The Human Consequences of the Information Revolution
James H Billington, Librarian of Congress
What are and will likely be the human consequences of the current electronic information revolution? I chose this subject not because I have a clear answer, but because it is the one question that underlies almost every important decision I have to make in administering the world’s largest and most varied supply of stored knowledge. And, like ancient Alexandria (for which the Greek name in some of the early texts was “hospital of the soul”), libraries in this age really are much more important and central to human problems than is perhaps often realised.
I turn to this question of human impact also because it is almost never pursued with very much depth in the extraordinary explosion of articles about the new digital universe. Instead of serious scientific analysis and humanistic dialogue about our present situation, we are subjected to a rather cacophonous talkathon in which utopian futurists and cranky luddites conduct rival monologues simultaneously. All talk and no listening – one side fantasising about the future, the other about the past; both sides tending at present to raise their voices rather than improve their arguments.
Alas, confusion is often compounded by the would-be defenders of the broader public interest: those who are alleged to be arbiters of disinterested dialogue in the non-profit government and foundation worlds. Their well-meaning but often hopelessly bureaucratised and insufferably pretentious committees, commissions, colloquia and reports generally have no clear audience and are often weighed down with acronyms and cyberbabble that make them altogether unintelligible for those familiar with common English. The net effect is often simply to add more unfocused chatter to the chat room. Many of those who talk about all of this have been, I fear, too seduced by the syndrome they are describing to be authentically diagnostic – and at the same time too anaesthetised by the materialistic utilitarianism underlying the entire discussion to introduce any authentically moral dimension or even serious social questioning.
As a result, the view of the human significance of the digital revolution that tends to prevail today among ordinary people in North America and, I suspect, increasingly in Western Europe, is pretty much that of the economically interested parties: the information industries which are creating it, the commercial marketers who are counting on it, and the growing number of stockholders who are investing in it. The Internet is generally, if not very enthusiastically, viewed as a good thing for getting other good things; as something vaguely important for our children that will in some unspecified way bring people closer together, since the market place is global and skilled people in countries like India, Russia and China seem to be following Japan in going digital.
A disturbing aspect of this vague consensus viewpoint needs to be noted at the outset if we are genuinely concerned about the dynamism, and possibly even the future viability, of our democratic societies. There is neither strong popular attachment to, nor deep conviction about, this technological phenomenon that is having such a rapid and transformative effect on our societies and, in many ways, on our individual lives and even on the functioning of our brains.
One of the most fascinating questions about the revolution in information technology is one that I shall not pursue tonight: how will it interact with the parallel revolution in biotechnology? The ultimate information for the information age is that which has now been mapped in the genome project. But it may be that this information is more akin to music, which sequences sounds in time, than it is to cartography, which maps things in space. The pervasive new modes of electronic communication will certainly produce physiological changes inside the human brain. Even if they do not ultimately move beyond the present flight from wired to wireless on to direct intercommunication between brain implants. Faced with both that prospect and the desire to control if not censor the unprocessed sewage flooding the Internet, we could produce a dystopia in which we have simultaneously opened up our brain and closed our minds. But that is, as I say, not what I want to talk about tonight.
Citizens of advanced democratic societies seem to be giving their unenthusiastic assent to the unprecedented propaganda-hype that the global mega-media have unleashed on- and off-line about the cornucopia of human satisfactions that the new electronics will bring. People may have passively accepted the desirability of what they have been told is technologically inevitable. But popular acceptance – in America at least – is far more provisional than is often realised, since it is almost totally dependent on people continuing to believe that they will receive continuing growing benefits from a continuously growing global economy. American elections now are almost entirely focused on whose policies and personalities can best assure ever more material benefits to ever more people. But few people bother to vote – and no one is being prepared for a likely deflation, let alone any serious puncture, in this fragile bubble of electronic-borne prosperity.
Because the overstated promises of the digital revolution are made in terms of things rather than people, the digital revolution could, ironically, end up becoming an unintended instrument of assisted suicide for the very type of open and free society that it claims to exemplify. Democratic freedom having prevailed in the late 20th century over totalitarian tyranny where the end justified the means may find itself subtly transformed into a society where the means become ends; things are valued more than people. To cite Oliver Goldsmith
“Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey where wealth accumulates and men decay”
or to use the language of cyberspeak, the world will become hominized (that is to say, brought under human control) but at the same time – to use the older language – dehumanized. We will have discovered too late that there really was no virtue in virtual reality.
