9.5 Theses about Technology

Last year, during the quincentennial of Martin Luther’s 95 theses and the Protestant Reformation, I drafted 9.5 theses about our present technological moment.

Since then, during a year which largely seemed to be about making the case for a digital reformation, I continued to refine these theses through discussions with colleagues, teaching, and writing.

Here are my 9.5 theses in their present form. I’d be happy for a disputation with anyone interested in one! You’re welcome to comment here or on any of the linked posts below.

1. Technology has been with us—and defining what it means to be a human—from the beginning. Technology had a significant role in human evolution, enabling us to become human and more human.

2. Technologies are neither inevitable nor neutral. We design and use them, creating affordances that enable and limit our agency. During this year of our tech backlash, we have been awakening to the responsibilities of both designers and users.

3. We are living through a unique and transformative moment in history. New digital and networked information and communication technologies, powered by autonomous and intelligent systems, are profoundly and irrevocably changing our lives and world.

4. Attention management is the greatest challenge facing us individually and culturally. We need to upgrade our formative technologies along with our material technologies. This includes cultivating active and receptive forms of attention as well as new practical wisdom and formative practices. Digital withdrawal is not an option.

5. There is a new digital dimension to reality, blending with and enhancing our physical lives and world.

6. Our lives are characterized by a digital device paradigm. We interact with surface layers of technology supported by invisible substructures and surrounding environments of surveillance.

7. New technologies create new asymmetries of power and social inequities—digital divides related to access, literacy, and wisdom.

8. We are digitally naïve. Individually and collectively, we need to reflect on how we are shaping our technologies, how they are shaping us, and close the current ethical gap between our intentions and actions.

9. There is cause for hope for our technological future. To move beyond naïve optimism, we need greater narratives that look beyond utopian and dystopian visions and are truly apocalyptic.

9.5. Innovation should be balanced with curation, and human creation should be constrained. This is something of a half-thesis, because appropriate balance and limits are ambiguous.

M.M.XVIII

Images of the Library

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to hear Tony Ageh, Chief Digital Officer at the New York Public Library, speak at an event hosted by the Seattle Public Library. In addition to sharing what he has learned in his various roles leading the digital transformation of organizations, Tony provided a compelling definition of what a library is as well as a helpful summary of key challenges that characterize our digital age.

When we think of what a library is, the most common images that come to mind are books and buildings. These can be limiting images. Physical books remain important, but they are not the sole source of information. And buildings are finite environments that are dwarfed by the our seemingly infinite information environment.

But these two images are much more meaningful. The book signifies information, and the collection of them by a library manifests the intention to provide equitable access to information. In Tony’s words, this is how a library uniquely alleviates systemic inequality. The building signifies community: the library is a place for the formation of a community. This is a safe and trustworthy place because in it librarians mediate information—cultivating attention and agency—for members of their community.

When these two dominant images of the library—and all that they signify—are brought together, we recall the library’s role in the information process: in selection, mediation, and formation.

Tony identified four major challenges facing the digital transformation of libraries, which he calls “the four agents of the digital apocalypse”:

  1. obsolesce (planned or not), which complicates immediate and long-term access to information;
  2. mass surveillance (a characteristic of the digital device paradigm);
  3. obfuscation or lack of transparency (which is intensified with the inexplicability of the newest AI technologies);
  4. ambivalence—or, more precisely, apathy.

The last challenge, apathy, is perhaps the most important. Apathy—not distraction—is the opposite of attention. As James Williams points out in Stand Out of Our Light: Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy, the design of many digital technologies interferes with our attention at various levels: functionally (doing what we want to do), existentially (being who we want to be), and epistemologically (determining who we want to be). If we are distracted from doing the tasks we want to do, we are distracted from our goals and values. And if we are distracted from the things we care about, we may lose fundamental capacities such as reflection and intelligence that enable us to define these. Without attention, information can become deformation.

The library has been, is, and will continue to be an institution designed for human attention and agency. It includes material technologies, from print books to digital resources, but it also includes formative technologies or practices shaped by professional and community values.

The Antilibrary of Babel

The Argentine writer (and librarian) Jorge Luis Borges regularly returned to two epic images from antiquity in his work: the Tower of Babel, signifying chaos and fragmentation, and the Library of Alexandria, signifying order and unity. Many references to his short story “The Library of Babel” miss the interplay between these two images in the text, focusing on the concept of the library while missing the more powerful dynamic of the specter of Babel. In Borges’s story, the image of Babel negates the vision of a Library. “The Library of Babel” is not a vision of a universal library but rather of an antilibrary.

