WWW & innate fears

Here is one of the most interesting pieces on knowledge and computers I’ve recently read. It is written by Jascha Kessler, Professor Emeritus of Modern English & American Literature, UCLA, and copied here in its entity from: Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 25, No. 578.  Enjoy!

I wonder whether the World Wide Web, the knowledge stored and accessed using the Internet, is the fulfillment of some basic instinct comparable to those that led to the creation of language and the recording of knowledge in text itself. Once words and then language had been invented, the idea of written language must have been a major breakthrough, allowing ideas to be preserved and read back as if from the voices of their originators. Then the invention of forms of written text evolved into the numerous varieties we see today.  The Web appears to be the latest evolutionary step in that progression, with a mechanism for recording content in ‘web pages’ collected into ‘web sites’; and with an overall indexing strategy yet evolving–somewhat comparable to the creation of the mechanisms of titles, tables of contents, indexes, etc. created to handle access to  the growth of written text.

What presumably is most frightening about the World Wide Web is that it shows signs of automation that printed text did not. The Web is harvested by ‘web crawlers’ that automatically collect and index web sites for other people to then retrieve. A development that seems almost like there is a robotic army that sneaks about reading everything and keeping a record of it while we’re sleeping. The very idea that text and the content that it contains now flows without our intervention, without the elaborate methods of print distribution that were created to handle the movement of paper-based text, is startling if not outright frightening.

It also is intimidating to the professionals who made their living operating the paper-based system. Everyone from the manufacturers of the implements for recording language through those whose professions involved assembling and proofing it, manufacturing its print products en masse, marketing those products, distributing them, receiving them and storing them in places such as bookstores and libraries, recycling  those products through used bookstores. All these professions are threatened by the web.  Even those who made their living reading and reviewing print text are threatened, since distribution of web pages and web sites doesn’t require human intervention–everyone can read the web without reviewers. That does seem odd, i.e., that we haven’t taken up the challenge to ‘review’ web sites as actively as we reviewed print publications.

Perhaps it is because the text itself is no longer fixed into units with permanence that can be bounded. Whereas publications involved ‘editions’, the web doesn’t have ‘editions’ of web pages or web sites.  They can and do change their content continuously. This is threatening as well. For if we cannot depend upon the text to be permanent, how can we add value to its statements, produce the important summation and analyses of its significance. It’s like trying to review the beauty of cloud-filled skies or sunsets. They are not only each seen from a different perspective, but are ever changing such that the subsequent potential viewers cannot precisely see the same thing the reviewer described. That’s potentially dangerous as well. The web has responded with an effort at ‘permanent’ links; but how much permanence can there be when the method of preserving permanent references is itself dependent upon the same technology that creates total impermanence.

So, apart from the threat from computers and software, the agents of these changes, whose capacity to reorganize and rewrite the knowledge itself we’re still discovering; we’re now threatened by the changes to all of stored world knowledge that could come about. How will we authenticate it in the future such that we know it’s the same text our  ancestors read? You say this eBook is the text of a 20th century work that is no longer available in print and all of whose copies are now stored in the ‘cloud’.   Oh, there can be new glorious new work done by scholars everywhere at anytime. Never have so many been able to access so much with so little effort. But it just seems to depend on such a lot of intangible and ephemeral resources. We seem to be discarding the proven survivability of mass produced and widely dispersed recorded knowledge for the admitted impermanence of electronic and optical recordings requiring special hardware to access. Take away the electricity and the knowledge becomes inaccessible. Surge the electricity and the stored knowledge itself and the hardware to access it could be destroyed.

So, there you have it… The fear is creeping in when we see clearly the need to change every job that has to do with creating, distributing, retrieving and reviewing knowledge and the threat of the complete loss of world knowledge due to technical glitches or its selective revision at the hands of powerful groups.

What I find somewhat amusing here is that the perceived threat from ‘computers’ themselves doesn’t seem as potentially dangerous, apart from them being the agents of change. I.e., hardware and software may well be our best allies in the effort to combat the threats. It reminds me of something I heard about the insects of the world as a  threat to humans. If it wasn’t for insects acting as predators on other insects, we’d never survive. So, computers are just the agents of change—whether change is safe of not is up to how we use computers to combat the changes brought about by computers.

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