Informing Ourselves to Death - Memoria Press

With one exception I have never heard anyone speak seriously and comprehensively about the disadvantages of computer technology, which strikes me as odd. After all, 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.

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School teachers, for example, will, in the long run, probably be made obsolete by television, as blacksmiths were made obsolete by the automobile, as balladeers were made obsolete by the printing press. Technological change, in other words, always results in winners and losers.

In the case of computer technology, there can be no disputing that the computer has increased the power of large-scale organizations like military establishments or airline companies or banks or tax collecting agencies. And it is equally clear that the computer is now indispensable to high-level researchers in physics and other natural sciences.

But to what extent has computer technology been an advantage to the masses of people? To steelworkers, vegetable store owners, teachers, automobile mechanics, musicians, bakers, bricklayers, dentists, and most of the rest into whose lives the computer now intrudes? These people have had their private matters made more accessible to powerful institutions. They are more easily tracked and controlled; they are subjected to more examinations, and are increasingly mystified by the decisions made about them. They are more often reduced to mere numerical objects. They are being buried by junk mail. They are easy targets for advertising agencies and political organizations. The schools teach their children to operate computerized systems instead of teaching things that are more valuable to children. In a word, almost nothing happens to the losers that they need, which is why they are losers.

Technology always has unforeseen consequences, and it is not always clear, at the beginning, who or what will win, and who or what will lose. We may well ask ourselves, then, is there something that the masters of computer technology think they are doing for us which they and we may have reason to regret? I believe there is.

I will try to explain what is dangerous about the computer, and why. Now, I think I can begin to get at this by telling you of a small experiment I have been conducting, on and off, for the past several years. There are some people who describe the experiment as an exercise in deceit and exploitation, but I will rely on your sense of humor to pull me through.

Here’s how it works: It is best done in the morning when I see a colleague who appears not to be in possession of a copy of The New York Times.

“Did you read The Times this morning?” I ask. If the colleague says yes, there is no experiment that day. But if the answer is no, the experiment can proceed. “You ought to look at page 23,” I say. “There’s a fascinating article about a study done at Harvard University.”

“Really? What’s it about?” is the usual reply.

My choices at this point are limited only by my imagination. But I might say something like this: “Well, they did this study to find out what foods are best to eat for losing weight, and it turns out that a normal diet supplemented by chocolate eclairs, eaten six times a day, is the best approach. It seems that there’s some special nutrient in the eclairs—encomial dioxin—that actually uses up calories at an incredible rate.”

Unless this is the second or third time I’ve tried this on the same person, most people will believe or at least not disbelieve what I have told them. Sometimes they say, “Really? Is that possible?” Sometimes they do a double-take, and reply, “Where’d you say that study was done?” And sometimes they say, “You know, I’ve heard something like that.”

Now, there are several conclusions that might be drawn from these results, one of which was expressed by H. L. Mencken fifty years ago when he said that there is no idea so stupid that you can’t find a professor who will believe it.

But I think there is still another and more important conclusion to be drawn, related to Orwell’s point but rather off at a right angle to it. I am referring to the fact that the world in which we live is very nearly incomprehensible to most of us. There is almost no fact—whether actual or imagined—that will surprise us for very long, since we have no comprehensive and consistent picture of the world which would make the fact appear as an unacceptable contradiction. We believe because there is no reason not to believe. No social, political, historical, metaphysical, logical, or spiritual reason. We live in a world that, for the most part, makes no sense to us. Not even technical sense.

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Perhaps I can get a bit closer to the point I wish to make with an analogy: If you opened a brand-new deck of cards, and started turning the cards over, one by one, you would have a pretty good idea of what their order is. After you had gone from the ace of spades through the nine of spades, you would expect a ten of spades to come up next. And if a three of diamonds showed up instead, you would be surprised and wonder what kind of deck of cards this is. But if I gave you a deck that had been shuffled twenty times, and then asked you to turn the cards over, you would not expect any card in particular—a three of diamonds would be just as likely as a ten of spades. Having no basis for assuming a given order, you would have no reason to react with disbelief or even surprise to whatever card turns up.

The point is that, in a world without spiritual or intellectual order, nothing is unbelievable; nothing is predictable, and therefore, nothing comes as a particular surprise.

The belief system of the Middle Ages was rather like my brand-new deck of cards. There existed an ordered, comprehensible world-view, beginning with the idea that all knowledge and goodness come from God. What the priests had to say about the world was derived from the logic of their theology. The medieval world was, to be sure, mysterious and filled with wonder, but it was not without a sense of order.

Ordinary men and women might not clearly grasp how the harsh realities of their lives fit into the grand and benevolent design, but they had no doubt that there was such a design, and their priests were well able, by deduction from a handful of principles, to make it, if not rational, at least coherent.

