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Historicizing Information Talk
The following are materials for a talk delivered May 1, 2001, in the NEH "eHumanities" lecture series, Washington, DC.

  1. Personal Preface: From "New Historicism" to Information Culture
  2. Information Culture, "Knowledge Work," and the Cult of the New
  3. Whither Humanities?
  4. The Ethical Rationale: The Example of Albert Borgmann
  5. Personal Epilogue
  6. References

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Personal Preface: From "New Historicism" to Information Culture

 
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Information Culture, "Knowledge Work," and the Cult of the New

See also my Palinurus: The Academy and the Corporation—Teaching the Humanities in a Restructured World and The Laws of Cool: The Cultural Life of Information
 
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Postindustrial Economy and "Innovation"

* The restructuring imperative (process reengineering, quality control, downsizing, flat and decentralized structure, team work, just-in-time, lifelong learning, etc.) has been authorized by the dual ideology of "global competition" and the "new":

  • Michael Hammer & James Champy, Reengineering the Corporation: A Manifesto for Business Revolution (New York: Harper, 1993):
            
    When someone asks us for a quick definition of business reengineering, we say it means "starting over." It doesn't mean tinkering with what already exists or making incremental changes that leave basic structures intact" (p. 31).

  • Peter Drucker, Managing in Turbulent Times (New York: Harper & Row, 1980):
            Innovation means, first, the systematic sloughing off of yesterday. (p. 60)

  • Herman Bryant Maynard, Jr., and Susan E. Mehrtens, The Fourth Wave: Business in the 21st Century (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 1993):
            The First Wave of change, the agricultural revolution, has essentially ended and will not be of concern here. The Second Wave, coincidental with industrialization, has covered much of the Earth and continues to spread, while a new, postindustrial Third Wave is gathering force in the modern industrial nations. We see a Fourth Wave following close upon the Third. (pp. 5-6)

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Information is the Allegory of the Postindustrial "New"

* What is "new" about postindustrialism is that it is "knowledge work" as opposed to "matter work":

Thomas A. Stewart, Intellectual Capital: The New Wealth of Organizations (1997):

"We grew up in the Industrial Age. It is gone, supplanted by the Information Age. The economic world we are leaving was one whose main sources of wealth were physical. The things we bought and sold were, well, things; you could touch them, smell them, kick their tires, slam their doors and hear a satisfying thud. . . . In this new era, wealth is the product of knowledge. Knowledge and information–not just scientific knowledge, but news, advice, entertainment, communication, service–have become the economy's primary raw materials and its most important products. Knowledge is what we buy and sell. You can't smell it or touch it. . . . The capital assets that are needed to create wealth today are not land, not physical labor, not machine tools and factories: They are, instead, knowledge assets." (p. x)

(Other quotations on "knowledge work")

* Information technology allegorizes knowledge work:

(see "productivity paradox" of information technology and the symbolism of information technology)


* Thus, information technology is the allegory of the "new":

  • Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Community (1996)

    Thus, informationalism was linked to the expansion and rejuvenation of capitalism, as industrialism was linked to its constitution as a mode of production. (p. 19)

    Networks are the fundamental stuff of which new organizations are and will be made. And they are able to form and expand all over the main streets and back alleys of the global economy because of their reliance on the information power provided by the new technological paradigm. (p. 168)

  • Michael Dertouzos, What Will Be: How the New World of Information Will Change Our Lives (1998)

  • Bill Gates, The Road Ahead, rev. ed. (1996)

 


* The Ethos of "Creative Destruction"
  • Business Week, Special Double Issue on "The 21st Century Corporation"

    (From lead article on "The Creative Economy," 21-28 Aug. 2000: 76-82):
            Now the Industrial Economy is giving way to the Creative Economy, and corporations are at another crossroads. Attributes that made them ideal for the 20th century could cripple them in the 21st. So they will have to change, dramatically. The Darwinian struggle of daily business will be won by the people—and the organizations—that adapt most successfully to the new world that is unfolding (p. 78)

    ( From concluding Editorial, "The 21st Century Corporation": 278):
            Innovation builds profits . . . In an information economy, companies can gain an edge through new ideas and products that increase in value as more people use them. . . . But the emphasis is on "temporary." Knowledge-based products and networks can quickly disappear in a burst of Schumpeterian creative destruction. So corporations must innovate rapidly and continuously.

  • Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (1942)
           
    [excerpt from pp. 82-84]

  • Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Community (1996)

    "The 'spirit of informationalism' is the culture of 'creative destruction' accelerated to the speed of the optoelectronic circuits that process its signals. Schumpeter meets Weber in the cyberspace of the network enterprise" (p. 199)
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Nietzsche, CEO

* It is the"new economy" that fulfills Nietzsche's notion of a life-giving, creative "unhistorical forgetting" of history in The Use and Abuse of History (1874):

  • "By the word 'unhistorical' I mean the power, the art, of forgetting and of drawing a limited horizon round oneself." (p. 69)

  • " . . . we must know the right time to forget as well as the right time to remember, and instinctively see when it is necessary to feel historically and when unhistorically. . . . [W]e may hold the capacity of feeling (to a certain extent) unhistorically to be the more important and elemental, as providing the foundation of every sound and real growth, everything that is truly great and human. The unhistorical is like the surrounding atmosphere that can alone create life and in whose annihilation life itself disappears" (p. 8)

  • "The same life that needs forgetfulness sometimes needs its destruction. . . . The process is always dangerous, even for life; and the men or the times that serve life in this way, by judging and annihilating the past, are always dangerous to themselves and others." (p. 21)
 
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Whither the Humanities?

* Is a sense of history still necessary in information culture? And if so, what is the role of the humanities in fostering not just that sense of social and cultural history but also, more fundamentally, the sense of its necessity?

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The "Critical Thought" and "New Historicist" Rationales for the Humanities

The "Critical Thought" Rationale

Michael E. Hobart and Zachary S. Schiffman, Information Ages: Literacy, Numeracy, and the Computer Revolution (1998)

        "The fundamental fact of information's historicity liberates us from the conceit that ours is the information age. . . . It allows us to stand outside our contemporary information idiom, to see where it comes from, what it does, and how it shapes our thought. Likewise, the historical viewpoint enables us to step inside other idioms, to see how they functioned in their respective ages. It enables us to move between and among idioms in ways the idioms themselves do not permit. In so doing we see ourselves and our world from a critical perspective, from a vantage point that reveals an unprecedented opportunity for healing with historical thinking the historically rooted rift between the sciences and the humanities. . . ." (p. 264)



The New Historicist (Neo-Antiquarian/Neo-Materialist) Rationale

David Simpson, "Is Literary History the History of Everything? The Case for 'Antiquarian' History," SubStance no. 88 (1999): 14:

        "We cannot fetishize 'antiquarian' history as a solution to our problems, but it is a restraint upon despair or chaos. It is the more intellectually fertile the more resistant it remains to appropriation within monumental or critical histories. At a time when history in general is increasingly deemed irrelevant, the explicitly conservationist mission of antiquarian history may be our best hope for having something to work with should history ever again become a matter of urgent concern. . . .
        Faced with a generation inclined to believe in an end to history, the task of historians of all kinds is first of all one of preservation."

Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, "Materiality and Virtuality . . . and a History Lesson: The Rise and Fall of VRML" (2001):

"Such an approach, which would have something in common with what historian Peter Burke calls 'the history of events,' seemed ideally suited to reconciling the rapid pace of technical innovation that characterizes digital culture with the material and documentary records of the new medium—for these, it seemed to me, were being largely ignored by critics and theorists. Where, I wondered, were the Carlo Ginzburg's of the Web? . . . A history of events, coupled with the recognition of the materiality of so-called 'virtual' phenomena has the potential to radically redefine the nascent methodologies of new media studies and cultural informatics, focusing and intensifying the purview of these fields. Therefore . . . two self-styled 'polemical' assertions:

  1. Digital objects have material histories. . . .
  2. New media studies, as a field, has not yet shown that it appreciates the importance of material history. . . ."
 
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The Ethical Rationale: The Example of Albert Borgmann

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A Rousseauistic Fable: The Ancestral Environment of Information

* Presenting Borgmann to undergraduates: an episode at Lake Nakuru, Kenya (photos of Lake Nakuru: 1 | 2)

* Borgmann on the "ancestral environment" of information:

"Information about reality exhibits its pristine form in a natural setting. An expanse of smooth gravel is a sign that you are close to a river. Cottonwoods tell you where the river bank is. An assembly of twigs in a tree points to ospreys. The presence of ospreys shows that there are trout in the river. In the original economy of signs, one thing refers to another in a settled order of reference and presence. A gravel bar seen from a distance refers you to the river. It is a sign. When you have reached and begun to walk on the smooth and colored stones, the gravel has become present in its own right. It is a thing. And so with the trees, the nest, the raptors, and the fish." (p. 1)

"The ancestral environment is the ground state of information and reality. Human beings evolved in it, and so did their ability to read its signs." (p. 24)

* Borgmann's history of information:



The Historical Typology of Signs

Natural - Conventional - Technological

Assiniboin Medicine Sign
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Borgmann's Version of Modern Semiotic Theory


Intelligence Person Sign Thing Context

"The central structure of information is a relation of a sign, a thing, and a person: A PERSON is informed by a SIGN about some THING" (p. 18).

