The Cult of Information: A Neo-Luddite Treatise on High-Tech, Artificial Intelligence, and the True Art of Thinking by Theodore Roszak
Berkeley, CA: University of CA Press, 1986, 1994
(22) Depth, originality, excellence, which have always been factors in the evaluation of knowledge, have somewhere been lost in the fast, futurological shuffle. As we will see, this is a liability that dogs every effort to inflate the cultural value of information.
(45) Already there may be a large public that believes it not only cannot make judgments about computers, but has no _right_ to do so because computers are superior to its own intelligence - a position of absolute deference which human beings have never assumed with respect to any technology of the past.
(88) That is the great mischief done by the data merchants, the futurologists, and those in the schools who believe that computer literacy is the educational wave of the future: they lose sight of the paramount truth that the _mind thinks with ideas, not with information._ Information may helpfully illustrate or decorate an idea; it may, where it works under the guidance of a contrasting idea, help to call other ideas into question. But information does not create ideas; by itself, it does not validate or invalidate them. An idea can only be generated, revised, or unseated by another idea. A culture survives by the power, plasticity, and fertility of its ideas. Ideas come first, because ideas define, contain, and eventually produce information. The principal task of education, therefore, is to teach young minds how to deal with ideas: how to evaluate them, extend them, adapt them to new uses. This can be done with the use of very little information, perhaps none at all. It certainly does not require data processing machinery of any kind. An excess of information may actually crowd out ideas, leaving the mind (young minds especially) distracted by sterile, disconnected facts, lost among shapeless heaps of data.
It may help at this point to take some time for fundamentals.
The relationship of ideas to information is what we call a _generalization_. Generalizing might be seen as the basic action of intelligence; it takes two forms. First, when confronted with a vast shapeless welter of facts (whether in the form of personal perceptions or secondhand report), the mind seeks for a sensible, connecting pattern. Second, when confronted with very few facts, the mind seeks to create a pattern by enlarging upon the little it has and pointing it in the direction of a conclusion.
(90) _Ideas are integrating patterns_ which satisfy the mind when it asks the question, What does this mean? What is this all about?
(91) …what might be called the _master ideas_ - the great moral, religious, and metaphysical teachings which are the foundations of culture…. _Master ideas are based on no information whatever._
(93) This is the point Fritz Machup makes when he observes a striking difference between “information” and “knowledge.” (He is using “knowledge” here in exactly the same way I am using “idea” - as an integrating pattern.) “Information” he tells us, “is acquired by being told, whereas knowledge can be acquired by thinking.”
(93-94) …new knowledge can be acquired without new information being received. (That this statement refers to subjective knowledge goes without saying; but there is no such thing as objective knowledge that was not previously somebody’s subjective knowledge.)
(94) It is precisely because some ideas - many ideas - are brutal and deadly that we need to learn how to deal with them adroitly. An idea takes us into people’s minds, ushers us through their experience. Understanding an idea means understanding the lives of those who created and championed it.
(95) “Nothing is more dangeorus than an idea,” Emil Chartier once said, “when it is the only one we have."
(98) The stew of personal experience is too thick, too filled with unidentifiable elements mixed in obscure proportions. What emerges from the concoction can be genuinely astonishing. Which is only to observe what all culture tells us about ourselves: that we are capable of true originality.
NB: from “Entire Sermon by the Red Monk” by Lew Welch: 1. We invent ourselves. 2. We invent ourselves out of ingredients we didn't choose, by a process we can't control...
(105) The empiricists were right to believe that facts and ideas are significantly connected, but they inverted the relationship. _Ideas create information,_ not the other way around. Every fact grows from an idea; it is the answer to a question we could not ask in the first place if an idea had not been invented which isolated some portion of the world, made it important, focused our attention, and stimulated inquiry.
(107) But even more ironically, the hard focus on information which the computer encourages must in time have the effect of crowding out new ideas, which are the intellectual source that generates facts.
(147) It [Homebrew Computer Club and Community Memory] would undergird a new Jeffersonian democracy based, not upon the equal distribution of land, but upon equal access to information.
