Holding On to Reality


"Borgmann moves from Plato to the Internet as he traces the fascinating development of information retrieval, storage and manipulation. Lucid and demanding, this study is a fascinating discussion of how information systems developed, and how their cultural and physical presence influences their ability to communicate their message."—Dave Howell, Daily Telegraph

"[Borgmann] has offered a stunningly clear definition of information in Holding On to Reality. . . . He leaves room for little argument, unless one wants to pose the now vogue objection: I guess it depends on what you mean by nothing."—Paul Bennett, Wired

"Holding On to Reality fulfills the author's description: It is indeed a history, a theory, and an ethics of technological information. It is written with great charm and skill. Required reading for the 21st century, Holding On to Reality looks beyond our current fascination with technological information and suggests how we can once again make room in our lives for mystery and grace."—Tom D'Evelyn, Providence Sunday Journal

Read an interview/dialogue with Albert Borgmann and N. Katherine Hayles, author of How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics.

The introduction to
Holding On to Reality
The Nature of Information at the Turn of the Millennium
by Albert Borgmann


Information vs. Reality

Information can illuminate, transform, or displace reality. When failing health or a power failure deprives you of information, the world closes in on you; it becomes dark and oppressive. Without information about reality, without reports and records, the reach of experience quickly trails off into the shadows of ignorance and forgetfulness.

In addition to the information that discloses what is distant in space and remote in time, there is information that allows us to transform reality and make it richer materially and morally. As a report is the paradigm of information about reality, so a recipe is the model of information for reality, instruction for making bread or wine or French onion soup. Similarly there are plans, scores, and constitutions, information for erecting buildings, making music, and ordering society.

Information about reality exhibits its pristine form in a natural setting. An expanse of smooth gravel is a sign that you are close to a river. Cottonwoods tell you where the river bank is. An assembly of twigs in a tree points to osprey. The presence of osprey shows that there are trout in the river. In the original economy of signs, one thing refers to another in a settled order of reference and presence. A gravel bar seen from a distance refers you to the river. It is a sign. When you have reached and begun to walk on the smooth and colored stones, the gravel has become present in its own right. It is a thing. And so with the trees, the nest, the raptor, and the fish.

While natural signs emerge from their environment and disappear in it again, conventional signs have an unnatural prominence and stability. Stones that are piled up in a cairn show a concentration and an angle of repose that set them apart from their surroundings. Conventional signs become truly distinctive vehicles of information when they not only stand out from nature the way cairns do, but are also detached from their environment and rendered mobile as first happened with notches on sticks and pebbles in pockets, and then with clay tokens in pouches, marks on clay tablets, letters on papyrus, and maps on parchment. Signs came to stand apart from things and at the origin of entirely new things. Covenants helped tribes to become nations, plans guided the construction of cathedrals, and scores enabled musicians to perform cantatas. An economy of cultural signs came to enrich the realm of natural signs.

This picture of a world that is perspicuous through natural information and prosperous through cultural information has never been more than a norm or a dream. It is certainly unrecognizable today when the paradigmatic carrier of information is neither a natural thing nor a cultural text, but a technological device, a stream of electrons conveying bits of information. In the succession of natural, cultural, and technological information, both of the succeeding kinds heighten the function of their predecessor and introduce a new function. Cultural information through records, reports, maps, and charts discloses reality much more widely and incisively than natural signs ever could have done. But cultural signs also and characteristically provide information for the reordering and enriching of reality. Likewise technological information lifts both the illumination and the transformation of reality to another level of lucidity and power. But it also introduces a new kind of information. To information about and for reality it adds information as reality. The paradigms of report and recipe are succeeded by the paradigm of the recording. The technological information on a compact disc is so detailed and controlled that it addresses us virtually as reality. What comes from a recording of a Bach cantata on a CD is not a report about the cantata nor a recipe-the score-for performing the cantata, it is in the common understanding music itself. Information through the power of technology steps forward as a rival of reality.

