On the cusp of a revolution in information, in 1990, at a meeting of the German Informatics Society, Neil Postman spoke of “Informing Ourselves To Death." His premise was that we were inundated by information — to our detriment. After making the point that all of our efforts have gone towards creating more information and making it increasingly accessible, he opined that we simply could not handle the load.
As a consequence, our defenses against information glut have broken down; our information immune system is inoperable. We don’t know how to filter it out; we don’t know how to reduce it; we don’t know to use it.
To make things a little more concrete, he asks what problems we are solving by increasing the flow of information.
Or, let us come down to a more personal level: If you and your spouse are unhappy together, and end your marriage in divorce, will it happen because of a lack of information? If your children misbehave and bring shame to your family, does it happen because of a lack of information? If someone in your family has a mental breakdown, will it happen because of a lack of information?
In a technology mediated society, he reasons — well ahead of when others started to pick this up — that intelligent devices cannot give us some of the important elements of the human experience.
The computer cannot provide an organizing moral framework.
Postman reserves some stronger language for the techno-optimists that would try to convince us that our spiritually impoverished future is brighter when enhanced by technology.
As things stand now, the geniuses of computer technology will give us Star Wars, and tell us that is the answer to nuclear war. They will give us artificial intelligence, and tell us that this is the way to self-knowledge. They will give us instantaneous global communication, and tell us this is the way to mutual understanding. They will give us Virtual Reality and tell us this is the answer to spiritual poverty. But that is only the way of the technician, the fact-mongerer, the information junkie, and the technological idiot.
Postman was prescient as always.