In the past month, two strangely interrelated experiences have come my way. First, I bought a personal computer, set it up in a corner at home, and lost dozens of normally useful hours trying to make sense of its mammoth capabilities. Then, I read Theodore Roszak's new book, ``The Cult of Information'' (Pantheon, $17.95), a sane, articulate, and highly readable blast leveled at ``the cultlike mystique'' surrounding the computer. I'm not ready to give up my computer: When I finally do figure it out, it will be far too valuable a tool. But I'm certainly ready to testify that Professor Roszak is saying things we all need to hear.
Roszak, a history professor at California State University, Hayward, and author of ``The Making of a Counter Culture,'' is a kind of intellectual gadfly crying in the wilderness. That is a mixed metaphor -- which is appropriate. Roszak's subject, after all, is the dangerous mixing of metaphor that arises when people think of themselves as mere machines. ``The burden of my argument,'' he writes, ``is to insist that there is a vital distinction between what machines do when they process information and what minds do when they think.''
That distinction, he argues, is blurred when words like ``cybernetics'' begin to shape our view of the universe. Coined by mathematician Norbert Weiner in 1948, ``cybernetics'' (says my dictionary) describes ``a science dealing with the comparative study of the operations of complex electronic computers and the human nervous system.''
There may, in fact, be some comparisons. But the danger of basing our overall assessment of human capabilities on such comparisons is that we will drift into a highly mechanistic model of mankind -- as though people were merely biocomputers, hungering, like the delightful robot in the movie ``Short Circuit,'' for ``input.'' In the end, the danger is that thinking will become identified with information processing.
Well, isn't it? Roszak's resounding ``No!'' deserves a careful reading. Like many a counterculture academic liberal, he is sometimes merely silly in his anti-Reagan twits. He is not anti-computer; yet as he traces the impact of computers in a host of areas -- including education, manufacturing, opinion polling, defense, and surveillance -- he builds a strong argument that they have been misused, oversold, and undermanaged. They have allowed us to produce a blizzard of data that masquerades as knowledge. And that -- the replacement of deep thought by mere data -- is their most troubling legacy.
This will not be a popular argument in some corporate circles. Billions are being invested in artificial intelligence, hardware and software for schools, and computers for military applications. Nor will it be popular among some individual computer users: The computer, like other forms of video experience, appears to exert a subtle and almost addictive force (the ``peculiar power to spellbind its users,'' says Roszak) that is little understood and, unfortunately, hardly touched upon even in this book.
Breaking spells, whether monetary or mental, is never popular -- especially among those who worship their force. But ``every historical period has its godword,'' says Roszak, noting that there has been ``an Age of Faith, an Age of Reason, an Age of Discovery.'' Our time, he writes, has been called ``the Age of Information.'' That itself should alert us. Why? Because, as he says, ``information, even when it moves at the speed of light, is no more than it has ever been: discrete little bundles of fact, sometimes useful, sometimes trivial, and never the substance of thought.''
Never the substance of thought. So where, in this Age of Information, is the thinking? Might it be that we've substituted information for understanding? ``Might it be the case,'' asks Roszak, ``that the retention of too much data -- more than a single mind can judiciously deal with -- compromises the quality of thought?''
Intuition answers with a solid, ``Yes!'' Who among us hasn't encountered the academic pedant, the number-crunching manager, or the prissy political staffer so stifled by data that the intellectual, moral, and spiritual breadth of the subject at hand all but disappear? On the other hand, who has not met wisdom in those who seem almost to have outgrown their own learning? Should that surprise us? No, not unless we've been mesmerized by the electromagnetic model of life -- taken the computer as our primary metaphor for man.
The strength of Roszak's argument is his conviction that such a metaphor does not correspond with reality. The self patterned after chips and disks is, says Roszak, ``a small, highly edited simulation of ourselves. Only one narrow band of our experience is represented . . . : logical reason. Sensual contact, intuition, inarticulated common-sense judgments, aesthetic taste have been largely, if not wholly, left out.'' Yet these, too, are components of thinking: These are what help make thought far more than accretion, understanding more than mere memory, and wisdom more than simply access to ideas.
In the end, then, this is not just a book about computers. It's a book about thinking. And the art of thinking, Roszak concludes, is not grounded in the processing of data but ``in the mind's astonishing capacity to create beyond what it intends, beyond what it can foresee.'' Computers can't do that.
Only people can.