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Jewish World Review August 30, 2001 / 11 Elul, 5761

Michael Skube

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The Tyranny of Information


http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- THERE was no report of an explosion, no evidence of cooling gases and primordial life forms--nothing, in fact, you'd call a Big Bang or even a little one. But no one doubts, even with technology stocks in the tank, that the Information Age at some point came into being. Exactly when is in dispute and doesn't much matter.

What does matter is how thoroughly a bloodless, strictly utilitarian word--the same word we use when we dial 411--came to signify what we think, what we say and write, what we know, even what we do at the barricades and what we do in the bedroom.

These latter assertions require some explanation, but it's going to have to come from Seth Lloyd of MIT. It was Lloyd, a professor of mechanical engineering, who posted the following on a Web site called www.edge.org: "Of course, one way of thinking about all of life and civilization is as being about how the world registers and processes information. Certainly that's what sex is about; that's what history is about."

Of course.

Certainly.

Who ever doubted it? Who could doubt it any longer?

I don't know Lloyd and don't claim to know all there is to know about history, to say nothing of sex. But there are people who want to take the fun out of everything. Not just the fun, but the mystery as well. And, sometimes, life itself.

"Honey, would you like to process a little information tonight? Too tired? I understand. You sleep tight."

The fact is that we are eaten up with "information," often in upper case. And yet no one seems to know exactly what it is. That, too, perhaps, wouldn't matter so much, except that clearly this is a word that carries weight. I've turned to the I's in the business pages of my telephone directory and found no fewer than 94 listings for companies calling themselves Information this or Info that.

If you want to know the truth, I expected to find about 300. But 94 is a healthy efflorescence. One such listing, dispensing with all wordplay (and modesty, too), aims for the whole shebang: "The Information Age." Curious, I dialed the number. It's an Internet service provider. Others settle for the bland and generic: Information Stategies, Information Solutions, Infolink Services. This is the nomenclature of office parks, pretending much, describing little.

Advertising hyperbole aside, this pious reverence for information in the abstract is a little absurd. A day doesn't pass that I don't want information of some sort. I had to call a long-distance operator to get the telephone number for MIT and for Lloyd's office. A secretary told me he's on vacation. Somewhere in the Southwest. A message on his voice mail gave me his email.

Forgive the recitation of incidentals. I mean only to suggest that "information," undifferentiated and unconnected to something larger and more significant, is meaningless. It certainly isn't of any interest.

We used to think it was ideas that mattered and that information was, in Theodore Roszak's word, only the lubricant. Information--whether a birth date or the particulars of a chemical formula--was useful, often essential, but rarely the thing itself. The old notion was that information led to knowledge and knowledge to wisdom. If it's a little weathered and worn, it nonetheless still implies clear distinctions. More than that, it implies a hierarchy of values.

All that's gone by the boards, with a general flattening of experience and cognition into something neutral and all-purpose. The late Claude Shannon, a scientist for Bell Laboratories, is acknowledged to be the founding father of what today we call "information theory." In a scientific paper published in 1948, Shannon took, with some reluctance, a word in common use and applied it to purposes purely technical and limited. He only wanted to describe a way of quantifying electrical impulses transmitted through a telephone cable. The messages themselves could be Winston Churchill at the outbreak of the Battle of Britain or a dog barking in the night.

For Shannon's purposes, it didn't matter. It was all "information." "He lived to regret it," says Roszak, author of "The Cult of Information" and a professor of history at California State University, Hayward. "It's a word that's gotten out of control. You can use 'print' in the same all-encompassing way, but simply to say that offends some people. The computer people are very critical of me."

By now, the computer has become the reigning metaphor, its circuitry taken to be a more powerful model of the brain itself. More insidious has been the accompanying reductionism that brings us "information." It requires a breathtaking hubris to standardize all human expression, from avowals of love to cries of sorrow.

Dismiss it as semantic, but people have always fought over words--as well they should. The larger point, though, is a moral one and closer to the marrow of life. The more we venerate information for its own sake, the less we cultivate what needs cultivating. And the less we honor what deserves greater honor in the culture generally.

It's a commonplace that Americans have always been enamored of technology and its machines. The computer is only one more contraption, marvelous in obvious ways but still something that needs plugging in and, too often, rebooting. I own a pair myself. Every technological advance changes the vernacular, not always for the better. We change gears, run out of gas and, sometimes, park our dreams. As with the car, so with the computer.

But it is one thing to commodify such a word as "information" and to drape ourselves in the trappings of technology. It is quite another to invest it with near-ultimate meaning--to make it the epistemological means by which we understand not only nature but ourselves. Granted, nothing can be securely known without information of some sort--scientific or statistical, demographic or economic, historical or biographical. But these are the bare bones. In both an intellectual and a moral sense, it is the flesh and blood of the thing itself that matters.

We drown already in information, little of which we can organize into coherent ideas. Some of us, given a choice, would trade it all for a measure of modest virtues. Humor and humility, gentleness and gratitude, to name but a few. They don't have their druids or their pitchmen. They claim no status as science. But their impulses register too, and even simple people understand their durable meanings.



Michael Skube is an Atlanta writer. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2001, Michael Skube