Holding On to Reality:

Understanding Information in the Technology Age

Professor and philosopher Albert Borgmann proposes a respectful balance between current technology and the way it interacts with society in his recent book, Holding on to Reality: The Nature of Information at the Turn of the Millennium. Like many technological theorists, Borgmann ponders, "the deeper question of whether the recent and imminent flood of information is good for anybody" (4). In response to this uncertainty, the author devises a theory and ethics of information with the intention of rectifying society's often-troubling relationship with science and technology. Borgmann's theory divides information into three distinct parts based on the way they affect reality - natural information illuminates reality, cultural information transforms reality, and technological information displaces reality. To understand these categories, and how they highlight key developments in information technology, it is important to know what the author means when using the term "information."

In Borgmann's theory, information is ordered around the relationship between a person, a sign, and a thing. A person uses his or her intelligence - both native and acquired mental ability - to place a framework of context around a messenger or signal, known as a sign, in order to understand the message, or thing, which is presented to them (38). To provide an illustration: Imagine yourself on the shore of your local beach. As you are putting down your towel, you notice a trail of deep marks in the sand, stretching a great distance down the shoreline. Since you have been to the beach before, you know that these marks are footprints. You also know that if these were old footprints, the tide would have washed them away. After a moment of thought, you interpret this trail to mean that other human beings are present farther along the beach. In this case, the sign (footprints) communicates to us the presence of a thing (humans). Since the recipient of the sign (you), has the intelligence from previous experience or education to know what footprints are and what happens to them, you are able to place the sign in its proper context, and understand the signal of footprints to mean the presence of human beings.

If we could not formulate a relationship between the footprints in the previous example and the presence of human beings, the footprints would be just another piece of formless matter and energy. The meanings we construct out of the signs and messages that we receive are important because they help us to make sense of our environments, identities, and realities. According to Borgmann's definition, when plants, animals, computers, or humans use their mental awareness to create a relationship between a person, a sign, and a thing, it is called information.

The most basic level of this relationship is found in natural information, or information about reality. This type of information uses signs that emerge from the natural environment to communicate a message. Most often, these signs take the form of outstanding focal landmarks, like mountains and rivers. The purpose, or message, of natural information is to serve as a means of orientation, or as an allusion to an environment more "distant in space, and remote in time" (1). Once these markers achieve their purpose as referents, they subtly dissolve once again into their present surroundings- a mountain used as a landmark for the lush valley beyond becomes a simple peak again, or the river leading to traditional hunting grounds becomes a source of drinking water.

Through a process of selection and disposal, ancestral civilizations chose which signs held greater significance than others. As the number of signs grew, and the challenge of recollection proved more and more cumbersome, a primitive numeracy was created to ease the burden of memory. The system of numerical record keeping advanced from the physical collection of tokens to a pictorial representation of tokens, suddenly making "reference, formerly implied in counting, explicit and distinct" (43). Now, a two-dimensional sign inscribed on a tablet could represent the same concept as a three-dimensional token. This development led to an alphabetic system of writing, and provided the transition between natural and cultural information. With the rise of written language and the spread of reading and writing, it became possible for humans to develop a new relationship between humanity and reality.

Literacy denotes the next level of information, known as cultural information, or information for reality. The purpose of cultural information is to create messages and signs that enhance reality, and the invention of writing and symbolic drawing allowed humans to propose helpful additions to their world. For the first time, humans could transcend the concrete world of actuality and consider the possibilities of another, better world. People created and considered large collections of musical scores, architectural plans, and book manuscripts in endless variation on paper.

Before this type of information could be truly experienced, humans had to wrest this knowledge from their reality and create it with their own hands. The process of converting these written ideas into something real is what Borgmann calls "realizing information" (85). Realizing information is often exciting for the architect, musician, or philosopher, but it can also be a dreadfully disappointing experience once it reaches a more general audience. Ultimately, the conveyor of information cannot control or anticipate the way his or her vision is received by other people once it is publicized. Just as the natural information provided by a river can mean the existence of food for one person and a means of transportation for another, the cultural information found in a minuet can be beautiful music to one person and noise to someone else. This, we find, is especially true in examples of technological information, or information as reality.

The third level of information, or technological information, is a combination of both natural and cultural information. This type of information attempts to displace the signs and messages of the cultural and natural environment in favor of its own, computer mediated reality. Using current computer systems, massive amounts of information are digitally compressed into small cells, or pixels. These digitized pieces of information are so dense and cover such a wide expanse of material that they provide the illusion of infinite knowledge and experience.

Humans place an unwarranted amount of faith in technological representations of reality, often failing to understand its limitations. Surface-level interfaces like Microsoft Windows or Netscape Communicator were created originally as a matter of practical convenience and yet, the ease with which an idea is produced in this interface can also become dangerously deceptive. The mysterious nature of technology, hidden in carefully nested boxes of information, allows us to forget that fallible humans created these machines. Error and misleading imprecision easily insinuate themselves into these seemingly flawless maps and models of information, and a smooth flow of faultless information is never to be realized (175). Conversely, technology's effortlessness conceals the complexity behind certain realizations. Concepts that were initially formed from careful calculations of difficult equations or a chain of reasoning can be grasped with an icon or a mouse click, quickly appropriated, and forgotten (176). Graphs and maps can be thoughtlessly reconstructed in seconds without a full grasp of what has just been formed. This simplicity makes it easy for our culture to take the diligent work of complicated discoveries for granted.

Modern technological information is riddled with issues regarding identity and human relationships to reality. Information draws its success through a leeching of the real and traditional cultures that created it. Compact discs, film, computers, and television often use technology to record or imitate reality, rivaling the actual experience. Computer interfaces are assembled to look like actual desktops, CDs reproduce the experience of listening to a band, and games are created to simulate fantastic action in actual environments. Often, cyberspace and similar technology can even appear to "envelop or supercede the actual world" (187).

Chat rooms and e-mail provide good examples of this phenomenon, allowing people to strip themselves of their tangible identities and let other personalities take precedence. Some will even claim that the subculture of Internet Chat removes all boundaries that physical identity establishes, granting greater access to personal identity and creating a heretofore-unrealized freedom. What this idea fails to recognize is that cyberspace manages merely to conceal identity issues, not solve them. Rather than granting enlightened respect to those of difference, these liberated cyberspace citizens simply ignore constraints of gender, social background, and racial heritage. Other problems of identity in cyber chats present themselves in the familiar stories regarding child abduction and molestation, identity fraud, and cyber-bullying in the form of flooding, spamming, and flaming. No one can escape the corporeality of their own bodies, and burrowing away into the false reality of the Internet and other technologies often hides the strengths and weaknesses of humanity.

Borgmann presents a comprehensive history of information as well as an in-depth examination of the difficulties presented by the expansion of technological information. However, he fails to present his readers with a solution for the dilemmas found in the clash between human identity and current technology. His answer seems to be that the world will eventually balance the disparities between information and reality, just as it dealt with numeracy and literacy in past generations. "With all its impending expansion, integration, organization, and innovation," Borgmann insists, "the information revolution, if it stays on its present trajectory, will devolve into an institution as helpful and necessary as the telephone, and dispensable as television" (215).
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