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SWM Seeking Reality 

Finding it in the culture of books

Wednesday, Oct 27 1999
Art by Peter BennettAT A TIME WHEN ILLITERACY IS BEING DECRIED AS A national crisis, it is interesting to reflect that no less a wordsmith than Plato was deeply suspicious of the very acts of reading and writing. In his dialogue Phaedrus, Plato recounts the story of the invention of writing, which he attributes to the Egyptian god Theuth. So powerful is writing that surely it must have a divine origin? But in Plato's tale, the Egyptian king Thamus, to whom Theuth presents his innovation, is disdainful, saying it offers only "the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom." Thamus' reaction mirrors the doubt Plato and his fellow Athenians felt about acquiring knowledge from any source other than the direct presence of a wise and learned teacher.

Fifth-century BCE Greece was the first society in which reading and writing were the skills not just of a small guild of scribes or priests but of an entire social class. At the heart of Plato's qualms about the written word was a recognition that, in modern parlance, this was a major step toward the virtualization of knowledge. For Plato, abstract symbols on a page were a retreat from engagement with "reality."

Like Plato, Albert Borgmann is worried about the increasing virtualization of knowledge. In his new book, Holding On to Reality, Borgmann, regents professor of philosophy at the University of Montana, examines the nature of information throughout human history and the ways in which, in his view, our mastery of symbolic systems has distanced us from direct engagement with reality. Like Plato, he thinks we are in danger of losing touch with "real" wisdom and retaining only its simulation.

Unlike so many books on the "information age," Borgmann's tale begins long before the invention of computers. Thousands of years ago, before the advent of any formal symbolic systems, nature was the system of signs in which humans were embedded, and which they had to learn to read. A stand of cottonwoods signaled the bank of a river. A group of twigs arranged in one of the trees signaled the presence of ospreys, who in turn signaled that there were trout in the river. As Borgmann notes, in nature things are also signs, and likewise signs are always things.

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But around 6,000 years ago, signs became separated from things, taking on a life of their own, and in the process changing the foundation of human culture. In the fertile valleys of ancient Mesopotamia, people kept track of their goods by the use of small clay tokens. Sheep would be indicated by one kind of token, bushels of wheat by another, and so on. Groups of related tokens would be kept in a baked-clay envelope. The drawback of this system was that you had to smash an envelope in order to see the tokens inside, and so the practice began of impressing signs of the tokens onto the outside of the envelopes. Soon it was realized that the signs alone were sufficient and that the tokens could be abandoned. Thus was the stage set for the emergence of writing.

THE FIRST WRITING SYSTEMS WERE LOGOGRAPHIC, with a separate symbol for each different concept or thing -- much as in Chinese today. In logographic systems, a strong relationship remains between signs and the things they stand for, but gradually more condensed and less iconic systems evolved, culminating in alphabetic writing, in which each thing is represented not by a unique symbol but by different arrangements of a few dozen basic symbols, called letters. It was the alchemical power of alphabetic writing that seemed so suspect to Plato.

From the late 17th century, philosophers wondered whether there was a minimal set of symbols necessary for linguistic representation; the great German philosopher-mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz was the first to suggest that just two would do. Borgmann tells us that in Leibnitz's view, "Binary notation demonstrates that out of divine unity (one) and formless nothing (zero) everything could be generated." The second half of his book describes mankind's attempts ever since to articulate reality in the parsimonious and wildly abstract language of binary digits.

Using the simple Erector set of zeros and ones, computers today can represent and manipulate a staggering array of phenomena -- from Bach cantatas and the Louvre's collection of paintings to topological maps of whole nations and complex problems in fluid dynamics. From computer-generated blueprints of buildings to virtual-reality walk-through simulations of those buildings (which may not even exist in real life), binary notation has proved itself insanely powerful.

But Borgmann suggests that modern society has become drunk on this power and that Leibnitz's belief that everything could be generated from zeros and ones is ultimately illusory. The fact that we can, for example, reduce a performance of a Bach cantata to a string of zeros and ones on a CD-ROM has fooled too many people into believing that binary signs can become a substitute for physical reality. The apotheosis of this madness is the notion that we may one day download ourselves into computers, where we will live forever in a digital domain.

It is more pragmatic fantasies, however, that really worry Borgmann. In particular, he is concerned about the growing tendency in academic circles to think that education will be better handled by taking it off-campus -- out of the hands of learned teachers -- and onto the Internet. In the fantasies touted by prophets of Internet-based learning, Borgmann notes that students become like supermarket customers, picking their educational products off the digital shelves, while teachers become merely the store clerks who produce and package the merchandise. This might maximize customer (i.e., student) choice, but Borgmann is rightly skeptical about its efficacy.

For advocates of Internet learning, he says, "there is a remarkable parallel between the mind of the learner and the structure of the personal computer." Like the PC, the digital-age student is reconceived as an information-processing device. Since so much information is now available online, in this new paradigm students no longer need to spend time learning facts. The Internet-based student's main task is to learn how to retrieve information from vast networked storage systems. "With the world database at your fingertips," who needs to have information in his head?

IT IS JUST SUCH A DOWNGRADING OF HUMAN MEMory that Plato feared would be encouraged by the spread of writing. In his day, when books were still a rarity, scholars cultivated complex mnemonic techniques including the "construction" of elaborate internal "memory palaces." With computers, the memory palaces are no longer inside our heads, they are on our disk drives and Internet servers.

Like Borgmann, I am leery of the quick-fix solutions propounded by Internet-learning advocates; few students have the drive or discipline to learn through a computer screen, and Plato is right, there is no substitute for an inspired teacher. Borgmann is also right to stress the limits of computer simulation -- life in the flesh is not "just another window," as some Internet gurus would have us believe.

But I take issue with his claim that computers and the Internet are taking us further away from "reality." For better or worse, technological change is a profound aspect of the modern world: Each generation now inhabits a different reality from the previous one. But a world in which every home is abuzz with microchips is no less "real" than a world in which people live in grass huts. We may well be further removed from nature, but we are not losing contact with "reality." How could we be?

Borgmann tells us that Plato's skepticism of the written word has ultimately been unjustified. Ironically, perhaps, it is just the "culture of words," especially books, that he believes can rescue us from the computerized virtualization of knowledge and bring us back into closer contact with the "reality" he so values.

There were times when I wanted to leap up and have it out with Borgmann's sometimes too-dismissive stance about the digital age. Is it really such a crime that there will soon be an automated database that will furnish a complete morphological analysis of every word of the ancient Greek corpus -- so that one no longer need learn ancient Greek to appreciate the subtle joys of Homer or Plato? Such qualms aside, this insightful and poetic reflection on the changing nature of information is a wonderful antidote to much of the current hype about the "information revolution." Borgmann reminds us that whatever the reality of our time, we need "a balance of signs and things" in our lives.

HOLDING ON TO REALITY: THE NATURE OF INFORMATION AT THE TURN OF THE MILLENNIUM | By ALBERT BORGMANN University of Chicago Press | 274 pages | $22 hardcover

  • Finding it in the culture of books

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