It really is amazing, this odd acquisitiveness with which hordes of academics, engineers, cyberpunks, and self-advertised "infonauts" roam the Net looking for treasure troves of information, like so much gold. They hear the cry -- "There's information in them thar nodes!" -- and the rush is on. Who knows what they do with this gold when they find it, but for now most of the excitement seems to be simply in discovering that it's there -- on the Net! It's almost as if the "electrons" themselves exuded a certain fascination -- a kind of spell or subliminal attraction.
So-called Netsurf discussion groups and publications have been created for the sole purpose of identifying and sharing Net "finds." An announcement reached my screen a short while ago, advertising a new forum of this sort and promising experiences comparable to the great world explorations of the past or to the adventures of a fantasy novel.
The dissonance occurs only when one tries to imagine these same adventurers standing in a library, surrounded in three dimensions by records of human achievement far surpassing what is now Net- accessible. Would there, in these surroundings, be the same, breathless investigation of every room and shelf, the same shouts of glee at finding this collection of art prints or that provocative series of essays or these journalistic reports on current events?
It's hard to imagine such a response. But then, if the excitement is not about actual encounters with expressions of the human spirit, what is it about? One gets the feeling that a lot of it has to do with a futuristic, almost religious vision of what the Net is becoming -- and all these interim discoveries are more valued for the progress they indicate than for themselves. Signs for the faithful. Epiphanies.
Just what the essential vision is, however, remains obscure. To all appearances it has something to do with a peculiar sort of insularity or privacy paradoxically cast as openness to the All. I can "touch" all these resources from right here at my desk -- almost while remaining shut up within myself. There's no need to go out into the world; I participate in an alternative universe, all of which maps into my own corner of "cyberspace." It's a kind of return to the womb, promising both self-sufficiency and universal, solipsistic powers.
But perhaps there's an element of the video game here as well -- the adventurous quest to rack up points for booty captured. (The nature of the booty in a video game never counts much for itself; it's for scoring points, and "information" works just as well.) In the best case, this is a team game, not a competition among individuals; we can all take pleasure in the latest finds, happily reporting our discoveries to each other while sustaining ourselves amid the common euphoria. The euphoria seems only too justified, for no one can doubt that the treasures will grow ever richer -- and in tantalizingly unpredictable ways. So the doctrines of endless Enlightenment and Progress become the compelling subtext of a universal video game few can resist playing.
Nor can one dismiss the drug analogy. If cyberpunks, the electronic underground, and the science fiction writers celebrating cyberspace all suggest such an analogy, they're not alone. Few surfers disguise the rush they get from their Net fixes, and the terms of a new, psychedelic vision are now common currency within the Net culture as a whole. Michael Benedikt puts the vision to words:
The design of cyberspace is, after all, the design of another life-world, a parallel universe, offering the intoxicating prospect of actually fulfilling -- with a technology very nearly achieved -- a dream thousands of years old: the dream of transcending the physical world, fully alive, at will, to dwell in some beyond -- to be empowered or enlightened there, alone or with others, and to return. /1/
As Geoff Nunberg remarked, "it's not surprising to find Timothy Leary on the editorial board of Mondo 2000, having decided to drop in again now that things are once more getting interesting." /2/
And, finally, television offers a more suggestive model for understanding the Net than is usually appreciated. Window-based user interfaces together with innovative software design make it increasingly easy to fill one's screen with a kind of busy, ever- changing clutter. Watching the screen as things happen -- even if it is only text scrolling -- readily induces a semiconscious, "coasting" mental state not too different from the half-hypnotized passivity of much television viewing. Partly as a result of this, the entertainment, novelty, and "impact" quotient of Net content is often emphasized -- and will be more so as the competition for attention grows slicker and fiercer.