Today the three kinds of information are layered over one another in one place, grind against each other in a second place, and are heaved and folded up in a third. But clearly technological information is the most prominent layer of the contemporary cultural landscape, and increasingly it is more of a flood than a layer, a deluge that threatens to erode, suspend, and dissolve its predecessors.

As a consequence, our world abounds with information. You wake up to the news on the radio, read the paper for breakfast, are immersed in signs as you make your way to the office, sit down to fire up your computer-that really opens the floodgate of information-return home, turn on the television set and let waves of information wash over you until you go to bed. Especially in the form of advertising, information, as Brent Staples has remarked, "is rapidly expanding to fill every salable space-which is to say, every space that's empty." It has profaned even the sacred precinct of Yankee Stadium's baseball diamond. "Think now," says Staples, "of a world devoid of quiet and empty, where every surface shouts and every silence is filled."1

The roar of information continues to rise, fed by prodigious advances in information technology. When our culture assumes its official voice to pronounce summarily on the effect of the new information technology, it recites a well-worn formula, telling us that this technology will improve "the ways we live, learn, and work."2 On occasion this studied restraint yields to more enthusiastic claims, and we are told that information is "the wellspring of great fortunes, much as land was a century ago." It will change "the face of the American commercial landscape."3 And not to leave the issue in doubt, it has been said that fashioning information into intelligent artificial life "is the computer scientist's Great Work as surely as the building of Notre Dame cathedral on the Íle de France was the Great Work of the medieval artisan."4

This enthusiasm is more than a fancy of nerds. Politicians on the extreme right and the far left who can agree on next to nothing are united in their fervor and determination to push ahead with the information highway, and a Congress that habitually delays decisive action or passes crucial bills by narrow margins on 1 February 1996, approved a far-reaching reform of telecommunications by a majority of better than 90 percent in both houses.

Such enthusiasm is not unreasonable. Information technology has already produced an enormous increase in our freedom to select information. There are hundreds of television channels to choose from, millions of people to connect with, oceans of data to seine in an instant, virtual realities to explore and enjoy. The Internet particularly has given many people the liberty to escape the constraints of their age, gender, and race, of their shyness, plumpness, or homeliness, and to set their glamorous inner selves free and adrift on a World Wide Web. Professional people often remark with gratitude how electronic word processing has lowered or entirely removed the barrier they used to, or too often failed to, climb over to get to their writing chores. Theoretically keen and venturesome writers have celebrated the fall of the linear, hierarchical, and austere book and the rise of the flexible and associative multimedia hypertext.5

Information technology has become the engine of the postmodern economy. The modern economy was in danger of sclerosis from an excess of mass-produced goods and of chronic if not fatal poisoning due to the toxic conditions it had created in the environment. Information processing has opened up new niches and desires to be filled with customized goods and sophisticated services. It has helped to monitor and clean up the environment and to stretch or recycle resources. Information itself has become a valuable resource and a consumption good that lies easily on the wearied earth.

Yet with all these gains we sometimes feel like the sorcerer's apprentice, unable to contain the powers we have summoned and afraid of drowning in the flood we have loosed. And much like the apprentice we are unable to find the words that would restore calm and order, misspeaking ourselves when we try to get control of our situation.6 The words that come most easily to the lips of ready critics in our culture concern social justice. Will information technology create a new division between haves and have-nots or deepen the old division? This is surely a fair question. But it tends to divert us from the deeper question of whether the recent and imminent flood of information is good for anybody, rich or poor.

Processing our words with computers and drawing on vast reservoirs of information have rendered our prose prolix and shapeless. But information technology has dissolved more than the contours of our writing. It has infected our sense of identity with doubt and despair. Are my tangible traits just so much noise that distorts the true message of my self? Is my ethereal Internet self the genuine me, freed from the accidents of my place, class, and looks? Or is it a flimsy and truant version of what, for better or worse, I am actually and substantially? Not that the virtual versions of one's self are always the more sublime. In some people the preternatural openness of electronic space ignites firestorms of profanity and hostility that would be unthinkable in face-to-face meetings.

