The final section of Borgmann‘s treatise on information and reality deals with the final type of information, technological. As with the previous sections, Borgmann begins by recounting a history of technological information, beginning with the discovery of electricity (via ambers) and magnetism, as well as the binary system of counting. Beginning with two as the “least number of signs needed to transmit any information” (p. 131) to the development of information theory and virtual reality.
In the discussion of technological information, Borgmann again demonstrates the value of contingency rather than structure in creating valuable information. In a related lesson that is very practical for information architecture, Borgmann touches on the limitations of information when human intelligence is the necessary receptor. Humans are limited in their capacity to remember numbers to seven (which started me thinking of how often seven is considered a sacred number within Christianity). While the potential to convey information via a computer chip may be growing at an exponential rate, we are still confined by the limitations of the end user. Too much information can be just as restrictive (and detrimental to the success of a website) as too little information.
This, we begin to see, is at the heart of Borgmann’s concerns about technological information for we have begun to replace human intelligence with computers as they “step forward as reality in their own right” (p. 144). The problem he sees facing the world at the start of the new millennium is virtual reality that is slowly replacing reality by removing us from reality’s contingencies. Whereas natural information, clearly Borgmann’s preferred information, is easily understood and yet non-intrusive since, you’ll remember, the signs we see from nature are the thing itself, technological information appears transparent but is actually extremely opaque. Most of the world runs on technology that very fun understand and is extremely hard to discern. Borgmann also worries about the permanence and comprehensiveness of technological information, seeming to lament the lack of wonder now that everything can be mapped precisely and digitally by Google Earth. With technological information, a one to one relationship between reality itself and the information about reality is possible and Borgmann worries that we will be misled by this virtual reality that in fact “provides no information about the world out there and is in this regard totally ambiguous” (p. 186). Because technological information, in Borgmann’s view, is completely parasitical, there is a danger that we will suffer the fate of hosts in nature – possibly even death.
While I agree with Borgmann that it is important to keep a balance between natural, cultural, and technological information, it is hard not to feel that Borgmann’s views are too black and white. Obviously, humans have made tradeoffs at each point in our development, leaving behind our skills in reading natures signs and losing much of the oral traditions of our ancestors. At each stage, however, we have also made great gains as well. Rather than seeing the potential benefits of technological information for human development – benefits that we are already seeing with advances such as mapping the human genome – Borgmann seems to have adopted the attitude of the Luddites, fearing that nothing good can come from technology.
Summary & Thoughts on Pt. III (Chapters 11-15) and the Conclusion
Borgmann, A. (1999). Holding on to reality: The nature of information at the turn of the millenium. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.