Even the fate of whatever active consciousness remains is precarious. The computer's information-processing tools substitute an easy, automatic activity for higher forms of conscious control. This can be seen, for example, with the emergence of hypertext navigation on the Net. The navigator is invited toward that same, distracted, associational manner he may already have learned in front of the television screen. (The hypertext "button" is close cousin to the remote control button, and the joltingly syncopated rhythms of channel surfing prove equally apt for Netsurfing.) Hypertext, in the absence of a determined discipline, can discourage any sustained attention to another's train of thought, substituting a collage of impressions for concentration, and a flaccid openness for the muscular reception of new and difficult meaning.
If the Net's information riches are less daunting than those of the library, perhaps it is because we don't really have to deal with them; we need only yield ourselves to the information-processing software.
All these surmises aside, the one thing everyone seems to agree on is that the Great Information Hunt is now under way. Putting information online, buying and selling information, unearthing the decisive informational nugget in an out-of-the-way place, massaging information more effectively with software, adapting the labor market to an information economy, giving everyone equal access to public information, preventing violations of private information -- all these concerns testify to how many aspects of society have been assimilated (rhetorically, at least) to the imperatives of information.
One might have expected the craze for information to be qualified by judgments of reliability, accuracy, relevance, helpfulness, and so on. But somehow this peculiar word, "information," has escaped the constraints hindering all merely mortal terms. /3/ This is shown by the fact that no one who hails the Age of Information would be equally ecstatic about an Age of Opinion, or Age of Gossip, or Age of Random Bits. Apparently, information as such -- anything storable in a computer -- is now felt to possess an objective value sufficient to underwrite the New Age. This aura of objectivity is partly owing to the development of a mathematical theory of information -- a theory from which, as it happens, all considerations of meaning are intentionally excluded. That is, the objective aura is achieved by eliminating from view everything related to the content of information. This raises the question whether the coming age might actually be the Age of No Content, or the Age of Meaninglessness.
It is clear enough that one doesn't go surfing the Net for such experiences -- and a good thing, too, since only a fool spends his days looking for deep transformation or the turning point of his life. One must attend to the tasks of the moment -- hoping, perhaps, for the unexpected visitation, but content to let the day's work yield a day's harvest. Here, in the "uneventful" expression of discipline and devotion, is where wisdom, growth, and transformation take hold of us. They can take hold only from within.
Such wisdom cannot be embedded in the Net (or in the library), either as distributed information or as anything else. Wisdom is a capacity, a quality of one's activity, a gift for seizing meaning from life. Because it knows itself and is moved only by its own necessities, wisdom is the very substance of freedom.
Virtually everyone acknowledges the distinction between information and wisdom. It is regarded as a truism. An anonymous formula circulating on the Net captures a common reading of the distinction:
DATA organized is INFORMATION made meaningful is KNOWLEDGE linked to other knowledge is INTELLIGENCE granted experience is WISDOM
This runs under the heading, "Data to Wisdom Chain," and it shows how easily the truism can be read as a lie -- exactly the lie, moreover, that helps to explain the Great Information Hunt. Data and information are the raw materials of wisdom. That is the lie.
Your wisdom and mine -- such as it may be -- arises from a meeting between ourselves and the wisdom speaking from our surroundings. Only when, as knower, I confront the world itself, can I make its wisdom my own. I do not manufacture wisdom from bits and pieces; I call it down, out of the not-yet-comprehended, through an inner union with it. Data, on the other hand, are the final, abstract precipitate of a fading wisdom -- a lifeless and meaningless residue. There can be no reconstitution of wisdom solely from this residue. /4/
I do not confront the world through my computer, any more than I confront it through a tape recorder, television, or book. And when I start with data -- the bits and bytes, the pure, computational elements of the computer's own shadow-cogitations -- I have removed myself as far from the world as it is humanly possible to do. Given the most extensive data set imaginable, I cannot reconstruct the world from it. First I have to know what the data are about, and this forces me inexorably back toward a new starting point in wisdom. Data that contained their own meaning would not be data.
