Week 14

 Holding on to reality pt. 3 & Kellner’s Review of Borgmann:

 Holding on to reality pt. 3: “Technological Information-Information as reality”

 Ch. 11: “Elementary measures”

 Borgmann (1999) discusses the Ancient Greek’s theory of atoms and goes on to describe the binary system and bits. These bits can be used to structure information about, for and as reality. Borgmann (1999) tries to explain the various patterns in which these bits of information can be combined in order for us “…to understand how the characteristic bits of present-day information have insinuated themselves into our lives…”(p. 140).

 Ch. 12: “Basic structures”

 Borgmann (1999) starts this chapter by explaining that division is the most basic structure. When a mind divides it makes a distinction between two things, in reality a division is a difference. A division can also be an act of generation. Amoebas reproduce by the act of division (they multiply by dividing!). Borgmann (1999) continues to explain the historical evolution of the computer from Charles Babbage and ENIAC.  Computers “…cushion and comfort the human condition. In some way they disburden us from having to cope with the contingency of reality” (p. 144). Of course so do other machines, not just computers. The engine and then the car disburden humans from having to walk or rely on horses or animals for transportation.


Borgmann (1999) also goes on to explain Boolean logic which has been so useful in retrieval of information form databases. Borgmann doesn’t mention that use but instead goes on to explain transistors, invertors, and resistors and how they are basically the same NOT, OR, AND gates of Boolean logic. Combining these gates we get the computer CPU (Central Processing Unit) and the outline of an Intel Chip.


Early computers and their users shared an intimate relationship. The computer’s operations were transparent and Borgmann (1999) compares the users’ sense of wholeness with an urban dweller being refreshed after spending time in the wilderness living in a comprehendible world where one must carry water from a stream and cut wood for a fire. However, he goes on to say that this early vision of coherence and “surge of competence” was undone by the advancement of the computer. Borgmann (1999) compares the rapid advancement in computer technology with the difference of living in a log cabin hauling water and cutting wood to living in a high rise building -“a move from a limited and laborious environment to a world of tremendous capacity, convenience, and speed” (pp. 164-165).


Ch. 13: “Transparency and control”


This chapter begins with Borgmann (1999) looking at the history of information technology (IT). IT is a result of the “convergence of two technologies: the transmission of information and the automation of computation” (p. 166). To put it in other words Borgmann (1999) defines it structurally as “information that is measured in bits, ordered by Boolean algebra, and conveyed by electrons” (p. 166).


Borgmann (1999) uses the examples of mapping to explain the problems of storing information. A small scale map only provides a brief overview of an area. A large scale map shows a smaller area and cannot provide an overview. To store the necessary maps to be useful (a large amount of information) requires piles of maps of all scales. When compared to digital storage the piles of paper seem almost ridiculous. As Borgmann (1999) points out, this is the genius of information technology-making large amounts of information available by conveniently storing massive amounts and letting us use it with processing and display devices.


The problem is that as computers do more calculations and more work for us, we understand the results less. A math equation that we puzzle out by hand is completely understood and absorbed by us. When that same equation is solved by a computer for us we do not have the same intimate understanding. Another example of Borgmann’s is in mapping. A map that we put together on a computer with a few mouse clicks is not understood as well as a map that is hand crafted on a table. Information technology provides information to a greater swath of people but the depth of understanding is much shallower.


Borgmann (1999) tells of a physics professor at MIT who says that his students no longer build computer simulations because they are too complicated. The simulations are bought and thus the inner workings are not known. “If the assumptions behind some simulation were flawed, my students wouldn’t even know where or how to look for the problem” (p. 176).


Ch. 14: “Virtuality and ambiguity”


Borgmann (1999) tries to explain the concept of resolution by giving a couple of examples. The first is about TV screens and how they are being improved and the new ones are “better”. By “better” he says they are larger and have higher resolution. His other example is about Bach’s music. A piece recorded on shellac disks and played with steel needles amplified through a tube has lower resolution than one recorded on a CD and retrieved with laser beams and using transistors for amplification.