The situation we are presently in is much different. And I should say, sadder and more confusing and certainly more mysterious. It is rather like the shuffled deck of cards I referred to. There is no consistent, integrated conception of the world which serves as the foundation on which our edifice of belief rests. And therefore, in a sense, we are more naive than those of the Middle Ages, and more frightened, for we can be made to believe almost anything.

There was a time when information was a resource that helped human beings to solve specific and urgent problems of their environment. It is true enough that in the Middle Ages there was a scarcity of information, but its very scarcity made it both important and usable. This began to change, as everyone knows, in the late 15th century when a goldsmith named Gutenberg, from Mainz, converted an old wine press into a printing machine, and in so doing, created what we now call an information explosion. Nothing could be more misleading than the idea that computer technology introduced the age of information. The printing press began that age, and we have not been free of it since.

But what started out as a liberating stream has turned into a deluge of chaos. Everything from telegraphy and photography in the 19th century to the silicon chip in the twentieth has amplified the din of information, until matters have reached such proportions today that for the average person, information no longer has any relation to the solution of problems.

The tie between information and action has been severed. Information is now a commodity that can be bought and sold, or used as a form of entertainment, or worn like a garment to enhance one’s status. It comes indiscriminately, directed at no one in particular, disconnected from usefulness; we are glutted with information, drowning in information, have no control over it, don’t know what to do with it.

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And there are two reasons we do not know what to do with it. First, as I have said, we no longer have a coherent conception of ourselves, and our universe, and our relation to one another and our world. We no longer know, as the Middle Ages did, where we come from, and where we are going, or why. That is, we don’t know what information is relevant, and what information is irrelevant to our lives. Second, we have directed all of our energies and intelligence to inventing machinery that does nothing but increase the supply of information. As a consequence, our defenses against information glut have broken down; our information immune system is inoperable. We don’t know how to filter it out; we don’t know how to reduce it; we don’t know how to use it. We suffer from a kind of cultural AIDS.

Now, into this situation comes the computer. It would be fatuous of me to warn against every conceivable use of a computer. But there is no denying that the most prominent uses of computers have to do with information. When people talk about “information sciences,” they are talking about computers—how to store information, how to retrieve information, how to organize information. The computer is an answer to the questions, how can I get more information, faster, and in a more usable form? These would appear to be reasonable questions.

But now I should like to put some other questions to you that seem to me more reasonable. If children die of starvation in Ethiopia, does it occur because of a lack of information? If criminals roam the streets of New York City, do they do so because of a lack of information?

Or, let us come down to a more personal level: 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?

I believe you will have to concede that what ails us, what causes us the most misery and pain—at both cultural and personal levels—has nothing to do with the sort of information made accessible by computers. The computer and its information cannot answer any of the fundamental questions we need to address to make our lives more meaningful and humane.

The computer cannot provide an organizing moral framework. It cannot tell us what questions are worth asking. It cannot provide a means of understanding why we are here or why we fight each other or why decency eludes us so often, especially when we need it the most. The computer is, in a sense, a magnificent toy that distracts us from facing what we most needed to confront—spiritual emptiness, knowledge of ourselves, usable conceptions of the past and future. Does one blame the computer for this? Of course not. It is, after all, only a machine. But it is presented to us, with trumpets blaring, as a technological messiah.

I said a moment ago that computers are not to blame for this. And that is true, at least in the sense that we do not blame an elephant for its huge appetite or a stone for being hard or a cloud for hiding the sun. That is their nature, and we expect nothing different from them. But the computer has a nature as well. True, it is only a machine but a machine designed to manipulate and generate information. That is what computers do, and therefore they have an agenda and an unmistakable message.

The message is that through more and more information, more conveniently packaged, more swiftly delivered, we will find solutions to our problems. And so all the brilliant young men and women, believing this, create ingenious things for the computer to do, hoping that in this way we will become wiser and more decent and more noble. And who can blame them? By becoming masters of this wondrous technology, they will acquire prestige and power and some will even become famous.

In a world populated by people who believe that through more and more information, paradise is attainable, the computer scientist is king. But I maintain that all of this is a monumental and dangerous waste of human talent and energy. Imagine what might be accomplished if this talent and energy were turned to philosophy, to theology, to the arts, to imaginative literature, or to education? Who knows what we could learn from such people—perhaps why there are wars, and hunger, and homelessness and mental illness and anger.

Here is what Henry David Thoreau told us: “All our inventions are but improved means to an unimproved end.” Here is what Goethe told us: “One should, each day, try to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it is possible, speak a few reasonable words.” And here is what Socrates told us: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” And here is what the prophet Micah told us: “What does the Lord require of thee but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?”

There is no escaping from ourselves. The human dilemma is as it has always been, and we solve nothing fundamental by cloaking ourselves in technological glory.


Originally published in The Classical Teacher Winter 2013 edition.

 


 

This article is an abridged version of a speech given to the German Informatics Society in 1990 by Neil Postman, the author of Amusing Ourselves to Death and Technopoly.

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