Week 13

Holding on to reality pt. 2 & Ess 2002:

Holding on to reality pt. 2: “Cultural information -information for reality”

Ch. 6: “Producing information-writing and structure”

Borgmann (1999) states that while natural information is about reality, cultural information is specifically for shaping or forming reality, although it can also be about reality. Borgmann points out that the sketchbook of a medieval mason, Villard de Honnecourt, contains sketches of existing cathedrals (information about reality) as well as designs for building a new church (information for reality).

Regardless of whether the cultural information is for or about reality, Borgmann (1999) insists that it comes about in a different manner than natural information. Natural information appears and conveys its meaning and then disappears. Cultural information is pulled from reality and has a specific shape and content that lasts. It cannot just appear, it must be created by humans, this cannot happen before language and alphabets emerge.

Borgmann (1999) mentions that Plato was skeptical of writing because he felt it would threaten the importance of community. While Plato was thinking of a particular community (his students) there is something in his fear. I believe in a way that writing and later communication technologies have partially destroyed the importance of communities. When few people were literate and when there was not the abundance of written news as there is today, people gathered in communities to find out what was going on. This could be a central market place or a religious institution. Regardless, people came together in a physical place to exchange news. Later when everyone (or nearly everyone) could read newspapers, and with the advent of radio and TV there is a lessening of importance on those community gatherings. One does not have to go to the market or to church to find out what is going on in the world.

Borgmann (1999) explains how Plato’s analysis of the structure of writing -made up of finite elements (letters) led to his analysis of reality and that it has finite elements also (atomic structure). It is this search for structure (the structure of language and the structure of reality) which has inspired many throughout time. Just as building a physical structures is “structured”, so too is the field of information architecture. In seeking structure geometry was discovered which reveled the structure of the world’s form and physics which reveled the structure of what filled the world or its content (Borgmann, 1999).

Ch. 7: “Producing information-measures and grids”

The search for physical structure tied to the structure of language proved to be disappointing. Microscopic structures did not carry on to the larger picture. Scientific information about a building (its height, and the molecular structure of its components) is quite limiting. It does not tell us everything about the building. “There is, then, and information gap between the structural information that is uncovered by scientific analysis and measurement and the contingent information about the expressive faces and eloquent voices of people and things” (Borgmann, 1999, p. 74). Just because you know my DNA and fingerprints, does not mean you know me! Our basic structure leaves out a lot of information.

We started creating our own structure-standardized measurements for example. We started using grids to extract information from reality. Elaborate descriptions of locations using natural landmarks such as trees and stumps are not very helpful over time. When this information is extracted and placed on a grid (mapping) it becomes more meaningful over longer periods of time.

Borgmann (1999) gives an early example of “…how the progress of information technology yields information more instantaneously and easily while at the same time it disengages us from reality and diminishes our expertise, the latter being assumed by the machines of a device” (p. 79). He is referring to the invention of a chronometer which could be taken to sea so sailors could calculate their longitude in relation to the Greenwich Meridian. The only other option was something called the lunar distance method which required the sailors to accurately determine the position of the moon and then perform lots of mathematical calculations in order to get their longitude. The chronometer basically did this work for them and one only had to determine the difference between noon in Greenwich and noon at the ship’s location.

The invention of printing and engraving formed a new medium of information, allowing many people in many places to access the information-this has now be transferred to cyberspace.

Ch. 8: “Realizing information-reading”

Writing and drawing allows one to take time to record ideas over time with considerable thought. This cultural information increases our ability to think before we act. An oral society needs to risk trying something or decide not to try something but with writing we can explore and record ideas and refine them and other variations before action is taken.

Borgmann (1999) provides the term “realization of information” to mean the act of following cultural information (recipe, plan, etc.) to produce what is described (cake, building, etc.). He takes this further and says that we are realizing information when we read. Borgmann (1999) believes that “reading” actually means to make sense of signs or to “puzzle out” something (i.e. read peoples expressions to determine mood, read flow of water to determine best route for boat, etc.). Borgmann (1999) compares 18th century women’s reading to escape their lives with virtual reality:

“Under such conditions, the reality conjured up by the reader resembles the virtual reality produced by information technology. The hallmark of both realms is escape and seclusion from the actual world although even then there is a difference. The reader’s world is diffuse and suggestive while a virtual reality is definite and detailed” (p. 91).

In reading we are given a blueprint or outline by the author but we must construct the complete structure with our minds. With virtual reality a machine is constructing this for us.

Later Borgmann (1999) goes on to say that the best reading is like a vision quest and realizes a world view: “Intelligent reading of fiction and poetry, far from being an escape, is a tacit conversation with actual reality”(p.92).