Another example is how we transfer information. If someone says “I heard a great piece of music-it was Bach’s Cantata no. 10” that message has information but the amount that is received and understood depends on the recipient. A reasonably educated person would understand “Bach” and “Cantata” but “Cantata no. 10” would most likely be meaningless. A famous conductor or music scholar would realize the full information message because they would know the musical piece called Cantata no. 10 by Bach. In this case the information is of low resolution. However if the same person provided the score along with their message then more people would fully understand the informational message. The resolution would be even higher if instead of a score a CD of the music were provided. “As resolution rises, the demands on intelligence decline” (Borgmann, 1999, p. 181).


When the resolution is high enough the sign and thing become one. “The sign equals the thing, information has become reality” (p. 181). Borgmann (1999) acknowledges that information technology can require high human skill in some cases, however he continues: “But overall, and emphatically so in the realm of leisure and consumption, technology …in the engineering sense and technology…in the cultural sense have converged to obviate powerful skills and habits of realizing information” (p. 183). He continues his thought: “The computer, when it harbors virtual reality, is no longer a machine that helps us to cope with the world by making a beneficial difference in reality; it makes all the difference and liberates us from actual reality” (p. 183).


In describing virtual reality and virtual lives Borgmann (1999) mentions the position of some thinkers that cyberspace supersedes the actual world. He describes people in MUDA (Multi-User Domains) and we could now include Second Life in this category along with other online games. Even though the resolution in these is low (the scenery can’t really be mistaken for actual scenery) the participants can alter themselves as they can’t in the real world and this makes them overlook the poor resolution. Some people feel this alter self is more “true” or “real” than their physical reality.


There is ambiguity to cyberspace. We still can’t escape reality. A shy person who is an eloquent speaker and intelligent friend through email, in reality stays a recluse who can’t carry on a conversation with anyone.


In cyberspace the lives between truth and fiction are blurred. Recently a teenager set up a webcam and recorded himself committing suicide with a suicide note available for everyone as well as the live feed of him dying. Many people supposedly watched but none reported it until after many hours when his body was still not moving. Many thought it was a joke until they saw police officers through the webcam feed.


Ch. 15:  “Fragility and noise”


Technological information appears extremely strong and long reaching, but Borgmann (1999) says this strength is threatened by fragility and noise. Digital structures are strongest because they can be copied without error unlike material structures. A written work on paper that is deteriorating can be copied onto fresh paper. Something like a statue or architecture cannot be replaced exactly-the duplication might look similar but the material will differ slightly from the original.


Borgmann (1999) reminds us that we may have overlooked the fragility of technological information. Written material information can be read by people and thus doesn’t require a lot to endure-“paper, pencil, a teacher and a student” (p. 194). Anyone who is taught the language and writing system can keep recording and copying the information. There may be some errors overtime but these can often be resolved through textual study. Technological information is completely dependent upon supporting devices. These devices can be fragile and are subject to obsolescence.


Not too long ago we stored lots of digital information on large and small floppy discs. Now many computers don’t have floppy disc drives. Effectively the material stored on those discs is lost. Many people use flash drives to store information on, but if the flash drive is damaged then the information is gone (all of the information, not just a piece here and there as with a damaged piece of papyrus). The information we store on a CD ROM is given a lifespan of 30 years (assuming that it does not become obsolete before that). Odes of Horace have survived much longer because they weren’t digitized. We don’t have the originals from 20 BCE but we do have a copied manuscript from the 9th century! That writing has survived over 1000 years-there is no technological device that thus far has hopes of matching that long term survival rate. “Technological information is socially fragile because of our heedless rush toward more powerful technologies that condemn older one to obsolescence and illegibility” (Borgmann, 1999, pp. 195-196).


Borgmann (1999) points out the structural fragility of our technological information. The massive complexity of our system means that despite all our redundant actions and analysis and attempts for standardization, there will always be “bugs” in the systems. These bugs have the potential for making these systems fail. The only thing that keeps these large computerized systems running is continuous monitoring by programmers and engineers who can step in and attempt to fix problems as they develop.