(150) Lee Felsenstein of Community Memory: “The industrial infrastructure might be snatched away at any time, and the people should be able to scrounge parts to keep his machine going in the rubble of the devasted society; ideally, the machine’s design would be clear enough to allow users to figure out where to put those parts.”
As Felsenstein once said, “I’ve got to design so you can put it together out of garbage cans.”
NB: Roszak sees this as hippie utopian pipe dream but it turns out to be a fundamental aspect of an ecological circular economy, restorative and renewable
(157) Also, intuitively, they [the Utilitarians] grasped that in societies as chronically dynamic as England was becoming, the control of facts - or even the _apparent_ control of facts - begets power. It creates the impression of competence; it confers the very ability to govern.
(157) The historian G. M. Young describes what he calls “the Benthamite formula” as consisting of “inquiry, legislation, execution, inspection, and report.”
NB: A variation of John Boyd's OODA [Observe Orient Decide Act] loop?
(158) “Knowledge of the facts,” Young observes, “and an apt handling of figures was… the surest proof of capacity” in public life. Gladstone, whose carefully wrought budgets were the new world standard of modern statecraft, was perhaps the first politican to build a career on the magisterial control of social statistics. He would make an admirable showing these days in an American presidential debate, spouting numbers in all directions.
(159) Yet despite their stance of studied objectivity, the Utilitarians actually worked from a definite political ideology, a not-so-very-hidden agenda of ideas and ideals that served to animate the information they collected. It is important to underscore this aspect of their work because it reveals the inevitable interplay of ideals and information….
We now know that the Utiliarians who served on this great inquiry were determined from the outset to scuttle the system. So they assiduously documented the waste, the inconsistency, the ineptness of the Old Poor Law….
The Utilitarians, documenting the mess, quickly convinced the government that the law should be replaced by a new, uniform, centralized, and far cheaper program of their own design. They won their point. The result was the draconian workhouse system we find depicted in the novels of Charles Dickens. While the Poor Law Commission sought to make its survey look totally neutral - a purely professional inquiry based on principles of sound economy - it was shaped from the beginning by a well-structured social philosophy, based, for example, on the assumption that poverty was a form of criminal parasitism which deserved to be punished and that too generous a system of relief will only corrupt the people’s will to work. Lurking behind the investigation was a perfectly dismal vision of human nature and a grim obsession with cash values. The Utilitarians firmly believed that the poor must be whipped to work.
(161) Namely, it is not facts that determine policy, but more often policy that determines the facts - by selection, adjustment, distortion.
(162) Ironically, computers that can violate personal privacy do not assure public access….
Here is the problem the Utilitarians never foresaw: that there can to _too much_ information. So much that the forest gets lost among the trees.
NB: The forest can get lost in the trees and the trees can be lost in the leaves
(163) It even becomes advantageous to have lots of contention about facts and figures, a statistical blizzard that numbs the attention.
In the view of some computer enthusiasts, data glut is no worse than an unfortunate, temporary imbalance in the system.
NB: “If you can't dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.” W.C. Fields
(164) What computer enthusiasts overlook is the fact that data glut is not some unforeseen, accidental fluctuation of supply, like a bumper crop of wheat. It is a strategy of social control, deliberately and often expertly wielded. It is one of the main ways in which modern governments and interest groups obfuscate issues to their own advantage; they dazzle and distract with more raw data than the citizenry can hope to sort through.
NB: Grown out of hand with the NSA that can’t find its own way through data glut
(165) But in all cases, we are confronted by sprawling conceptions of information that work from the assumption that thinking is a form of information processing and that, therefore, _more_ data will produce _better_ understanding.
(165-166) Rather, we must insist upon a new standard of political discourse. In a vital democracy, it is not the quantity but the quality of information that matters. What are the criteria of quality? Relevance, coherence, and insight. How do we bring these criteria into play? By shaping information into issues. Issues, in turn, are well formulated when they help to focus attention, raise questions, facilitate criticism, and finally allow us to make choices with the sense that we have intelligently discriminated among all the available options.