To see what the Great Information Hunt is really telling us, we need to recognize one thing: the Net is the most pronounced manifestation yet of our tendency to reconceive the human interior in the manner of an exterior, and then to project it onto the external world. Look at almost any inner aspect of the human being, and you will find its abstracted, externalized ghost in the Net. The outer substitutes for the inner: text instead of the word; text processing instead of thinking; information instead of meaning; connectivity instead of community; algorithmic procedure instead of willed human behavior; derived images instead of immediate experience. At the same time, by means of a ubiquitous metaphor of mentality, popular discourse levitates the Net somewhere between mind and abstraction -- and not infrequently strikes toward mystical heights.
Two truths of analytic psychology bear on this. The first is that we can only project those inner contents of which we have more or less lost awareness. It is the progressive dimming of our interior spaces that enables us to to imagine them out there, objectified in some sort of global, electronic, "central nervous system."
The second truth is that when we project aspects of ourselves, we are driven to recover them -- often madly and in inappropriate places. Surely at least part of the reigning excitement over the Net's informational riches has to do with this felt possibility of completing ourselves "out there." If the infatuated lover is convinced that to lose his beloved would be to lose the most important part of his own life, so, too, the compulsive Netsurfer knows that the potentials of his intelligence, the drama of deep discovery, his hopes for mastering life, all lie somewhere out on the Net -- if only he can get the proper software and hardware tools for conquering cyberspace.
I said above that "only a fool" spends his days looking for deep transformation or the turning point of his life. Yet, projection and infatuation make fools even of the best of us. The most satisfying explanation I'm aware of for some of my own experiences on the Net and for those of many I see around me is that, having been more or less alienated from the sources of our own wisdom and selfhood, we hope somehow to gain renewed life by "electrifying" our sensibilities from without. The currents of raw data and information on the Net, coaxed upward by software toward an appearance of wisdom, serve the purpose well -- not altogether unlike the drug trips of the Sixties.
And yet (as so often happens with those who speak of projection) I may be in danger here of missing the more literal truth. It is, after all, true that I can find more and more of my self out on the Net. My concern, for example, about the privacy of information, reflects the fact that I have become "indexable" by Social Security number, credit checkable by bank account number, morally judicable by expenditure record, and intellectually measurable by academic transcript.
In an earlier era, the knowledge anyone else might have about me was largely personal knowledge -- knowledge of my character -- and the prevailing form of privacy invasion was gossip (or physical coercion). The invasion was something people did to each other, whereas now it looks more and more like a mere manipulation of abstractions in cyberspace. But, then, abstractions in cyberspace must be what we are becoming.
There is no question that the human being today (like the world itself) is increasingly re-presented as a collection of information, and that this abstract representation can be "out there" -- on the Net -- in a way that I myself cannot be. Or, rather, once could not be. This points toward a consideration similar to one I have already submitted elsewhere in this book: if we choose to reduce ourselves more and more to bodies of information, then it will eventually become true that we can reside on the Net and discover all there is of each other there. Our projections of ourselves will have replaced ourselves. Then it really will be the communion of human beings -- whatever husks are left of such communion -- that we conveniently gauge in bits per second.
Why, then, should one speak derogatorily of the "reduction to bits" or the re-presentation of ourselves as abstractions, when we now have at least the capabilities for effective communication that we had previously?
The question is reasonable as far as it goes. It just doesn't go far enough. Nowhere is the computer employed simply for its ability to reproduce the function of earlier technologies. Or, if that is how things typically start, it is not how they end. Seymour Papert does not import the computer into the classroom so that young children can read books on the screen instead of on paper; he wants them to program the computer, and thereby to harmonize their minds with the computer's algorithmic intelligence. The Wall Street brokerage firms do not pour millions into computer programming merely to duplicate their old trading systems; the new software packages execute sophisticated trading strategies of their own devising. Nor are the global databases, now expanding at lightspeed, just miniaturized filing cabinets and libraries; they are libraries reconceived as informational structures -- raw material for the computer's logic.
The computer has not ushered us into an age of information; we already lived in one. What the computer gives us is the age of automated information processing.
