March 9, 2014

WHAT GOOD ARE PEACE AND PROSPERITY WITHOUT MEANING?:

What good is information? : The internet promised to feed our minds with knowledge. What have we learned? That our minds need more than that (Dougald Hine, 3/06/14. Aeon)

'Information wants to be free' declared Stewart Brand, 30 years ago now. Cut loose from its original context, this phrase became one of the defining slogans of internet politics. With idealism and dedication, the partisans of the network seek to liberate information from governments and corporations, who of course have their own ideas about the opportunities its collection and control might afford. Yet the anthropomorphism of Brand's rallying cry points to a stronger conviction that runs through much of this politics: that information is itself a liberating force. [...]

 Knowledge has a point when we start to find and make connections, to weave stories out of it, stories through which we make sense of the world and our place within it. It is the difference between memorising the bus timetable for a city you will never visit, and using that timetable to explore a city in which you have just arrived. When we follow the connections - when we allow the experience of knowing to take us somewhere, accepting the risk that we will be changed along the way - knowledge can give rise to meaning. And if there is an antidote to boredom, it is not information but meaning.

If boredom has become a sickness in modern societies, this is because the knack of finding meaning is harder to come by

There is a connection, though, between the two. Information is perhaps the rawest material in the process out of which we arrive at meaning: an undifferentiated stream of sense and nonsense in which we go fishing for facts. But the journey from information to meaning involves more than simply filtering the signal from the noise. It is an alchemical transformation, always surprising. It takes skill, time and effort, practice and patience. No matter how experienced we become, success cannot be guaranteed. In most human societies, there have been specialists in this skill, yet it can never be the monopoly of experts, for it is also a very basic, deeply human activity, essential to our survival. If boredom has become a sickness in modern societies, this is because the knack of finding meaning is harder to come by.

It is only fair to note that the internet is not altogether to blame for this, and that the rise of boredom itself goes back to an earlier technological revolution. The word was invented around the same time as the spinning jenny. As the philosophers Barbara Dalle Pezze and Carlo Salzani put it in their essay 'The Delicate Monster' (2009):
Boredom is not an inherent quality of the human condition, but rather it has a history, which began around the 18th century and embraced the whole Western world, and which presents an evolution from the 18th to the 21st century.

For all its boons, the industrial era itself brought about an endemic boredom peculiar to the division of labour, the distancing of production from consumption, and the rationalisation of working activity to maximise output.

People similarly misunderstand Fukuyama's End of History, ignoring The Last Man section. Reaching a point where all the big questions about politics and economics have been settled and society becomes ridiculously wealthy is not a utopian moment.  
Posted by at March 9, 2014 9:22 AM
  
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