In spite of the limits of information technology Borgmann (1999) points out the amazing accomplishments. The task for us is to combine “the fluidity of information technology with the stability of the things and practices that have served us well and we continue to depend on for our material and spiritual well-being-the grandeur of nature, the splendor of cities, competence of work…” (p. 201).


Borgmann (1999) claims that cultural noise is sometimes getting in the way of nature and art:

“It is rather the profound fragility of the voices of reality that has allowed so much loudness and shrillness to invade the public conversation…cultural noise is merely annoying at certain times and truly injurious at others” (pp. 201-202).


Borgmann (1999) also claims that the statements that the new  information ages “‘will change forever the way an entire nation works, plays, travels, and even thinks'” (p. 203) are harmless but  distracting propaganda. He is much more concerned with what is going on in higher education. Borgmann (1999) acknowledges the benefits of technology scholars have reaped being able to reach people and data rapidly for research. Students get training for the needed computer skills but Borgmann (1999) is not convinced it is enough: “these changes, however, leave a large part of instruction more or less in its traditional shape and fail …to follow through on the possibilities of technological information” (p. 203).


In the world of natural information, teaching was showing and demonstrating and learning was imitating and practicing-this led to the education model of apprenticeship (Borgmann, 1999). With cultural information there were texts, plans, scores, etc. that were quite intricate. With this literacy had to be taught and students had to learn the skill of realizing this cultural information. As Borgmann (1999) points out-“since most learning came to be set down in writing, reading and comprehension became focal points of education” (p. 204). We get our lectures from antiquity and the Middle Ages when texts were rare. They would be read out loud to students and then commented on or explained. This same structure of universities and lectures has passed into our modern higher education. Apprenticeship also continues both in vocational training and in labs and seminars and workshops. Borgmann (1999) feels that all these are being endangered: “All these traditional forms of teaching, however, are under attack by the proponents of technological reform: (p. 204).


Borgmann (1999) states that, the apprenticeship method of teaching yields an artisan, and teaching by lecturing results in a scholar. Since a distance learning student has access to lots of information easily rather than committing this information to memory, they need to learn how to learn, how to find information, and general problem solving. “The goal, then, of education in cyberspace is to produce the learner, the person who has learned how to learn but otherwise knows nothing” (p. 206).


Borgmann (1999) admits that in the 19th century there was a lot of excessive memorizing-“but as has happened in modern culture generally, the line between genuine liberation and indulgent disburdenment was thoughtlessly crossed” (p. 206). Lots of people clamor for the primacy of information technology in the classroom but as Borgmann (1999) points out:

 “Billions of dollars are dedicated to educational hardware and software, but next to nothing is spent to get reliable information on the costs and benefits of the expenditures. But what little is available … suggests that our enthusiasm for computerized learning and research will serve students and scholarship poorly” (p. 207).

 Few people will claim that distance learning will require no effort by “they fail to see that the discipline needed to sustain effort in turn needs the support of timing, spacing, and socializing that have been part of human nature ever since it has evolved in a world of natural information” (Borgmann, 1999, p. 207).


In the study of Ancient Greek texts, a student had to memorize vocabulary and grammar before beginning the laborious task of translating. Information technology has given us two databases, Perseus and Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, which contain the old texts and will have a complete morphological analysis for every word and provide an English translation for every sentence. To work through the texts in the traditional way may seem ludicrous. However, as a student of Ancient Greek and Latin, I can assure you that there is no substitution for the labour. I have read the Odyssey several times in English, but the parts that I painfully went over in Greek are what are imprinted in my memory so vividly. The labour, dedication, and concentration of puzzling through the work myself resulted in my understanding. The modern tools available are great, but should not replace the traditional method-otherwise nothing is truly learned.