The human result would probably be not so much the oft-pronounced Decline and Fall of the Western World or the oft-prophesied end of the world itself, but rather the terminal decay of Judaeo-Christian civilisation – and perhaps of the entire line of prophetic monotheisms, if we cannot break the inertia of our continued ignorance of, and reflexive antipathy towards, Islam. Our computerised, robotic world may not see the end coming because it will come from within by rot rather than from without by barbarians, rogue states or some inevitable clash of civilisations. The principal agent of this kind of decay will not be some Genghis Khan with a computer, nor yet some aged Faust consciously dealing with the devil in his study, but the unreflective, youthful folk heroes of our time who are in love with their own creations: our Frankensteins in Calvin Kleins.
Now this is, of course, too harsh and premature a judgement. Yet some such verbal shocks seem in order for the leaders of the virtual world if only to get us, their followers, ready for the bigger blows that tend to come in the real world to societies that too long remain silent and complicit in unacknowledged arrogance. There is very little humanistic thinking let alone major philanthropic activity among the young leaders of either television or the computer – and little consolation to be found in the emerging merger of Hollywood and Silicon valley into Silliwood. The mega-media have become purveyors of value-free living in which happiness is defined by things rather than people; and culture by style rather than substance. In the inevitable lifestyle sections of today’s media, one style is a good as another and one-after-another is best of all. Given the future job uncertainties in today’s merger-minded and multi-medial conglomerates, a cultural critic currently drinking from one spigot may not wish to be too hard on another spigot from which he himself may soon have to drink.
Part of our inability to focus on the human consequences of the computer-driven information age comes from always describing this new mode of communication as a revolution or a total break with the past. It is, in fact, only the culmination of an electronic multimedial onslaught that has been going on throughout the past century – cinema, radio, television, the Internet. Many of the difficulties of the Internet derive precisely from the fact that it has been so far largely replicating the negative features of television rather than developing the positive possibilities that are in its own distinctive nature. Television is essentially a creation and servant of commercial marketing that packages entertainment and cultivates a certain passive spectatorism. So far, the Internet has done pretty much the same – failing either to develop its inherent interactivity or to cultivate the serious trains of thought required by the search process– relying instead on the bumper-car of emotions that television generally provides us. If the mouse is used as mindlessly as the zapper, the capacity to generate creativity online is altogether missed.
Like television, the Internet has also tended to promote human isolation. Going to a theatre, a museum, or a library is, in some sense, a social act – as is shopping at the neighbourhood store or even in a shopping mall. Playing games, watching entertainment, and shopping online is an inherently lonely activity that feeds the arrogant illusion that one can get everything one needs simply from a machine without any live human intermediaries. Therefore, like television, the Internet has tended to devalue community and human interaction as an important part of life and learning.
Even more than television, the Internet is present-minded and destructive of memory. Information has become infotainment, data is constantly updated, previous drafts are erased on word processors, and the average life of a web-site is something less than three months. The explosion of electronic information tends to undermine, moreover, any sense of perspective over time just as the shortened attention span of television destroys the longer perspective once provided by documentaries. At the same time, the speed and violence of addictive video games shortens the attention span even more than does the pressure for advertising interruptions on television.
Young people are conditioned to motion without memory, which is one of the clinical definitions of insanity. There may not be enough Ritalin available to deal with the massive attention deficit disorder that seems likely to develop in the next generation of online game addicts. They are growing up with less and less knowledge of the past either curricularly through the vanishing subject of historical study or experientially through the simple matter of taking time to listen to first hand stories from parents, uncles, neighbours or teachers. The lady at Wal-Mart can direct you to the aisle you are looking for but not to the local history and lore that you could have learned about from the long-time custodian of the now defunct neighbourhood store.
