Readers in Council,
The Japan Times,
5-4, Shibaura 4-chome,
Minato-ku, Tokyo 108-0023
It has been commented on before that the personal computer revolution did not herald the dawn of a great Information Age so much as a new Dark Age. I mean, more information is being lost faster than ever before in history with the push of the Delete button, aggravated by the ease of pushing it. In addition to that, the technology used to store information is changing so fast that, except for old fashioned, durable paper, much of what was stored in other modern formats is being lost simply because it isn’t being transferred to new media faster than it deteriorates, or faster than artifacts of the older media can still function to recall it - 78-records, 8-track tapes, floppy discs.
And with the proliferation of computers and cell phones, E-mail and the Internet, we are actually communicating less and less with each other. We lose touch with more people, faster - sometimes on purpose. More people are isolated in their own little worlds. The art of the letter is dying in place of the memo. And now it also seems that more and more people are just downright confused about what constitutes proper information. I mean, I am so often annoyed when I speak or E-mail people, ask for information, get confirmation that information will be sent, but then what is sent to me is actually not the information I want, but simply a website that promises to provide the information. It is an everyday occurrence that I do not find convenient. It is not only a deception to send me a website address in lieu of the information itself, but it is bad service, too.
In short, for all of the Information Technology available we are definitely not becoming more intelligent. Instead, we can be accused of hurtling in the other direction. By accident or design I can’t say - yet.
Printed on Sunday, September 20, 2009 as “False promise of more intelligence.”
I suppose that most people do not imagine that we are living in a Dark Age because, even though we are losing information faster than ever before in our history, we are also simultaneously acquiring or obtaining more/new information. So the overall effect is a net increase in information. But it comes with a growing inability to discriminate and process information - what Alvin Tofler called“information overload.” But what kind of information is it? Admittedly, much of the information we lose may be called unimportant, just the wasteful verbiage of daily life, and therefore of no consequence - or, no measurable consequence - to society, and so maybe it is a good thing to delete it and throw it away. But on the one hand if it turns out that that attitude severely under-estimates the value of daily verbiage - or, the value of some daily verbiage - then we might risk throwing the baby out with the bath water. I mean, gems of learning, experience or wisdom could accidentally be discarded because they are wrongly judged“junk.” In any event, even the “junk” constitutes a record. But I do not mean that I advocate preserving the junk. I am saying that we ought to be more careful about what we delete, what we save, and how we save it. Microfilm and microfiche were bad ideas for information storage. They were appealing from a budgetary point of view is all. Computer floppy discs were just the unfortunate transitional stage between other dominant storage formats.
There is another problem I have written about before - that more and more people do not understand the technology we use and rely on. Or, maybe it only seems that way. Maybe the public never understood the technologies of their day but just blithely took them for granted. I am using a computer, but I have no idea how it works (and, consequently, I use it for only a fraction of its potential). Pretty much all I know about automobiles is that I turn the key and they run. The same for television and cell phones. If our electricity stopped then our civilization would revert to the Stone Age in a few days. The problem with human civilization is that it is precarious. We are perpetually on the eve of destruction, darkness and unknowing without realizing it. Our short memory spans - as individuals and as a species - lead us to forget how close we remain to Nature, and how close we remain to chaos, how short our history is, how hard our ancestors had to work to make it so - what with agriculture, cities, roads, science, fire, the wheel, forged metals, etc. The political leadership class - even including those we vehemently oppose - are part of a very thin veneer that maintains civilization.
Interestingly, on the same day, Sunday, September 20th the paper featured a front page story “World gets warming wakeup call with ‘The Age of Stupid.’” I thought it was a neat coincidental use of the word “stupid,” although the story had nothing to do with my point about the deleterious effects of technology and information loss. Stupidity was high on my mind when I wrote the letter. Instead, the story was about an environmental film being screened around the world that week (a film by Franny Armstrong featuring Pete Postlethwaite as an archivist in the future looking back on these day from the year 2055 and wondering how stupid of us not to have taken action to retard Global Warming). The report called the film part of an agenda of turning up the environmental volume ahead of an important U.N. conference in Copenhagen in December to negotiate an international climate treaty.