(167) Investigative reporting of [IF] Stone’s caliber reminds us that news, which is the daily pulse of politics, is never simply information; it is not raw factual material that simply drops out of the world into a data base. It is focused inquiry and interpretation based upon a solid set of ideas about the world: what matters, where is the history of our time heading, what’s at stake, what are the hidden agendas, what is the big picture? The answers to these questions are the ideas that determine the value of information. Often what a good journalist must do is cast out tons of obfuscating data glut in order to get down to the living truth.
NB: Context, story, and sourcing as filters for information overload
(170) The medium never guarantees anything about the quality of its messages.
(174) Since its inception, the library has been an offense to private property.
NB: There are private libraries, like Ben Franklin’s first American library or the Boston Athenaeum.
(175) When was the last time you saw “information” associated with the needs of the distressed and victimized?
NB: Wash Post and Guardian for the tally of people killed by the police over the last two years
(203) [Norbert] Wiener had two potential abuses of information technology in view: its military exploitation as a means of making war, and its industrial exploitation as a means of deskililing and disemploying workers. Wiener, the conscience of his much-compromised profession, did what he could to resist these evils; it was surely as much as any single person might be expected to do. With respect to the first, he resolutely refused to accept any research support that came from military sources and agitated among his colleagues to do the same, though with no success. With respect to the second, he made his services available as a consultant to the labor movement as early as 1950. In that year, he wrote to Walter Reuther, head of the United Auto Workers Union, warning him of “the very pressing menace of the large-scale reduction of labor by machines” to which automation would surely contribute. Cybernetics in the workplace, he observed, will “lead to the factory without employees” and the corresponding reduction of union power. “I do not want to contribute in any way to selling labor down the river, and I am quite aware that any labor which is in competition with slave labor, whether the slaves are human or mechanical, must accept the conditions of work of slave labor.” In this prospect, Wiener saw the lineaments of nothing less than “fascism."
(218) It [imagined Borges story on present politics] will begin with a poll asking people if they approve of the way the polls have been handling the president’s approval rating. Then there will be a poll measuring the public’s opinion about the results of that poll. Then there will be a poll about the poll about the poll. At last there will be an election in which the public will vote for the poll that it thinks most accurately reflects the public’s opinion.
Politics in the Information Age.
(225) Perhaps the most ambitious effort at applying information technology to the art of government took place in Chile in the early 1970s. Then President Salvador Allende brought in the British cybernetics expert Stafford Beer to develop and administer an optimum economic order for the country. Working from the formula “information is what changes us; information constitutes control,” Beer had brainstormed an intricate computerized system which he quaintly called the Liberty Machine. Its purpose was to concentrate every scrap of data available from a national, or even from the world economy, and from this to fashion a “cybernetic model.” The computers governing the model would “receive real-time data from the systems which they monitor, and they would distill the information content.” It would then be possible to “formulate hypotheses, undertake simulations, and make predictions about world trajectories.” Between 1971 and 1973, Beer, working in secret for the Ministry of Finance, sought to establish something like the Liberty Machine in Chile. The effort was a serious one, installed at great expense in a central control room (the “Opsroom”) in Santiago, where it succeeded at the height of its powers in bringing 60 percent of the Chilean economy into its data gathering and governing network. The system included the ability to anticipate and break strikes. Beer has reported: “We used every scrap of relevant scientific knowledge in designing the place - neurocybernetic knowledge of brain processes, knowledge from applied and group psychology, knowledge from ergonomics.” The exercise entailed an interesting new conception of “Freedom.” “Liberty,” Beer decided, “may indeed be usefully redefined for our current technological era. It would say competent information is free to act - and that this is the the principle on which the new Liberty Machine should be designed.” It is a definition that makes the computer an integral part of the concept.
(237-238) What I am suggesting is that, in little things and big, the mind works more by way of gestalts than by algorithmic procedures. This is because our life as a whole is made up of a hierarchy of projects, some trivial and repetitive, some special and spectacular. The mind is naturally a spinner of projects, meaning it sets goals, choosing them from among all the things we might be doing with our lives. Pondering choices, making projects - these are the mind’s first order of activity. This is so obvious, so basic, that perhaps we are only prompted to reflect upon it when a different idea about thinking is presented, such as that thought is connecting data points in formal sequences.