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Issue Seven

Issue Seven: Religion Online & Techno-Spiritualism

Book Review by David Rieder <[email protected]>
Holding On to Reality:The Nature of Information at the Turn of the Millennium
By Albert Borgmann (1999); Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

As any rhetorician can tell you, the evocation of an exigency can go a long way in an argument. In the six-page introduction to his 1999 book, Holding on to Reality, Albert Borgmann evokes the exigency of millennium fears eight times in the form of an implicitly biblical allusion: "increasingly [technological information] is more of a flood ... a deluge that threatens to erode, suspend, and dissolve its predecessors" (2); "we sometimes feel like [we are] drowning in the flood we have loosed" (4); "information is flooding place and property with ambiguity" (5); and finally, "the farther reaches of reality and the cultural landmarks that used to lend it coherence are being swept off their foundations by information technology" (5). For Borgmann, technological information is threatening the semiotic balance between natural and cultural signs. For this reason, at the end of his introduction, he proposes the development of a theory and (more importantly) an ethics of information that will bring the "good life" back into balance, the natural and cultural into focus. Borgmann writes, "The symmetry of information and reality reaches its highest point in celebration when the ambiguities of signs and things complement and resolve each other" (228).

Borgmann's book is divided into three sections that correspond to the sign system of information to which I alluded above. The three types of signs in his system are the natural, the cultural, and the technological. He characterizes these types in the following ways: natural signs describe information about reality; cultural signs, information for reality; and technological signs, information as reality. For Borgmann, natural signs are the unproblematic foundation of the other two. At their center is an experience of the "symmetry of humanity and reality" which he connects to an almost forgotten time of hunting and gathering cultures. This symmetry is his semiotic Eden; the modern-day sophist, Kenneth Burke, would call it his originary anecdote.

Half way through the first section, Borgmann writes, "The ancestral environment is the ground state of information and reality . . . . It is reasonable to assume that the attunement of humanity to their original environment felt good" (24). These ancestral environments fostered an intimate relationship between signs and things, and, by extension, information and knowledge (26). In these ancestral spaces, the recognition of a sign meant instantaneous knowledge of its meaning. The problem is that this knowledge/recognition of natural signs is disappearing, a process that began in the modern age. Borgmann writes, "In the modern period, [the symmetry between signs and things] is thought to have split down the middle. The resulting division of mind and world seems to have given humans dominion over reality" (22). The difference between the ancestral and modern intellects is that the latter "is the capacity to retain information" (38). In other words, the modern intellect has disconnected itself from the ability to recognize the natural meanings of the world around it. Instead, it memorizes and catalogs. It is an instrumental reason that reaches its culmination in technological information.

The latter half of the first section follows a developmental history of early technologies. Borgmann devotes lengthy expositions to counting, writing, and, by extension, the growth of literacy. But, none of them seem original. Expositions like his can be found in a number of previously published books including J. David Bolter's Writing Space, George Kennedy's Comparative Rhetoric, and Paul Levinson's Soft Edge, to name a few. The most provocative moments in the first section are his conceptual explanations of his notion of natural signs.

At the beginning of the second section, Borgmann writes, "While natural information is about reality, cultural information is distinctively for the shaping of reality" (57). And as he explains, "Structure, of course, is crucial to information, and the search for structure is the quest for the secret of the nature of reference, the tie between signs and things" (59). This section is sub-divided into chapters on the production and realization of cultural information. In the chapters on production, Borgmann moves from the idea behind this last quote to an interesting description of the search for metaphysical structure - what he calls at one point the "dream of lawful structure" (63). But, in the end, this quest is confronted from every side by the experience of contingencies. Borgmann explains, "Though all of reality is structured all the way down, most of it is not structured all the way up" (74). For this reason, an "information gap" exists between the structural information science uncovers and the contingencies of everyday life: "the expressive faces and eloquent voices of people and things" (74). This "dialectic" between structure and contingency informs many of his discussions throughout the second section.

Borgmann writes, "Cultural information allows us to venture beyond the actual into the possible and to set down in letters, lines, or notes what otherwise would remained a remote or elusive possibility" (85). Productive, cultural information is a powerful way of filling in the gap between structure and contingency. In all kinds of forms, this mode of information sets the stage for a variety of activities. In other words, productive information allows for the realization of information. In the latter half of his second section, Borgmann highlights three activities whereby information is realized. These activities are readi ng, performing, and building.

Simply stated, his chapter on the activity of reading is uninspired, but his chapters on performing and building are interesting. In the chapter on performance, he focuses on music, its play and its reception. Since music seems universally practiced, and "music is nothing but structure" (93), Borgmann's interests in this section are related to the contingency of musical play and its connection to reality. At an inspired moment, he writes, "When you see swallows circle and dive to the strains of Mozart's [music], you notice a coincidence of power and grace . . . a serene suspension of wings and sounds above the troubled world" (103). In other words, when nature and culture meet in a moment of ancestral coincidence, Borgmann's ethics are realized.

The last section of his book moves through a series of detailed descriptions of various electroni c technologies. Beginning with the etymological origins of the electron and of electricity, he moves through lengthy expositions on the digital bit. From these "elementary measures," a section on basic structures includes an early history of computing and the conceptual importance of John Boole's system of logic. This section is well detailed and worth reading.

Later chapters in section three highlight the ways in which digital technologies are uniquely situated to transparently produce information as reality. In other words, technological information has the dubious honor of covering reality with a "lamentable palor" of virtual truths. His conservative arguments rise to a crescendo in a short section entitled "Virtual Fog" in which he writes, "In detaching facets of reality from their actual context and setting them afloat in cyberspace, information technology not only allows for trivialization and glamorization but also for the blurring of the line between fact and fiction" (192). I think the French sociologist, Jean Baudrillard, is much more provocative and eloquent about the implosive transvaluations of meaning high-tech societies are experiencing.

In the end, Borgmann's arguments are theological. The very last lines of his conclusion allude to a time when signs and things will realign and "our souls will be rocked in the bosom of Abraham" (233). Frankly, I thought his arguments boiled down to a concern with bandwidth. In fact, his concern over the flood to which technological signs are contributing seems off the mark. As Gilles Deleuze, the French philosopher of flow and bandwidth, states in a lecture from '72, "Society is most afraid of one thing: the deluge" [1] . Arguably, Borgmann's "techno' flood argument" is incidental to the wider societal concerns over uncontrolled flows. For one thing, the deluge can be anything: striking workers, uncensored ideas, or new technologies. Changes in the intensity of flows that inform a society, that is, changes in our understandings of reality, can be frightening. In this book, Borgmann's lengthy expositions on the historical development of technology boil down to an ethics of restraint. He wants to limit the bandwidth that digital technologies have opened up for us in order to return to a time and place when the flow of information seemed manageable.

Ironically, Borgmann's arguments are backed by a virtual flood of information on the history of information technologies; there is a lot more to this book than I fit into this review. Some sections are well worth reading (I alluded to a couple above). But, for this reviewer, his disdain towards information technologies detracts from the overall read.

See paragraph 3 of the English translation of Deleuze's lecture at the following URL:

You can help support Cybersociology by purchasing this and other books by Albert Borgmann through the links below:

Holding on to Reality : The Nature of Information at the Turn of the Millennium
Hardcover / Published April 1999 UK/EU Order - or - USA/Rest of World

Crossing the Postmodern Divide
Paperback / Published April 1993 UK/EU Order - or - USA/Rest of World

Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life : A Philosophical Inquiry
Paperback / Published March 1987 UK/EU Order - or - USA/Rest of World


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Issue Seven