The Internet is a game without a story – bringing to an end the long evolutionary process of subverting and inverting America’s puritan origins based on a Biblical story that didn’t allow much time for games. The entrepreneurial giants of the digital world have already made so much money, that their end is not any more so much making more of it as winning the game of imperial acquisitions and new markets. Even non-stockholding followers become involved in the game through the media’s fixation on business news which is largely replacing almost every other kind on television as well as on the Internet. The classic Great Game of imperialism is being played in a new way without our realising it as the Internet overtakes television as the main vehicle for what can only be described as the cultural imperialism of the advanced market democracies.
This could be just as psychologically damaging as the industrial-based and militarily supported imperialism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Because this new cultural imperialism deeply affects the two things most valued by most human beings and particularly important to those who live in the societies being in effect intellectually colonised by the new electronic culture: the two great elements of cement in most societies – language and religion.
Language, of course, is the basic vehicle of human community as well as human communication. There were roughly 6,000 languages seriously spoken on this planet at the beginning of the 20th century. It will not be long into the 21st century until there will be probably only 600 left. The erosion of linguistic and cultural diversity is a less recognised but no less serious process than the loss of biodiversity. The new global audiovisual marketing culture is threatening to move the world with accelerating speed towards the mono-linguistic pidgin-English of computer programmers and air traffic controllers. Far from worrying about this mono-linguism, troubadours of the new culture often rejoice in the prospect of a streamlined basic English becoming not just a lingua-franca but a vehicle for genuine human brotherhood. There seems to be little real concern that such a development would cut us off, not just from the billions who speak other languages, but also from any real understanding of the English literary and historical heritage. Once again, motion over memory, efficient means becoming a dehumanising end.
Even more serious than the unrecognised erosion of the languages of others is the offence that the aggressive new electronic culture threatens to present to the religious base of other cultures. Many of the most transformative political events of the late 20th century – and the ones most totally unexpected by the academic and governmental analysts of the West – have their roots in religion: the Islamic revolution in Iran, the rapid serial implosion of European Communism beginning with the Catholic-based Solidarity Movement in Poland, and the rise of the religious right and subsequent conservative movement of the political centre of gravity in the United States.
None of these three transformative phenomena was either seriously anticipated in advance or has been satisfactorily explained in retrospect by the massive computers of the western world. Nor are they much help in explaining why the sophisticated liberation theology of the intellectuals never caught fire in Latin America whereas an unsophisticated Pentecostalism has. The elite academic-media-foundation complex in America is now essentially anti-clerical, as has more generally been the case in Europe. Not themselves believing for the most part in any religion, the professorate has difficulty seeing religion as a serious motivator of other people. Religion is, of course, studied – but in patronising and anthropological terms rather than as an active, historical force.
The American intellectual elite’s basic beliefs differ not simply from the predominant views of the Third World and indeed the Second, or former Communist world, but also from much, if not most, of the views of the American people who are, as a whole, one of the most deeply religious of any advanced industrial nation.
Recognition of the continued force of religion in the United States has recently been made in one of the more important and original historical books written in the last decade: The Fourth Great Awakening by Nobel Laureate economist Robert Fogel. He sees religion as an awakening, not an opiate, and the distinctive American phenomenon of a periodic mass return to religious roots as the basic engine driving all of the truly great changes in developing egalitarian democracy in America. His book is particularly impressive because he writes not as a believer but as a scientist. He sees the return of conservative values of the traditional family, respect for religious-based obligations, the search for non-material spiritual satisfaction, and the transfer from central and governmental to local and often religion-based solutions as elements of a new awakening that will take America forward.
At a Bicentennial conference last year, the Library of Congress assembled some of the world’s leading thinkers to look at the 21st century’s likely new intellectual frontiers – as the Library had done a century earlier at the St Louis World’s Fair. Prodded at the end to predict the likely future source of social change, the prevailing prediction was for more non-violent, religious-tinged movements often coming from below in the manner of Gandhi, the Civil Rights Movement of America, Solidarity in Poland – not the violent secular revolutions of the recent past or the clash of civilisations so widely feared at present.
The Library of Congress’ participation in the digital transformation of our time has been designed to counter the inertially negative tendencies to isolate individuals psychologically from their community and heritage and to exacerbate ethnic nationalistic and religious antagonisms that have reappeared in force at the end of the Cold War. There are, of course, no magic bullets for these big problems, and even though we are the world’s largest reservoir of knowledge and information closely related to the first branch of government in a super-power, we are only a very small stream feeding into a very large ocean.
