February 24, 1995
The era of information worship is upon us. I have received as many as 6 diskettes by mail urging me to join this or another modem-based information source. A vice-president speaks of an information highway, a place where one buys data at waystops, vendors, or perhaps simply trips on it. At dinner the other night, we were discussing Billie Gates' desire to digitize all of the images in all of the museums in the world. While doubts were expressed at the meeting where the Microsoft CEO announced his intentions, Gates simply said it would happen and that was that. Further, the much traveled museum director told of how his life was made better by his being able to contain within his notebook computer all of the accoutrements of his business life, his faxing potentials. Surely all this information and technology must be, to some, a 'will o' the wisp,' a siren, the Lorelei, the Platonic ideal. It is an old story.
Several things come to mind. I do not like to read the computer screens. Perhaps the kids of today will become a generation willing and able to do this, I have neither the willingness nor interest. Indeed, I have all but rid myself of televisual technology. Several years ago when 'home theater' was being sold as the coming thing, I bought a big television set, a requisite VCR and sound system. There is something missing for me in viewing the cinema while slouching on a couch. I have used it perhaps a dozen times, each time finding the experience wanting.
I like the old, high ceilinged movie theaters with a big screen and good popcorn. I prefer a book I can hold in my hand. Is it just my age? When the oral traditions were being put to parchment, the greek philosopher XX complained that placing words into a permanent form was like putting a sword into the hands of a child. This was so until the present era where words no longer mean anything as long as there is a lawyer around to change their meaning.
But this is not a new problem for me. It has vexed me for years. When I completed my specialty training and I went into practice, I carried with me my books and journals. One of my new associates, a man who knew something of Canada through family matters, told me that the annual output of published and printed materials in the year 1959 from Canada , a county 1/10 the size of the USA, could not possibly be read by anyone in their lifetime! I carried this a step further. I asked if I could read the books and journals I subscribed to. That is. I asked if it was possible to critically read and analyze reference materials which I received through my own subscriptions, my own choices.
The method was simple: I counted the words in the materials and I did a series of experiments which showed the speed with which I could read material of this kind. There is no such thing as "speed reading," despite many hopeful courses offered for just that kind of thing. Critical reading takes reflection, thought. Even giving myself the benefit of the doubt, I concluded that I could read about 100 words per minute. If I were read 12 hours per day, every day, and sleep 8 hours, I could do it. But that is all I could do! Forget eating, bathing, dressing/undressing newpapers, magazines, anything else. Of course I could not practice my specialty.
I want to come back to this, so leave a mental marker here.
Information is obviously intrinsically valuable. Emperor XX built a wall around his empire and further insured his absolute significance by burning all of the books! The new Christian zealots burned the magnificant library in Alexandria, another attempt to remove 'heterodoxy.' Of course, one's own doxy is always orthodoxy; heterodoxy is just someone else's idea. The church became the keeper of knowledge for most of the middle ages. Since they kept it, they also had control over it. And they changed it as it came to their advantage to do so. The various versions of the bible show how the information it contained was massaged until it has todays' appearance. A few examples: The mistranslation of the Greek word for young girl into the Hebrew word for virgin! And what an interesting outcome. Yet, Hindu/Indian lore and Egyptian lore for thousands of years showed their kings to originate of 'virgin' births. Whatever the origin of this common myth, the result was the same. The earliest version of the gospel of Luke did not include the virgin origin of the Christ figure. And one must ask what difference it makes, anyway.
Francis Bacon said we believe to be true what we prefer to be true. That is not only an observation incredibly before its time, but the observation has been confirmed by scientific investigations of the origins of beliefs. Beliefs are simply arbitrary matters which withstand almost any assault by contrary evidence. My father put it: "A man convinced against his will remains of the same opinion, still."
Borges raised an interesting proposition in one of his essays. He discussed the question of whether a character in a play or in a novel could be better or larger than the writer. Could the character be greater, that is have a greater mind/brain/soul than the mind of its creator? It does not take much of a leap in thought to raise the same question about a concept of 'god.' By this reasoning, god cannot be any larger than the largest man who conceives him/it. Surely this is so. And it surely limits, for those philosophers who think about matters such as this, godliness. One either concludes that god = man or needs be invent a different way of looking at this so as to rationalize the observation.
But what then is the limit of information? Is it not also limited by the capacity of the brain of the man who takes it upon himself to contain it? Sure, you can have it in your computer or your database, but unless it is mankind's goal to manufacture deus ex machina, we are stuck with each persons' finiate capacity and that dependent upon his choices. Surely an enormous database of observations and writings which show the error in holding the opinions of a Roman Catholic is not apt to be read by a Roman Catholic. Or it is not likely to be part of his reference material.
This makes sense for our understanding of the sociopolitical processes which constitute a method whereby we tend to diffuse intrinsic interpersonal animosities. Thus, as Sam Johnson has suggested, we get our information, our facts, like we buy our meat -- we take the butcher's word that it is fresh. In the same manner, we are the subjects of pedagogical indoctrination (during our credulous years) and the resulting products of our continued willingness to accept that the information being fed to us is 'fresh.' By so doing, we create a kind of 'kinship' group that defuses the liklihood of interpersonal or interindividual rivalries, but maintain, instead, intergroup rivalries, and wars between differing religious sects.
And what of 'whoever has the biggest database, wins?' That is to say, data as gaming, as rutting? Bill Gates is a good example of this. Nerd rises. A rutting version of Bobby Fisher. Spelling bees. Same thing.
The information we can use will be limited to the information our brains can contain. And then what? Do we become like Wittgenstein, driven almost mad by thinking about thinking? Of what value is all this stuff? Consider its origins, for one thing. There is very little negative data in the scientific community of journal reports.