Limits of the Information Age

THIS is the Age of Information, made possible by the electronics revolution. During the Automobile Age, Detroit became the center of productive might, though that status has now shifted to Tokyo. The theme of the auto era, which is continuing in much of the world, was personal mobility. More recently Silicon Valley, Boston's Route 128, and other electronics park communities have become the centers of the economic elite, though they too are fading. The electronics era delivers fast, universal access to information. It creates a ``timeless'' work environment with information surging, say, between financial centers in London, Tokyo, and New York. Information companies become computer warehouses of data, taking just seconds to run a search for newspaper and magazine stories on almost any given subject. Because of computers, the development time for new products is measured now in months instead of years.

Novelties continue: A Boston computer expert has just created the first cloudless computer map of the globe's surface. New light-driven computers promise to be faster than electricity-based computers.

The impact of this information is still widening: The sudden political and economic changes overcoming the East bloc are in part laid to the electronic revolution. Images of Western prosperity have created expectations that cannot be satisfied by the creaking Marxist-Leninist system. The qualifying times for the global economic olympics have been falling faster than the East bloc's rate of technological gains.

The latest theories of ``time-based'' management urge companies to solve problems at the worker level. Hierarchy is thought too slow for removing bottlenecks. Information, not authority, is the key to influence.

But the information age, like the auto age that gave us smog and long commutes, has its downsides.

Careers are foreshortened. Older workers are pushed into retirement earlier. By the end of the '90s, only one in four men is expected to be working after the age of 60. The useful career of a university dean, a mayor, a company chief executive officer, is shriveling from a decade to something nearer five years. The negatives of hard decisions accumulate faster in a media-exposed world.

While plagiarism is hardly new, this potential abuse of information is greatly expanded by information services. It is not so much the parading of borrowed information as original work that is troubling, as it is the temptation for one to be satisfied with insufficient research. The recycling of electronic information, like the stubborn persistence of old files of newspaper clippings, does the subject of inquiry injustice when there is no serious new reporting. For its victims, it may mean being trapped forever in public life by the notoriety of a celebrity divorce or the collapse of a corporate ``marriage.'' New career achievements can be ignored, and old newsclips can hound individuals forever. The ability to manipulate video images as well as textual fragments extends the prospects for injustice. Newsmakers can be imprisoned in the information of the past.

Language tapes can teach us to ask for bottled water in five languages. But plugging into the global electronics network can make us strangers in our offices and homes.

Automobiles once invited idolatry as icons of status; electronic gadgetry does so today.

Information is just information. It is a commodity like steel. Inventive thought is required to make something of it.

Electronic devices can combine data or images to dramatic effect, as in ``Star Wars'' animation or in product design. But they basically simulate human ability. What is heard through a headset or printed on screen can usually be performed on stage. Where human ability really excels is in imagination. Can a computer write a Macbeth?

Electronics lacks a range of other vital mental gifts. Do computers have programmable keys for conscience, joy, compassion?

Technological advances are essential. But they affect the context, not the basic human condition.

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