I can end my contribution to the current size of the Internet.

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