We began to produce free digital versions of some of our collection a decade ago in the belief that we must use the new electronics to perpetuate and extend into this new era the principle of free access to knowledge so central to our public library system and to our knowledge-based democracy. We sensed the acceleration of memory loss particularly among young Americans – 98 per cent of whom now know who Snoop Doggy Dog and Beavis and Butthead are, whereas less than half of that percentage know almost any of the simple facts about their own history and culture. We launched in 1990 a five-year project called American Memory, whereby we tested, in forty-four very different institutions around the country, what the audience might be for the 210,000 of the most interesting and important primary documents and audiovisual materials which we provided free on CD-Roms from our vast collection of American history.
To our considerable surprise, we found the reception particularly warm within elementary and secondary schools particularly in the most deprived areas; the inner cities and the outer rural regions. The interactive and curiosity-stimulating capabilities of computers came alive for many inner city children. They were playing Nintendo games and were familiar with keyboards and screens, but were not reading, thinking, or climbing even onto the first step of the escalator of learning through which alone they could fully participate in a dynamic market democracy.
We then moved to the Internet in 1995 and embarked on a five-year public/private partnership to create a free online National Digital Library of 5 million of the most interesting and important primary documents of American history and culture. This represented a massive transfer of national treasures to local public schools and libraries all over America. We also began a series of summer institutes to train a cadre of teachers and librarians to seed local communities throughout America with enthusiasm and expertise for integrating new electronic versions of material found in research libraries, archives and repositories with the old books found in local libraries and classrooms all over America. We were trying to overcome the isolating tendency of the computer by providing them with positive, dependable content for classrooms that were rapidly becoming wired up – trying to rehumanise, in effect, the humanistic material that we were selecting at our end by helping local teachers and librarians provide better human interaction with students at the other end.
We were trying to provide stimulus to learning rather than just more information – mindful of Yeats’ saying that “an education is not the filling of a bucket but the lighting of a fire.” And we have become even more incendiary with the new, even more user-friendly website which we unveiled on our 200th birthday on April 24 of this year. This web site, <www.americaslibrary.gov> is designed specifically for young children and for the promotion of intergenerational dialogue and story telling within families and communities. It offers scavenger hunts as an introduction to searching, a virtual trip around America in past ages as an introduction to history and geography, and has already received 10 million hits despite having a very small number of images online – adding to the 4 million hits we receive every day on our basic web site – <www .loc.gov>.
The Advertising Council has mounted its first ever pro bono national advertising campaign on behalf of a library programme to promote the use of this new web site.
Finally, the Library is taking the first steps to move from a National Digital Library towards a global online library, thanks to a special grant from Congress two years ago to create a binational digitisation project with Russia (Meeting of the Frontiers), tracing the parallel experiences of Russia expanding to the East and America to the West. We have signed, more recently, a potentially even more expansive and ambitious agreement with Spain to digitise their fabulous and hitherto very little seen primary materials on the history of Hispanic America.
I return to the question of the likely future human consequences of the coming flood of global networking. As a historian, I look for past analogies and find the best one not in Gutenberg, which spread printing relatively gradually to a still restricted audience, but in the first instant communications revolution of the 1840’s: the birth of telegraphy, the high speed mass printing press and the railroad.
The main human result then was not the better international understanding which sunny optimists predicted, but rather a rapid, serial convulsion of violent nationalistic upheavals in 1848. These revolutions all over Europe were totally unexpected and have remained largely unexplained by historians – least of all by Marxists who are stuck with Karl Marx’s wildly inaccurate statement in the Communist Manifesto, printed just two weeks before the nationalist outbreak, that workers were rallying to international rather than national banners.
The sudden appearance of instant transborder communication shook up a continental Europe that had been remarkably stable east of the Rhine after Napoleon’s defeat. The three Emperors of the Holy Alliance were sometimes even described as three parts of a new Holy Trinity: a Catholic Hapsberg, a Protestant Hohenzollern and an Orthodox Romanov. Each was supported by a French-speaking aristocracy, by German-speaking bureaucracies, and by a thin veneer of Latin-speaking academicians.
