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Holding On to Reality is a brilliant history of information, from its inception in the natural world to its role in the transformation of culture to the current Internet mania and is attendant assets and liabilities. Drawing on the history of ideas, the details of information technology, and the boundaries of the human condition, Borgmann illuminates the relationship between things and signs, between reality and information.
"[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
"A superb anecdotal analysis of information for a hype-addled age."—New Scientist
"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."—Margaret Wertheim, LA Weekly
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 bankis. 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."
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." 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." 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 Ile de France was
the Great Work of the medieval artisan."
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
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.
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
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. 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." 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
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." 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?
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.
Excerpted from Holding On to Reality
by Albert Borgmann
Copyright © 2003
by University of Chicago.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Introduction: Information vs. Reality
Pt. 1 Natural Information: Information about Reality
1 The Decline of Meaning and the Rise of Information
2 The Nature of Information
3 Ancestral Information
4 From Landmarks to Letters
5 The Rise of Literacy
Pt. 2 Cultural Information: Information for Reality
6 Producing Information: Writing and Structure
7 Producing Information: Measures and Grids
8 Realizing Information: Reading
9 Realizing Information: Playing
10 Realizing Information: Building
Pt. 3 Technological Information: Information as Reality
11 Elementary Measures
12 Basic Structures
13 Transparency and Control
14 Virtuality and Ambiguity
15 Fragility and Noise
Conclusion: Information and Reality