Which came first, the idea or the information?

Posted on March 6, 2009

We are to the midpoint in Theodore Roszak's "The Cult of Information," and up until now, I have experienced mixed emotions based on what I have read. On one page, I found myself thinking, "Yes! Why do people think computers are the cure-all for today's society?" However, on the next page, I reluctantly thought, "Wow, has this guy been out of his house in the last 20 years?" Granted, the book was originally published in 1986, and republished in 1994. I had the feeling that there were certain passages that probably would have been better rewritten, but I suppose I'm not here to critique what I didn't read, only what I did.

Instead of moving in an orderly fashion through Roszak's piece, I would like to step through the things in the book that I felt were most thought-provoking, whether I considered them accurate or not. The first, as indicated in the title, is Roszak's insistence that "master ideas are based on no information whatsoever" (p. 91). When I first read this, I almost through the book out the window. How could any idea not have any information behind it? A sample of these items includes "All men are created equal," "Man is a rational animal," and "Life is a miracle." How can one come up with any of these phrases/thoughts without at least understanding a bit about the definitions of each individual word, as well as the definition of the combined words listed?

Rozack spends a great deal of time discussing meanings of words, not entirely related to the master ideas listed above, but still relevant to this search for information and/or knowledge and/ormeaning and/or intelligence. A thesaurus tells me that the words bolded in the last sentence are all relatively the same; Rozack's issue is that they used to be completely different words, but computers scientists and theorists, specifically the people who want to make big bucks off of selling computers, have made the definition to be "highly esoteric" (p. 13) as somewhat of a marketing ploy. It is a difficult premise to deny, even if you consider that the words have a multitude of uses outside of any technological field.

So, if people have discernible definitions of words, and they may or may not align with previous definitions, does that mean great ideas are not themselves part of the information? Rozak's distinction is that the mind thinks with ideas, not information (p. 88). A prime example of this is the concept of "memory" for a computer. Does a computer really have memory? A computer is capable of storing outcomes of certain tasks and spitting out that information. But humans have the capacity to remember things in an disorderly fashion, even remember things that were once forgotten, which is not a function of a computer. Rozak poses another question: Is it possible that too much data retention can cause a compromise in the pure quality of thought (p. 37)?

When the book was originally published, I do remember a fair amount of talk concerning Ultra Intelligent Machines, the microman, and, in short, the feasibility of computers taking over the world. I think the majority of society saw this more as a great science-fiction plot, and not necessarily a thing that would actually happen. But there is no doubt that some people did believe it, and still do to this day, eventually computers and machines will be able to do everything that humans do, in a more timely and effective manner. Why would they not be able to see that everyday experiences, while possible to program into a machine, could not be transferred into data output for a computer to understand, because each person's views on the experiences would be different?

One of the largest issues I see with schools utilizing technology, and one that Rosak effectively points out, is that it's rare to find two teachers who would define "computer literacy" to mean the exact same thing (p. 60). If a teacher has an hour a week to show students various aspects of learning computers, what should he or she explain? Should the students learn Microsoft applications? Should the students learn how to find information with a web browser? Should they learn how to send and receive email? Should they learn how to use graphic design tools? Should they be taught how to prevent viruses? Ideally, students should receive material concerning all of the above, but how much teaching is good enough to pass for "literacy?"

While Rosak makes plenty of excellent points concerning technology within schools and society, he seems to fail more times than not in really understanding the purpose of exposing children to the possibilities within a computer. He scrutinizes the shortcomings of Logo, a programming language designed to provide basic functionalities of drawing shapes for educational use. The programs have improved, and in present time, many colleges offer degrees specifically curtailed to graphic design, graphic user interface, etc. To me, complaining about Logo would be like complaining that when the space program started, we should have been able to immediately launch astronauts to Mars, no questions asked. There has to be an intermediate period where scientists, researchers, educators, and children are all learning. None of us have all of the answers, and claiming that graphics, no matter how rudimentary, are not artistic (p. 52) is akin to telling a naturist that because he wears shoes, he must not really care about the environment. It seems as if there is a disconnect between Rosak's intelligent notions on technology and who is pushing what agenda. Maybe he thinks everyone who adores computers is out to get him? I'm debating whether or not I developed this idea on my own, or if I used actual information to prove my point.