Conceptualizing our perceptions, and other odd jobs

A fellow at the United Nations with a head for figures calculated the other day that the paperwork of his establishment covers 700 million printed pages annually. This was counting the space required to record the 252 resolutions adopted by the UN assembly in 1982, plus all the speeches leading up to those resolutions, as well as the 29,000 hours of conferences leading up to the speeches.

In case you're not bowled over by the mega-number of pages, our statistician computed what the words add up to in weight. Around 27,000 tons.

''Great Gutenberg's folly!'' we can hear you cry, especially when we tell you that the cost of a single page of a UN speech totals $200 - a sum exceeding the annual per capita income of the 16 poorest member states.

Certainly the UN should not be singled out. Harold Morowitz, a professor at Yale, has cited other examples in noting the fluttering presence of quantum paper in our lives. Morowitz's law seems to read: The more paper, the less action. The police fill out a report on a crime - including the birth date of the victim - but, the professor protests, ''no attempt is made to solve the crime, apprehend the criminal, or locate the stolen goods.'' The paperwork becomes the ''police work,'' at least in his example.

Similarly, a committee meets to consider a grave problem, finally writes a report on its conclusions, and ''everybody regards issuance of the report as a way of dealing with the trouble,'' even though nobody reads it on the way to the file.

Of course, the UN printing presses and the scribbling policemen are merely fulfilling the prophecies of futurists, who have used up a few pulpy trees themselves to announce that the post-post-industrial world - if we haven't lost count of our ''posts'' - is about to turn from the business of producing goods to the business of disseminating information.

And, of course, paperwork already is as obsolete as the quill. The Information Industry, also known as the Knowledge Explosion, travels by microchip.

If the futurists are to be believed, we will all be hooked to computer terminals, earning our living by passing electronic notes to one another in a know-it-all (and produce-nothing) world, dedicated to stockpiling answers to questions nobody asked.

If Professor Morowitz thinks we confuse information with action now, just wait.

It sometimes seems as if our inventions have had the inadvertent effect of distancing and finally abstracting us from life. We began the century learning to visit unseen friends by telephone and to kill unseen enemies by long-distance artillery. The TV screen has made us experts at substituting the picture for the thing itself. Now the computer threatens to swallow up the green earth in its green screen, reducing everything - wars, hurricanes, hungry children - to a neat mathematical model, along with all the pied and textured beauty too.

Without quite realizing it, are we trading in the deed for the conceptualizing (as we say) of the deed, and the object for the description of the object - the ''packaging,'' the ''image''?

A cartoon in the Wall Street Journal says it all about how habituated we have become at dealing in the perceived rather than the actual. The chairman of the board sums it up for his perplexed subordinates about the table: ''Well, as a last-ditch measure, we could improve the corporate image by improving the product.''

Professor Morowitz is right to deplore the confusion, if not the derangement, of the intellect in all this. But the ultimate confusion is of the heart. One can reason as a secondhand experience; one cannot feel at one remove from life.

''How intensely people used to feel!'' the poet James Merrill has marveled - and mourned. But that was when our noses were in life, so to speak. It's hard for even the most caring person to feel intensely through 27,000 tons of speeches or all the dotted lines of a police report. And no doubt that's our real problem in this Age of Abstraction - to feel intensely, and not become extra-terrestrial beings on our own planet.

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