THE CULT OF INFORMATION: The Folklore of Computers and the True Art of Thinking by Theodore Roszak

THE CULT OF INFORMATION: The Folklore of Computers and the True Art of Thinking

Email this review


UNIVAC, the first computer to enter folklore, debuted in the 1952 presidential elections (unlike the networks, it correctly predicted an Eisenhower landslide). UNIVAC was a room-sized behemoth requiring special air-conditioned quarters; two generations later, the microchip has enabled computers to become so firmly ensconced in everyday American life that their purchase by students is required by many colleges. Roszak (The Making of a Counter Culture) shows just how far and how fast computers have come since UNIVAC. He rightly points out that the mystique surrounding computers seems to deny that they are really just electronic adding machines and Filing cabinets; and that their work of information processing, when it still remained in human hands, was the province of drudges: the Bob Cratchits and Agnes Gooches of this world. Roszak wonders: How did counting, sorting and fling ever get so glamorous? The answers have to do with information theory, which posits a link between how we think and how computers ""think."" Noise, redundance, and entropy are qualities of all communication; like us, computers (said Norbert Wiener, founder of cybernetics) ""are precisely parallel in their analogous efforts to control entropy through feedback."" Wiener was actually fearful of the impact of information technology upon human thought-processes--and so is Roszak. Unlike his excellent historical background and his cogent and useful definitions of such key terms as ""information"" and ""artificial intelligence,"" however, his mystique-destroying argument mostly boils down to sheer rhetoric. Can Roszak really mean it when he says that the liberal arts curriculum is founded on ""master ideas"" that ""are based on no information whatsovever""? (""Man is a rational animal,"" to give one of his ""master ideas,"" comes down to us from Porphyry, a conclusion the ancient philosopher drew from observed data; ""Jesus died for our sins,"" to cite another, is based on information given in a scriptural text.) Data and ideas are not the same thing, of course; neither are they--as Roszak seems to fear--somehow antagonistic. Surely information, as well as creative energy is necessary for academic excellence: that's why all colleges have libraries as well as classrooms. Lord Dunsany is said to have preferred the quill pen to the typewriter, but Roszak doesn't go that far: he wrote this book on a wordprocessor. He knows that his machine is only his drudge; but for some reason he is afraid that the rest of us are incapable of drawing that same conclusion.

Pub Date: May 28th, 1986
Publisher: Pantheon