While I am enjoying all the novel ways to perform old, familiar tasks (such as exchanging messages with a friend), it is easy to ignore how the computer insinuates new elements into the picture. It may not seem important that personal correspondence must be translated into ones and zeros for transmission, and then translated back again -- and for my reading of a friend's message it really doesn't matter. But the necessity for the translation tells me something important about the nature and limitations of the computer -- which is also to say, the nature and limitations of the "nervous system" upon which we are reconstructing society. When it comes to the things this nervous system can do in its own right -- the human and social functions we entrust to it -- the limitations are exactly what matter.
In sum: the computer's miming of older, simpler ways is hardly the decisive point. Or, you might say, the miming itself is the decisive point. None of the earlier technologies exhibited this sort of independent, logical, imitative capacity. The computer acts in its own right, and the quality of its actions -- or, rather, the strictly quantitative and logical basis of its actions -- challenges us in a way that the familiar activities it now mimes did not.
To say that the message I see issuing from my computer consists "merely of ones and zeros" is a common misunderstanding. What I see are the words of my friend. The complementary -- and far more dangerous -- misunderstanding occurs when I claim that the computer itself transcends a logic of ones and zeros. It does not. What the computer sees issuing from me is information. /6/ And everything it does is founded on this kind of seeing.
What the computer asks of us, in short, is that we trust it to pull us up along the Data to Wisdom Chain. The theorists of information are more than happy to encourage us in thinking this possible. Philosopher and cognitive scientist Fred Dretsky opens his book Knowledge and the Flow of Information with the words, "In the beginning there was information; the word came later." The hope resounding through the rhetorical atmosphere of the information age is that, having submitted our lives and society to a logic of ones and zeros, we can ascend again to meaning -- and not only meaning, but unheard of and glorious meanings, suitable for a New Age of Information.
This optimism -- as irrepressible as it is misguided -- finds an infinite variety of expressions. For example, a message with the following signature block /7/ made its way into my email box only a few minutes ago:
"The shortness of life, the frailty of reason, and the dull routine of senseless activity do not allow us to gain much knowledge, and what we do learn we all too soon forget." (N. Copernicus, Astronomer and Scientist)
"Give me enough speed and memory, & I'll outrun life, out think reason, zap routine, gain on the brain, and forget NONE of it." (Greg Stewart, Computer Artist and Small Business-man) /8/
"Gain on the brain." Once the human interior has been reimagined as brain function, there is no difficulty in picturing the Net as a kind of extension of human mentality. What naturally follows, as I have already suggested, is the hope of recovering the self out on the Net. And just so far as this hope is vested in computational activity, it entails a naive faith in the computer's ability to transmute information into meaning. The modern forty-niners panning for informational gold are chasing a dream of logically programmed alchemy.
The level of public discussion on the Net is appallingly shallow .... The ability to communicate instantaneously seems to discourage reflection. You can see how far we have to go by looking at the minutes from the Mechanics Institutes that flourished in many 19th century rural towns in Canada .... The level of discussion -- the insight into the human condition, the recognition of underlying values -- recorded in those Mechanics Institutes minutes is far more profound than anything I've yet seen on the Net. /9/
Presumably those earlier generations still realized that understanding is not a collection of things or "knowledge constructs," but rather a way, a path of personal growth. It is experience illumined from within by careful, sustained reflection. It is a habit of observation and a discipline of thinking given penetrating force by a trained imagination. If information is truly something we can collect -- gathering it to ourselves like squirrels hoarding acorns -- if it can be made into a commodity with a price and subjected to trading in a futures pit, then it is not food for the human spirit. What ennobles and gives wisdom cannot be sold, and will never yield itself to a Boolean search.
What can be sold is "empowerment," and that is the real significance of the passion for information. Within a technologically influenced culture fascinated by the means of invisibly effective constraint, the field of information justifies its advertisement in at least one regard: it readily yields to appropriate wizardry, congealing into instruments of power.