In the business world information technology promised a huge growth of productivity, economic prosperity, and a new era of leisure and affluence. “But the information we have shows clearly enough that during the very period when investments in information technology were climbing steeply, productivity gains have flattened out” (Borgmann, 1999, p. 211).


Borgmann (1999) sums up this chapter with a statement that should make librarians smile:

“The inherent fluidity and facility of information technology may move us to consider a radically different way of presenting information…so that it will invite quiet attention, and a manner of making it spare and austere enough to engage memory and imagination. We may find a new regard for an old vessel of information -the book. And when we have recovered the book we may want to restore the place that used to be dedicated to the quietude and concentration the book inspires-the library” (p. 212).


Conclusion: “Information and reality”


In his conclusion, Borgmann (1999) says that information technology has many benefits and has helped to curtail overt misery, but he claims it aggravates a hidden misery that follows from “the slow obliteration of human substance. It is the misery of persons who lose their well-being not to violence or oblivion, but to the dilation and attenuation they suffer when the moral gravity and material density of things is over laid by the lightness of information. People are losing their character and definition in the levity of cyberspace” (p. 232).


First, I disagree that IT is causing overt misery to wane. Globally as a species there is still plenty of overt misery. It is probably true that it is harder to define one’s self and have a strong character in cyberspace. But it is also harder to define oneself in a large pool of people (large city, big university) than it is in a smaller group (small town, small college). In cyberspace it is easy to be absorbed into the mass of “characters” online. However, when we separate into smaller groups (online or otherwise) we have a better chance of self definition. Borgmann (1999) goes on to explain that Christians owe their fidelity to persons to the history of salvation and look forward to being forever remembered and having their souls rocked in the bosom of Abraham. I am not sure why he insists on this reliance of Christian religion to support some of his ideas. I think they would be stronger without it and am not entirely sure what he means by this ending. It is quite disappointing because I think he makes some excellent points about the dangers of information technology. We do need to rethink some of our methods of use to reap the greatest benefit and minimize the negatives. Some of this gets overwhelmed by Borgmann’s insistence of Christian examples, especially at the end of his conclusion.



Kellner on Borgmann:


Kellner (1999) states that to succeed in his points, Borgmann needs to “overcome the postmodern dictum that reality…is a social construct… [and] demonstrate that a more fundamental and compelling ‘reality’ is being overcome and displaced by the new … realities of cyberspace, informational technology, and new multimedia, and must persuade his readers to take more seriously and ground their lives in this more primal ‘reality'” (p. 3). Kellner also points out the theological underpinnings of Borgmann’s arguments. I agree that Borgmann does lean heavily on theology, but he also makes some good arguments drawn from classical philosophy. I think Borgmann makes a good attempt to overcome the postmodern idea of reality as a social construct, but I am not sure that he needs to. I think there is a duality of “reality” or a “relative reality” for each of us. If an event occurs many people may recall it differently (some drastically so). For each of them what they remember is reality for them. Borgmann makes a good stab at “general reality” and how our natural information or the reality of our ancestors is taking a back seat to technology and technological information and virtual reality. He does advocate for a balance. However, I don’t think it is information technology and cyberspace alone that is to blame. Technology in general has caused us to live unlike our ancestors did. We are much more mobile now then even our grandparents were. This results in us not having strong ties to a local “real” community. We often rely on technology to help us maintain connections with distant communities or reach out to cyber communities because we don’t stay in one place long enough to make strong physical connections. I am not sure it is Internet technology that is to blame, but multiple different technologies over decades or even a century that have changed how we live. We do need to be reminded of the importance of natural information and Borgmann’s reality, and need to head the call to moderate and balance our lives, but cyberspace is only one of several technologies vying for dominance in our lives.

Websites reviewed:

None this week.

Week 14 references:

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


Kellner, D. (1999, September). Review of Albert Borgmann’s holding onto reality. In RCCS Resource center for cyberculture studies. Retrieved November 24, 2008, from http://rccs.usfca.edu/bookinfo.asp?ReviewID=56&BookID=57