Personally, I think reading is both escape and “a conversation with actual reality”. One can often escape one’s immediate situation while being drawn to thinking about world reality. One can contemplate the reality of physics or similarities in world mythology while escaping from one’s inability to pay one’s bills or the immediate reality of an abusive relationship. It also, of course, depends on what is being read. Cheap thrill or romance novels are designed for escapism and entertainment.

Ch. 9: “Realizing information-playing”

Borgmann (1999) discusses music in this chapter. He puts forth the idea that although there is most often a definite structure (score) to music, there is also an infinite variety. Each performance of a particular piece can be quite different but it is still the same piece of music with the same basic structure.

Borgmann (1999) also questions the Pythagorean idea that the purer or clearer the structure the more pristine and “better” the work.  If that is true, why do we produce fuzzier works? Why is an impressionistic paining so worthy when a photograph would be more precise and structurally pure? Mathematical structures are quite “pure” but a s Borgmann (1999) points out: “Mathematical structures can be applied to music or cosmology, but they do not of themselves encapsulate the essence of a cantata or the universe” (p. 98). Borgmann (1999) also points out that recordings of music (records, CDs, etc.) disguise the full structure since recordings “…occlude the place, the time, the ardor, and the grandeur that provide the setting for the musical realization of structure” (p. 103).

Ch. 10: “Realizing information-building”

Construction of a building is the most tangible and public way in which information is realized. The plan and blueprint when followed give rise to something that could potentially become a landmark. Borgmann (1999) discusses how the context of communal information can greatly change over time. The Freiburg Minster was a grand gothic cathedral built starting in 1200 and completed in about 1513. For centuries as it was being built and afterwards it was an important religious site. Now, however, it often seems like a tourist attraction or a concert hall. In some ways its original context has been lost; it now has a new modern context.

Ess “Borgmann and the Borg”:

Ess (2002) points out that Borgmann believes humans are rooted in natural information in our bodies. Thus when we do venture beyond reality eventually our bodies pull us back. This is probably true. Even though people may become obsessed with virtual spaces (social networks like Second Life, or games, etc.) eventually the literal call of nature returns them to reality. They find they must eat or drink or use the bathroom. These are all natural signs (natural information) pulling our bodies back to reality. Of course one could take drastic measures to prevent this (hooked up to IVs and a catheter) but most people would not go to this extreme and would find themselves pulled back to reality.

Disposable commodities:

Ess (2002) cites Borgmann as noting that the online world has the potential to reduce people “to disposable commodities” (p. 31). He is discussing love and eros versus online sexuality. In one sense I agree that the online world can reduce humans to commodities. When one looks at an avatar one sees a character. Much like a game character it can be manipulated (bought, sold, abused, loved, killed, etc.) all virtually. It is a thing not a human. On the other hand, we humans have a long history of treating other humans like commodities (street prostitutes, slaves, etc.). I think to some extent online worlds do make it easier for us to treat other humans as “disposable commodities” but it is by no means the only source to blame as we’ve been doing it before the technology was around.

Borgman and consumerism:

Borgmann (1999) believes that consumption aided by technology is “…unencumbered enjoyment of whatever one pleases. The pleasures of consumption require no effort and hence no discipline.” (p. 207). Ess (2002) follows up on this thought by explaining that the person who consumes technological information via computers and the internet is quite removed from the effort, discipline and skills that are used offline with natural information and cultural information. According to Ess (2002), Borgmann’s critiques consumerism because it helps foster “…a kind of careless acceptance of technological information and a correlative loss of the skills and engagements that defined the good life in pre-modern worlds…” (p. 35). I partially agree with this. I think that online consumerism and using the internet so much for gathering information is helping to deteriorate reading skills. Many studies have been done which conclude that people read online very differently than how they read printed text. Web designers and Information Architects know to design web pages with important information at the top and do not put vital information in the lower right hand corner of a web page as that area is seldom read. Web users tend to skim and don’t do deep reading; some say that younger users who have grown up with the Web lack deep reading skills (Bauerlein, 2008).

Websites reviewed:

None this week

Week 13 references:

Bauerlein, M. (2008). The dumbest generation : How the digital age stupefies young Americans and jeopardizes our future (or, don’t trust anyone under 30). New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin.

Borgmann, A. (1999). Holding on to reality: The nature of information at the turn of the millennium. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ess, C. (2002). Borgmann and the borg: Consumerism vs. holding on to reality. Techne, 6(1), 28-45. Retrieved November 17, 2008, from http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/SPT/v6n1/pdf/Ess.pdf