So we encounter another paean to information -- one sung even more loudly and more insistently than the hymn of Enlightenment. The following "information sheet" about the respected quarterly journal, The Information Society, offers one of the more prosaic variations on the paean's text:
An "information revolution" is clearly underway. The exponential growth in computational capability per unit dollar will continue at least for the next several decades. Communication bandwidth is undergoing simultaneous exponential growth. Connectivity among individuals, companies and nations is forming what some are calling "worldnet", "cyberspace", "global grid" or "the matrix." These combined trends are leading us into an Information Society in which wealth, power and freedom of action derive from access to, and effective use of, information.
We might have thought it strange that wisdom and freedom should cohabit so easily with wealth and power upon a couch of information. This is no traditional marriage! It was once claimed that "the truth will make you free," but surely that freedom has little to do with wealth and power -- as little, in fact, as truth has to do with information. Freedom is what took hold of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn when he first stepped into the Gulag and resolved to die toward all those human ties, possessions, and interests that had formerly engaged him, and to embrace his new life for whatever it might offer. As bereft as anyone can be of information, wealth, or power, he remained freer than his captors.
We have, of course, already seen hints of this. The Great Information Hunt, for all the impressive rationalism of its software tools, stands for the scattered, distracted mind, impelled by automatic reactivity. It stands for a half-awake, association-based consciousness flitting from one Net link to another and dissipating mental energies in a formless, curiosity-driven excursion. Most of all, it stands for the dissolution of the sovereign self. The effort to recollect the self from the Net's perfectly well-behaved environs results only in a further dispersal of the self -- a loss of coherence.
It is not particularly odd that this should be so. A sheen of orderly information and logical discipline all too readily masks an utter irrationality. The figure of the fool in literature sometimes illustrates this well, as when he interprets conversation in an absurdly literal, yet perfectly "logical" manner.
Michael Heim is, I think, pointing in this same direction when he notes how "logic can move like a juggernaut adrift from any personal engagement with its subject matter. Someone with a great deal less experience, for example, can make us feel compelled to accept a conclusion we know instinctively to be wrong." The compelling power arises precisely from operating in a vacuum, where everything must be just so. The advantage of a vacuum is that the meanings and complexities of the world cannot muddy things -- or can do so only in carefully controlled ways. "We can be perfectly logical," writes Heim, "yet float completely adrift from reality."
Heim sees this characteristic in the Boolean operators with which we search through information, sifting out "hits" by keyword. "Through minute logical apertures, we observe the world [of information] much like a robot rapidly surveying the surface of things. We cover an enormous amount of material in an incredibly short time, but what we see comes through narrow thought channels." /10/ These narrow slits present us with a collection of discrete fragments, but never with a view, nor even with fragments of the world itself. We receive, rather, bits of informational abstractions: data, derived images, vagrant text wrenched free of any speaker.
This floating adrift from reality is, I think, one of the preeminent symptoms of the information age. It is possible only when we do not possess ourselves with any firmness. The glittering glass shards of information can absorb my attention, drawing me this way and that, only when I lack self-mastery and so must attempt to recollect myself from the Net. But the attempt inevitably fails. The Net's distributed information does not enable me to "pull myself together," for it provides no principle of coherence. All the intricate, informational linkages of cyberspace notwithstanding, an inescapable arbitrariness rules.
The upshot of all this is that the clear, bracing air of a well- delineated "information space" is never wholly purified of its more fetid and murky double. The two belong together. One can, in this regard, venture a fairly safe prediction: over the coming years, fringe Net phenomena such as flame wars, weird impersonations, the more bizarre forms of underground culture, pornographic commerce, manifestations of psychosis ... will grow increasingly pronounced and erratic, while at the same time the reasoned mechanisms for filtering "strict business" from the more chaotic background noise of the Net will steadily gain in effectiveness.
We have already long been witnessing a kind of rationalization of social processes (business, government, scientific research, warfare, education) against a backdrop of meaninglessness, alienation, pathology, disintegrating social ties, a permanent underclass -- rather as science preserves an elegant, mathematically clean, probabilistic theory erected upon the dark, chaotic substrate of quantum randomness. Our ruling abstractions abandon the world to chaos in favor of "systems thinking" and schemas for the effective manipulation of things. And the Net gives us the best opportunity yet to construct an entirely new world of sterile abstraction, superimposed upon the demons of our subconscious.