All this seeming stability was suddenly broken up by romantic upheavals led or inspired by totally impractical poets: Lamartine in France, Mickiewicz in Poland, Petofi in Hungary, Shevchenko in Ukraine. Opera houses, not normally thought of as political rallying points, were the only places where more than twenty people were allowed to congregate publicly and provided the mis-en-scène for most of the many political assassinations The purest hero of 1848, Giuseppe Garibaldi, made histrionic entries and exits all over Italy rather in the manner of a heroic Verdian tenor. Indeed one of the best of these tenors, Lorenzo Salvi, had been Garibaldi’s room-mate in Staten Island.
Far from being harbingers of freedom, these unsuccessful revolutions in 1848 helped unwittingly create even more centralised and intrusive national states – the Germany of Bismarck rather than Heine, the Italy of Cavour rather than Garibaldi, and a new type of democratic demagogue in Napoleon III. He was the first political leader anywhere to be elected by universal male suffrage and to rule by style and symbol and the co-optation of every idea in sight without believing in any of them. This kept him in power for twenty years, and the term imperialism was invented to describe his distractive foreign adventures from the Crimea to Mexico.
Lenin later described political imperialism as “the last stage of capitalism”. And many in the non-western world now seem to see the rapid spread of the Internet as the last stage of imperialism. There are many signs now of anti-westernism bubbling up under the surface globalism which has been embraced only by tiny cosmopolitan elites in many of these countries. Authoritarian nationalism and sub-national ethnic tribalism are reasserting themselves, and anti-western passions are rising beneath surface changes in China and Russia.
Every people has a story to tell, and the basic stories of the great religions are the most enduring and fundamental. The Biblical story is at the base of America’s own culture. The first book every published in England’s American colonies was a rhymed version of the Book of Psalms that was regularly sung in Puritan worship. Our first President suggested, in his two great farewell addresses, first to the Continental Army and then to the nation, that our type of system would not survive without a moral people, and that morality would not survive very long without religion.
Pluralism, which in America historically assumed a plurality of convictions, has often been replaced in our elite culture by a monism of indifference. A nation that has forgotten the reservoir of prayer and hope built into its own founding will have difficulty understanding (let alone dealing responsibly with) the resurgence of religion and its increased role in the Islamic world, the Hindu world, or even the Eastern Christian world. If we do not learn to listen to other people when they are whispering prayers in their sanctuaries, we may have to meet them later when they are howling war cries on a battlefield.
My basic message today is never trust anyone with a computer who does not also read books and listen to stories. We have called our new website for families and young people America’s Story. And we are beginning now to work with other nations to put their own stories into the new global on-line library of primary materials so that the often intrusive marketing of western things on-line, is not seen as a threat to the basic identify of non-western peoples.
Librarians will be more needed than ever before as objective knowledge navigators amidst the sea of illiterate chatter, untreated sewage, and undependable information and infotainment that is increasingly inundating the Internet. Libraries will be needed to assure free public access for those who would otherwise be left out by the digital divide and also to those who might otherwise never learn to work both with new information and with old books. Libraries, like America itself, add the new without subtracting the old.
Properly used, the Internet will help both scientifically to solve common problems shared by widely dispersed groups in fields like medicine and the environment and, at the same time, humanistically to preserve and share on-line the primary documents that express the distinctive cultural identities of different peoples.
An old American Indian came up to me after a speech I gave in Nebraska to librarians of the Great Plains States in which I described librarians as gatekeepers to knowledge in the information age. He told me that, even before the culture of the book came to America, the oldest members of the tribe preserved the collective memory of a people the way librarians later did. “We did not call him a gatekeeper,” he gently explained, “we called him the dreamkeeper.”
One of the most imaginative of the many uses that teachers across the country have been making of our on-line American Memory materials is to ask students to use them to reconstruct not just the accomplishments but the dreams – first of earlier Americans and then of some other people in some other place. We must preserve the dreams of all our yesterdays to understand better the dreams of others today.
