The Cult of Information (Los Angeles : UCLA, 1994)

Scholarly work published by American sociologist Theodore Roszak in the early 1990s as the spread of 'information technology' and 'information professionals' began to reach hitherto unheard-of levels in every aspect of human endeavor, most specifically the Academy. The book is a careful examination of the appropriateness and true utility of computer technology in the classroom, library and on the job; Roszak argues the parameters often set arbitrarily by the system architecture or software tend to distort the intended thoughts and initial expression of the one forced to comply with the system. In other words, computers rarely help us think qualitatively better (especially those of us who have little training in thought), but rather simply speed up our confusion. The book also carefully examines the hierarchy of information which states that:

are all very different things, which will strike most readers as eminently sensible given that we live in an 'information economy', not a 'wisdom economy', whatever that might look like; one shudders to think how they might be marketed. Without compelling or even useful definitions for these things (Claude Shannon's information theory is really only useful as a technical communication term, and says nothing about the quality or significance of a transmission), many of the claims for information technology may eventually disappoint or misguide our decisions. There are also some powerful arguments in the book against technological determinism, which basically run to the effect that technologies are tools like any other, and that to lose sight of that, to simply accept the ways & means any given system or device is handed down is purely moronic. (If this sounds to anyone like Luddism, you'd be correct.) Brutal as the logic is, Roszak seems to argue that machines (computers included) are essentially little more than automatons, labor-saving creatures, or to put it less nicely, slaves and that to compete with slaves is to become a slave (which may have been previously outlined by Kurt Vonnegut among others). However, in the end the book seems to make a related claim, that we need to be less docile and take a more activist role in how systems and epistemologies are shaped; which means less data, more context becomes the true key to learning and education in the more digitally-infested parts of the world.

In times past, one would have thought of information as more of a lubricant that helped get commodities produced, or perhaps the upshot of a service like a doctor's diagnosis or a lawyer's legal opinion. And its value would not be constant (let alone universally or invariably supreme) but would vary with accuracy and applications. But these days information is freely called product, resource, capital, currency. There is no limit to how high rhetoric may be aimed. (Introduction, p.8)

This argument has gotten increasingly stronger and intertwined over the past decade as ubiquitous computing has become a stronger social reality in the Western industrialized world, which has in turn lead to increasingly alienated knowledge workers. The argument presented in the book does have some problems; many of the examples of software use are dated even for the time, but the main premise is still should. Many leaders within the IT industry itself now even seem to being trying to deflate earlier claims about what information can be said to mean and what the technology will eventually be able to accomplish.

Further reading:
Calcutt, A. White noise : a - z of cyberculture (NY: St. Martin's, 1999) fantastically well-researched book of short essays, a kind of Dictionary of Received Ideas for the new millenium, covering everything from the Virtual State as a political ideal to utopian ideal of ascension through technology.
Bailey, J. After thought : the computer challenges to human intelligence (NY: Basic Books, 1996) wide coverage of the philosophical and scientific constructs which have shaped the concept of human intelligence over the past two millenium, deftly integrating the thought of Nietzsche, Hobbes and Descartes into the world of computing.
Rawlins, G. Moths to the flame : the seductions of computer technology (Cambridge : MIT Press, 1996) full of historical parallels between our technological 'renaissance' and the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, the use of encryption by Mary, Queen of Scots, and the dreary lives of European scribes in the early 14th century.

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