More appropriately, “The Library of Babel” has been described as a prophetic vision of the internet. In the story the universe is equated to an artificial entity, “the Library,” which is infinite, without a center, and contains everything. As the inhabitants attempt to understand their universe, they discover that the Library contains all possible books—books full of meaning, purpose, and justification. Their first impression is joy. But when the import of “everything” is grasped, deep depression follows. Everything means that the faithful catalogue and any true texts are overwhelmed by their negations: “thousands and thousands of false catalogues, a demonstration of the fallacy of these catalogues, a demonstration of the fallacy of the true catalogue,” and every possible permutation and distortion of every text.

So “The Library of Babel” could be reimagined as the “Internet of Babel”: “The world, which others call the Internet, is composed of physical stuff connected to an indefinite and seemingly infinite information and communication network …”

Continue reading the “Internet of Babel.”

The Four Information Revolutions

Luciano Floridi claims we are living through the fourth major revolution of the modern era. Like the three before it—Copernicus’s cosmological revolution, Darwin’s biological revolution, and Freud’s cognitive revolution—the information revolution is shedding “new light on who we are and how we are related to the world.”

Looking more broadly at information and human history, and considering the human revolutions that have occurred alongside natural evolution, Floridi’s fourth revolution can also be thought of as the fourth information revolution. The four revolutions are connected with information abstraction, agencies, artifacts, and automation.

I: Information Abstraction

About 100,000 years ago, humans developed the capacity for imaginative language—the ability to communicate more information (as well as misinformation and disinformation) about observed phenomena, others, unobserved phenomena, and imagined things.

Natural and instructional information weren’t new; genetic information is connected with the origin of life and hominins had been instructing each other in the use of lithic technologies for over 2.5 million years. But imaginative language revolutionized how humans functioned as information agents. With their ability to create new information consciously, and with their enhanced communication skills, humans could imagine and create plans, stories, and social systems.

II: Information Agencies

By 10,000 years ago, following the agricultural revolution, the earliest cities were established. The functioning of these cities depended on political, economic, and religious institutions that operated as information agencies—organizations responsible for rules, trade, and cultural narratives that structured and sustained civic life.

Imaginative language had made it possible to unite larger groups around shared beliefs and common practices, and new forms of collective action became possible. Humans migrated, hunted, and foraged for food, materials, and—especially—information. They domesticated animals and plants, cleared forests and fields, and then began creating artificial environments within natural ones. To manage these complex and future-oriented settlements, they created information agencies that aggregated individual agency to create a collective order.

III: Information Artifacts

Some 5,000 years ago, these information agencies developed written communication and information artifacts. To communicate within a large community and over time, political, economic, and cultural information needed to be fixed and independent of a living carrier. 

The creation of information artifacts created the need for information management, and systems such as archives and libraries were established for immediate and long-term access. These early information and communication technologies developed and grew around the world—from manuscript tablets, scrolls, and codices to print, electronic, and digital media—and they fueled discovery from antiquity through the modern scientific revolution and those that followed.

IV: Information Automation

Within the last 100 years, we created intelligent machines and automated information processing. Claude Shannon and Alan Turing provided the conceptual foundations for non-human computers in the 1930s, which were created in the following decades and networked together in the 1970s. Now, with new advances in artificial intelligence, we are only beginning to understand what human agency should look like in a world full of artificial agents.

The chief challenge of the information artifact revolution was information management. The most enduring solution was the technology of the library, which functions as a humane interface to information. Unlike the internet, the library depends on human involvement in the selection and mediation of information and privileges the cultivation of human agency.

The chief challenge of the current information revolution is the role of human attention and agency in an increasingly automated information process. While solutions are still emerging, one can imagine a solution or set of solutions comparable to the library—i.e., a humane interface that aligns intelligent systems with individual and collective intentions.

What Is Information? Some Notes Toward an Answer

Information is a word commonly—but imprecisely—used. The entry for “information” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy begins with the acknowledgement that the “detailed history of both the term ‘information’ and the various concepts that come with it is complex and for the larger part still has to be written.”