Dreams are conveyed in language laid out in the ordered sequences that make up stories and are still largely preserved in books. Electronic technology must be integrated into the world of books – new technology linked with old memories and old values. Above all, there must always be human intermediaries on the spot (teachers, librarians – local dreamkeepers) who can direct users back to books as they seek answers to the questions raised by electronic materials.
Books are and will remain our principal guardians of memory: of the anguish and aspirations as well as the achievements of those who have gone before. Mute witnesses from the past are often better guides in life than talking heads in the present. In our dialogues with other living people, there are always games going on – politics, psychodrama, showmanship, who can talk the fastest. But, alone with a book, the only limit is one’s own imagination. Boundaries are not set by someone else’s picture on a television screen; thoughts are not drowned out by someone else’s sounds on a boom box.
Books convince, they do not coerce. Libraries are temples of pluralism. Books that disagree with each other sit peacefully together on the shelves just as quarrelling opponents sit peacefully next to each other in reading rooms. They add something new without discarding the old. The pursuit of truth helps keep us from the pursuit of each other.
Books are islands of coherence which put things together. Every book is both the product of a fellow human being with whom one has something in common and the expression of some other unique person writing in a different time and place under unrepeatable circumstances. Unlike the teacher who explains or the librarian who labels, a book itself gives no final answers. It gives rise only to better questions. It beckons us to both mastery and mystery. It challenges the reader both to master enough of the subject to understand the created object, and at the same time, to sense something of the mystery of its creation – and perhaps ultimately of creation itself.
Two important recent books worry intelligently about the human dangers of over-reliance on the computer. Gene Rochlin’s Trapped in the Net sees the Internet spreading authority everywhere but localising responsibility nowhere. Derek de Kerckhove’s The Skin of Culture warns that violence by a few may basically shape our future because of the insensitivity of the many.
Kerckhove suggests, however, that, in the future, the Internet may relieve books of their more trivial recent functions. Books then might even recapture some of the sacred character that they originally had and the mythic language which is increasingly needed to describe the surreal world that we are creating by our servitude to virtual reality. He is hopeful about the future – as was Father Walter Ong in his path-breaking study of the early 60s: The Presence of the Word. Ong wrote then that “Hope is the difference between information encoded in machines and real knowledge embedded in the consciousness of man”. Deep knowledge, like simple speech, is shared – as Buber put it – the “I-thou” rather than the “me-it.” Ong re-phrased Descartes to say “I speak because I hope in others”.
These writers tend to suggest that only artists can really predict the future, so I end by reading from two poets: first T S Eliot, and not just his familiar lament, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” I cite instead his prophetic images in Burnt Norton that somehow suggest that a mix of blood and electricity may yet redeem the petty materialism of the modern world that he had previously suggested was a wasteland.
The trilling wire in the blood
Sings below inveterate scars
And reconciles forgotten wars
We move above the moving tree
In light upon the figured leaf
And hear upon the sodden floor
Below, the boarhound and the boar
Pursue their pattern as before
But reconciled among the stars.
The second reading is from an unknown European priest writing for a non-existent Asian audience in an already dead language. Somehow these lines suggest to me that whether we at the Library of Congress and/or others in the global network of the future are able to find the funds, the mechanisms, and the willingness to celebrate foreign cultures and not just cultivate foreign customers – that, whether or not we in the West more broadly will be able better to understand other parts of the world, and other parts of the past – we will be ennobled by the effort.
When the Jesuit Order finally left China after the most deeply scholarly and most nearly successful effort in history to build a cultural bridge between that most ancient of Eastern cultures and the Christian West, they left behind as their last legacy a haunting epitaph,
ora pro omnibus
mirare e tace.”
“Move on voyager,
congratulate the dead,
console the living,
pray for everyone,
wonder and be silent.”
Wonder and silence – easier for dreamkeepers than for image-makers. A library in a home or a public place takes us out of our noisy, hurry-up, present-minded world into Keats’s world of “silence and slow time.” The culture of the book favours active minds over spectator passivity, putting things together rather than taking them apart.
For whatever the confusion in our minds and the profusion of our electronic information, things can still come together in a book – just as the left and right halves of the human brain come together in one human mind, and the hemispheres – East and West, North and South – come together in a single, fragile planet.