Humanities vs. technology -- a widening rift?

Although 1984 is over, the shadow of George Orwell is still visible. Since C. P. Snow first pointed out the schism developing between students of the sciences and students of the humanities, the rift appears to have widened substantially. The rise of computer technology, in particular, appears to have further alienated many of those who look at the world through the lenses of philosophy, literature, and art. And this rift has created serious concern about the potential for dehumanization that current technologies are creating.

That, at least, was the general impression left by a number of noted humanists who gathered here for a day of intensive discussion at a symposium sponsored by the Institute for the Human Environment. Some 80 people gave up a wintry Saturday in the city's nearly deserted financial district to attend this gathering, titled ``Entering the Information Age: Big Brother or Utopia?''

The bleak vision of ``1984'' dominated much of the discussion.

Diane Wilde, a free-lance writer and head of a media study called ``1984 Watch,'' She reported that most coverage of the controversial book got the message wrong. Most articles on this topic treated the book as prophecy and stressed the fact that the real 1984 bears little resemblance to Orwell's fictional version. This superficially reassuring treatment flies in the face of the agreement among literary scholars that the novel was not meant as prophecy but as a warning against certain dangerous tendencies the novelist perceived in English society (and which had already come to full bloom in Soviet society) of his time -- tendencies that many of the assembled humanists saw as worsening, rather than improving.

``We have had at times a courageous press. But today it is less of a watchdog and more of a lap dog,'' the journalism professor charged.

Partly because of the media's tendency to serve up ``junk-news journalism,'' people don't realize the abuses of power that are going on, said Nancy McDermid, dean of humanities at San Francisco State University. Amnesty International has reported on abuses that go beyond those of Orwell's Ministry of Love, she argues. And groups like the Freedom to Learn Project have documented widespread censorship of text and library books in the United States.

``There is no limit to what modern technology can do [to invade our privacy],'' Dean McDermid asserted, noting that what bothers her most is the ``current cult of indifference.''

To Barbara Stockwin, professor of history at California State University in Chico, this indifference is one manifestation of a process of disempowerment that is eroding the ability of Americans to make judgments. ``In `1984,' the proles had intellectual freedom. The leaders allowed it because they knew the proles had no intellect to exercise. The most effective way to undermine criticism is to destroy judgment,'' she argued.

What we are experiencing, and what Orwell missed, is that providing people with a large number of superficial choices can obscure the fact that the number of real choices they have is decreasing, she continued. Television is creating a self-indulgent public, and it is destroying the potential for group action by creating a sense of boredom with the critical skills needed to understand the world, Professor Stockwin maintained.

``Big Brother isn't watching you; you are watching Big Brother,'' seconded Duane Elgin, author of ``Voluntary Simplicity'' and co-director of Choosing Our Future, a local group challenging the Federal Communications Commission licenses of the four major TV broadcasters in the Bay Area.

``We need to take charge of information technologies,'' Mr. Elgin argued. It may be ``the golden goose which lays scrambled eggs,'' but it is also a majority of Americans' sole source of news and so sets the agenda for the entire country. Citizens have to be much more involved in the medium, rather than letting it control them, he said.

One person who has turned his back on the media altogether is Sam Keen, contributing editor to Psychology Today. Mr. Keen has moved to the country ``to escape information.''

``What we need is an age of care, rather than an information age,'' Keen protested. The writer related the experience of a friend who is a carpenter and a computer expert. This friend commented that when he spends all day working on a computer he is fascinated, but when the day is over he feels as if he hasn't lived. The computer age is increasingly replacing direct experience with ``shadows of shadows of reality,'' and so is really a revolution of ignorance, Keen maintained. If information is power, he asked, why do so many people in the US feel such political impotence?

It is a question on which the remarks of Donald N. Michael, of the scientific think tank SRI International, shed some valuable light. Dr. Michael sees a fundamental challenge to our basic institutions and our very concepts of governance. ``We face a future of multiple divergencies in values and perceptions,'' he argued. Our society appears to be splintering into groups with ``profoundly different mythologies about what constitutes reality.'' Young and old, violent and nurturing, individualistic and community-oriented, highly educated, mal-educated, and undereducated, those who feel the world is predictable and those who don't: All these groups reflect fundamentally different and potentially conflicting world views.

The deluge of information is making these social schisms worse, Michael continued. The more information that is available, the more opportunity there is to take parts of that information and build conflicting arguments.

Some groups are responding to this situation by retrenching, by clinging tenaciously to what they feel they have, whether ideas or possessions. The only alternative is to learn to think critically, to learn how to ask the important questions and ignore the trivial, the SRI researcher pointed out. But critical thinking, by its very nature, is ``profoundly subversive'' because it raises questions about everything and so increases the problems of governance. ``I have one hope,'' Michael concluded: ``that in the coming chaos lie opportunities for social invention and experimentation from which new forms of governance will rise.''

A more personal and philosophical hope was raised by Hubert Dreyfuss, professor of philosophy at the University of California in Berkeley and author of the book ``What Computers Can't Do: A Critique of Artificial Reason.'' Although he believes it will never be possible to build computers with common sense, the philosopher argues that construction of machines that can mimic human responses is forcing people to think more deeply about what it means to be human.

We have conceived of ourselves as problem-solvers, as rational animals. But as our mechanical creations begin to solve certain types of problems more effectively than people can, we are being forced to reconsider our basic self-concept. One hopes that when we do we will come up with a new definition of what it means to be human -- one that weighs our ability for affection equally with our rationality, Professor Dreyfuss summarized.

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