Information is flooding place and property with ambiguity as well. Shadows of doubt and dissatisfaction fall on the belongings that have served you well for decades when weekly a mailing of catalogs urges more elegant and convenient alternatives on you. The daily display of the excitement of the cities and the open spaces of the country makes the place where you live look drab and confined. Both the mooring of one's place and the identity of one's friends get confounded when frequent e-mail makes a distant and unknown person seem closer and more responsive than your friend next door, or when a colleague on the same floor remains cool and distant until he or she begins to open up and confide in you through e-mail.

The farther reaches of reality and the cultural landmarks that used to lend it coherence are being swept off their foundations by information technology. The contents of the National Gallery in London have been transformed into technological information and deposited on a compact disc so that now I can have "the whole National Gallery on my desk."7 Once digitized, an altar piece can easily be moved from the National Gallery CD to the virtual reality of the church in the Upper Rhine Valley where once it was the center of worship. But the virtual church itself is as free-floating a cultural item as the altar. Whatever is touched by information technology detaches itself from its foundation and retains a bond to its origin that is no more substantial than the Hope diamond's tie to the mine where it was found.

Yet within a global perspective it must seem self-indulgent to worry about these problems. Only about a quarter of the people in this country and 1 percent of the world's population are affluent enough to own a personal computer, have access to a computer network, and need to worry about e-mail flirtations and CD confusions. Yet the less affluent and less educated citizens of the United States are drenched with information as well. Television is the major channel saturating them with news and entertainment. Though they are more passively connected to information, their connection to reality too is profoundly transformed. The breathless glamour of television numbs their ability to confront and endure the gravity and pressure of reality. Information is the element of technological affluence that invades the culture of poor and premodern countries most quickly and easily. First come the transistor radios and then the television sets, the latter few in number but watched by many. If information is not the medium of an overwhelmingly new culture, it is at least the entering wedge that permits indigenous cultures to seep away and disappear.

For a millennium after the birth of Christ, so the Book of Revelation tells us, the devil was to be bound and thrown into a pit so "that he should deceive the nations no more.…And when the thousand years are expired, Satan shall be loosed out of his prison, and shall go out to deceive the nations." But at length, Satan is defeated, and the seer of Revelation sees "a new heaven and a new earth."8 All this failed to happen in the year 1000 and will not come to pass in the year 2000 either unless W. B. Yeats is right and we will see

That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?9

So far, however, the word millennium has retained the sense of both renewal and crisis. Social critics and information theorists are divided on whether information is the devil or the Second Coming. Surely the answer is not one or the other. Not to be mired in endless and inconclusive qualifications, however, we need both a theory and an ethics of information-a theory to illuminate the structure of information and an ethics to get the moral of its development. My hope is that the theory will lend perspicuity to the ethics, that the ethics will give the theory some force, and that, once we have understood information, we will see that the good life requires an adjustment among the three kinds of information and a balance of signs and things.

1. Brent Staples, "Life in the Information Age," New York Times, 7 July 1992.
2. Michael L. Dertouzos, "Communications, Computers, and Networks," Scientific American, September 1991, 62.
3. Bill Powell, "Eyes on the Future," Newsweek, 31 May 1993, 39.
4. Rudy Rucker, Exploring Cellular Automata (Sausalito, Cal.: Autodesk, 1989), 16.
5. Jay David Bolter, Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing (Hillsdale, N.J.: Erlbaum, 1991); Richard A. Lanham, The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).
6. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, "Der Zauberlehrling," in Goethes Werke (Hamburg: Wegner, 1948), 1: 276-79.
7. Bernard Sharratt, "Please Touch the Paintings," New York Times Book Review, 6 March 1994, 3.
8. Rev. 21:3, 7-8; 21:1. These and the following citations from the Bible are from the King James translation.
9. "The Second Coming," in The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (New York: Macmillan, 1959), 184-85.

Copyright notice:Excerpted from pages 1-6 of Holding On to Reality by Albert Borgmann, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©1999 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press.

Albert Borgmann
Holding On to Reality: The Nature of Information at the Turn of the Millennium
©1999, 288 pages, 18 figures
Cloth $22.00 ISBN: 0-226-06625-8
Paper $14.00 ISBN: 0-226-06623-1

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