If the Net empowers, it is by subverting our self-possession, substituting for it a compelling yet arbitrary and fundamentally irrational show of logic -- a fool's logic -- ultimately related to the logic that says, "buy this car because of the beautiful woman lying on it." To be sure, each of us recognizes the absurdity of the logic -- but it is exactly this strange combination of recognition on the one hand, and submission to the absurdity on the other (the ads do, after all, work) that testifies to the loss of self. Television has taught us much about this loss. The interactive Net, by rendering even our conscious activity passive and automatic, promises to teach us a great deal more.
The Net's empowerment is the correlate of a dimmed consciousness, which in turn allows the outward scattering of the self's inner resources. On the one hand, the scattered self lacks sufficient presence of mind to resist the arbitrary impulses that serve power; on the other hand, it seeks to exercise its own power, since the experience of power has always substituted easily for a genuine coming to oneself.
The dimmed consciousness itself has two sides, answering to the Net's double potential. There is a contraction, by which we adapt our thought life to those narrow slits, surveying the world with the cold, piercing logic of the dragon's eye. Then there is what remains outside the circle of this contraction -- a world of meaning unattended to, and therefore sunk into the subconscious, where it moves us according to a shadow "logic" now beyond our reach.
These two aspects of the dimmed consciousness -- a visible but creatively impotent logic, and its invisible, irrationally potent shadow -- cooperate quite well in subjecting us to the appeal of the beautiful woman. Like the "clear-toned sirens" of the Odyssey, she offers wisdom and the knowledge of "all things that come to pass upon the fruitful earth." /11/ Only such a temptress could beguile us into this madly compulsive pursuit of information and the technological innovation it brings, with no one stopping to ask what any of the gadgetry has to do with the fulfillment of the human task.
Warned of the sirens' threat by a goddess, Odysseus stopped the ears of his comrades with wax to block out the deadly song. Then he had himself bound to the ship's mast, so that he could listen freely without danger of being overcome. By no means immune to temptation (upon hearing the subtle harmonies, he fought fiercely to be loosed from his bonds), he was able to prevent disaster only by virtue of this inspired forethought.
Such insistence upon wakeful experience, combined with resolute preventive measures to compensate for personal weakness, remains the appropriate response to the seductive promise of informational omniscience. We must somehow contrive the sturdy mast and the restraining ropes from within ourselves. The discipline may be difficult, but in finding an answer to the enticing song of self- extinction, we will have contributed far more to society than by adding our bones to the sirens' mouldering heap on the forlorn shores of cyberspace.
1. Benedikt, 1991: 131.
2. Geoff Nunberg, language commentary for Fresh Air, National Public Radio, 6 July 1994.
3. This is a point Theodore Roszak makes in The Cult of Information (p. 8). Roszak's book contains a valuable treatment of the "cult" from many different angles.
4. I discuss this matter more extensively in chapter 23, "Can We Transcend Computation?"
5. Quoted in Calamai, 1993.
6. According to the theory of information, fathered by Claude Shannon in the 1940s, the amount of information in a message is a measure of the message's "statistical unexpectedness." Lincoln's Gettysburg address might have exactly the same quantity of information as a few statements of arithmetic addition or subtraction. In its standard form, the theory makes no claim to reckon with content as meaning. This is perfectly legitimate. The problem occurs, as I suggest in chapter 23, when the attempt is made to leap upward from the mathematical treatment of information (taken as the more fundamental level) to meaning.
7. It is part of Net culture to include quotations or other text, along with the sender's name and identifying information, at the end of messages. This concluding section of the message is called the signature block, or the .sig.
8. Used by permission of Greg Stewart (firstname.lastname@example.org).
9. Calamai, 1993.
10. Heim, 1993: 20, 22.
11. Homer Odyssey, 12.184-91.