By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
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