Philosopher of information Luciano Floridi points out that information has been a concept “in the background” for some time—“the Cinderella in the history of philosophy”—but that it is an “impoverished concept” worthy of much more attention:

To paraphrase Molière, Western philosophy has been speaking informationally without knowing it for twenty-five centuries. We have always relied on Cinderella working hard in the house of philosophy. It is time to acknowledge her great services, by designing the philosophy of our time to be properly conceptualized for our time.

Building on Floridi’s helpful map of the “conceptual labyrinth” of the meaning of information, I would like to present a definition of information as a process. Before doing so, it is important to understand how the meaning of the word has shifted over time and the different ways the word is used today.

Shifts in Meaning

In “Information: Notes Toward a Critical History,” John Durham Peters identifies four significant shifts in the meaning of the word. In its earliest classical Latin form, informatio, information meant the formation of an idea or an item of knowledge—an understanding that extends back at least to Classical Greek philosophy. In post-classical Latin (circa the fifth century), as informare, information took on the additional meaning of instruction or imparting knowledge.

The first significant shift Peters identifies is during the late middle ages, when interpreters of Aristotle used information more broadly to account for the order of the universe: material objects were shaped from within by the forms that in-formed them. In this sense, “information had to do … with the active shaping of the world and with the conferral of form on matter.”

The second shift, associated with British empiricism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, was a shift away from metaphysical forms related to the world at large toward the evidence of individual senses. The human mind, informed by sensations from the world, became the site of information. Information, Peters claims,“drifted from cosmos to consciousness … from structure to stuff, from form to substance, from intellectual order to sensory impulses.”

Peters’s third and fourth shifts occur with the emergence of the modern bureaucratic state in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and modern technologies in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. First the state, as the aggregator and organizer of quantifiable information, became the comprehensive knower and shaper of reality at a scale that was more like a god’s than a human being’s. Next, with new technologies information became a form of knowledge even more mathematical, efficient, abstracted, and aliened from individuals’ embodied lives. Thus, we are now required to acquire various information and digital literacies to understand how information and information technologies—and the entities that control them—are forming us.

Uses Today

Today, the word information is used in a few different ways. It can be used in a technical or quantitative sense, which is concerned with patterns of difference and the reduction of uncertainty. A second sense is close to the classical Latin informatio, to give form or shape to an idea. The third and most common use is closer to the post-classical Latin informare, to impart meaningful information or knowledge.

Arthur Peacocke brings together these three senses of information and adds a fourth. Information in the technical sense becomes shaped information, which is then conveyed as meaningful information. To complete this process, Peacocke adds the disclosure and reception of information. With this addition, Peacocke takes a step toward reintroducing the notion that information is for formation. He also helps us see information as a process: the selection, shaping, impartation, and reception of information.

Given our knowledge of genetics and information automation, it is worth noting that human agents needn’t be present throughout the whole information process. Information can be generated and transmitted without the presence of a creative, informing, or informed person.

The Human Process

But when we think about the distinctive human process of creating information, we can speak of a process that includes selection, communication, and formation.

This process begins with the discovery and selection of meaningful data. Then, as information agents, we communicate that content through language and information artifacts. If our intentions are realized, our mediated messages impact and form others.

Scholarly Trajectories

I am, primarily, an academic administrator. I enjoy my work very much, but it means that scholarly activities typically fall into the category of “other duties as not assigned.”

My earliest research focused on the history of books and libraries. But as my responsibilities and the digital age progressed, I became more interested in the future of libraries, the increasingly digital dimension of our lives and world, and ethical issues related to new information and communication technologies.

At present, I find my research interests developing in two different—but not entirely unrelated—directions.

One direction concerns the future of libraries: What is the role of this ancient institution in a digital information environment? Or, as McLuhan put the question back in the 1960s, what is the future of this “old figure in a new ground”?

The other direction concerns technology and ethics. Due to my sense of vocation and institutional context—i.e., leading and teaching at a faith-based university—my approach to this topic is theological. While a theological approach to technology is not unrelated to the future of the library, it does result in a divergent scholarly trajectory.

Earlier this year, with a couple of my colleagues, I started blogging at Patheos about technology and theology. The blog is called Digital Wisdom.

I’ve not grasped the art of blogging yet, but I’ve come to the realization that what I’d like post would be of potential interest to two distinct audiences. So I’ve set up this blog on my own site for posts related to library futures. I’ll continue to post more theologically oriented posts about information and technology at Digital Wisdom.