"INTELLIGENCE provided,a PERSON is informed by a SIGN about some THING within a certain CONTEXT." (p. 22)

* Important features of Borgmann's semiotics of information (and its implicit ethics of information):

  • Expansive:

    "An object is not a sign or a thing simply; it depends on the context whether it is one or the other. The context is proximally shaped by our playfulness, our needs, our standpoints. Our purposes, however, respond finally to the ultimate context, reality itself, whose cosmic or divine meaning is disclosed by things like landmarks. It is the consonance of cosmic context and focal things that makes the world semantically coherent and allows references to emerge and submerge." (p. 20)

  • Symmetrical:

    Intelligence - Person - Sign - Thing - Context

    "There is a pleasing symmetry to this relation. At its center is the sign, the fulcrum of the economy of information, and on it revolves the relation that mirrors the symmetry of humanity and reality, of intelligence and context, that undergirds every kind of epistemology and was first noted by Aristotle in his celebrated formula: 'The soul is somehow everything.' " (p. 22)

  • "Orderly" and "Coherent":

          "Natural signs disclose the more distant environment, yet they do not get in the way of things. A natural sign, having served as a point of reference, turns back into a thing. . . . Thus the ancestral environment, however and wherever humans moved in it, maintained a focal area of presence with a penumbra of signs referring to the wider world.
          The ancestral environment of the Salish was well-ordered as well as coherent. . . ." (p. 25)

    "Thus, we may conjecture, monumental signs contributed to an environment that at its normative best constituted a coherent, well-ordered, and eloquent world." (p. 34)

    " . . . the good life requires an adjustment among the three kinds of information and a balance of signs and things." (p. 6)

* Contrast the usual experience of contemporary information:
  • Reductive rather than expansive (concentration on the transmission of "bits," "packets," "pages" )

  • Asymmetrical (focus on the "virtual" realm of Person-Sign at the expense of Thing-Context)

  • Disorderly and Incoherent ("random access")
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The Moral: History and a Normative Sense of the Ethos of Information

* History of information as a non-essentialist foundation for an ethics of information

* "Cool" as the aesthetics of the ethical lag (and historical lag) between "new" technology and "old" technique.

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An Application: The "Ancestral Environment of Information" and Riven

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Personal Epilogue

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References
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  • Albert Borgmann, Holding On to Reality: The Nature Of Information at the Turn of the Millennium (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1999)

  • Business Week, Special Double Issue on "The 21st Century Corporation" with lead article titled "The Creative Economy," 21-28 Aug. 2000

  • Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Community, vol. 1 of The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture, 3 vols. (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1996-97)

  • Michael Dertouzos, What Will Be: How the New World of Information Will Change Our Lives (New York: HarperCollins, 1998)

  • Peter Drucker, Innovation and Entrepreneurship: Practice and Principles (New York: Harper & Row, 1985):

  • Michael Hammer & James Champy, Reengineering the Corporation: A Manifesto for Business Revolution (New York: Harper, 1993)

  • Bill Gates, The Road Ahead, rev. ed. (New York: Penguin, 1996)

  • Michael E. Hobart and Zachary S. Schiffman, Information Ages: Literacy, Numeracy, and the Computer Revolution (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1998)

  • Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, "Materiality and Virtuality . . . and a History Lesson: The Rise and Fall of VRML" (2001), manuscript, courtesy of the author

  • Alan Liu (profile)

  • Herman Bryant Maynard, Jr., and Susan E. Mehrtens, The Fourth Wave: Business in the 21st Century (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 1993)

  • John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, The Witch Doctors: Making Sense of the Management Gurus (New York: Random House, 1996)

  • Rand and Robyn Miller, Riven (computer game)

  • Friedrich Nietzsche, The Use and Abuse of History, trans. Adrian Collins (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1949)

  • Joseph A. Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (New York: Harper, 1975) [orig. pub. 1942]

  • David Simpson, "Is Literary History the History of Everything? The Case for 'Antiquarian' History," Substance no. 88 (1999): 5-16

  • Thomas A. Stewart, Intellectual Capital: The New Wealth of Organizations (New York: Doubleday, 1997)

 

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Home©2000, Alan Liu, English Dept., Univ. of California, Santa Barbara (e-mail)
 This page last revised 7/25/01

 

 

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