Roszak’s Cult of Information

What is mature technology?  As defined by Roszak, it is a technology that “generates as many problems as it solves” (p. xlii).  Roszak begins his book, The Cult of Information (1994), by discussing the essential issues he wrote about in the first edition of his book published in 1986.  A lot has changed since then and a lot has changed since the second edition was published in 1994.  Many of the things he and other people he quotes in his book as saying about technology and the future of technology have already happened.  For instance, twice in our reading he discusses the future of using technology to exchange advice, make dates, etc. (p. 34 & 61).  This is already hapenning – as we know because we are using one of those technologies now to express our ideas.  It is happening in multiple forms and is used probably by more people than Alvin Toffler and Roszak every imagined it would be.

One of the most interesting chapters in Roszak’s book (in xiii-107 anyway) is Chaper Two – Data Merchants (p. 21-46).  I came across so many interesting ideas in this chapter and made many notes and did a lot of highlighting and questioning when I read this chapter.  I’d like to discuss a few of those.   In the first few pages of the chapter Roszak quotes John Naisbitt as saying:

we now mass-produce information the way we used to mass-produce cars.  In the information society, we have systematized the production of knowledge and amplified our brainpower (as cited in Roszak, 1984, p. 22).

I found this quote particularly interesting, though written in 1982 it applies even more so in 2009.  In the age of Wikipedia and things like blogs, writers no longer have to wait weeks, months or years to be published.  In a matter of seconds we can publish our knowledge to be read by millions (though I doubt millions are reading this particular blog).  We’ve created more ways for knowledge to be mass produced.  As Bill “twitted” (not sure how else to refer to it) the other night, he presented information one day at SITE and his information was used in a presentation by another person the following day.  In years past this would have been possible, but much more commonplace today.  We can write, publish, edit and have responses to our knowledge and opinions in a matter of minutes – to me that is a mass-production of knowledge, I would venture to say that more blog posts are created daily than cars are built, but haven’t done the research to back that up.

On p. 30 Roszak presents the following question:

Can the latest generation of micro- and mini- computers be merchandised on a larger scale as mass consumption items?

Well, we all know the answer to that question.  In my tiny 2 bedroom apartment there are 3 computers and an iPod touch (which in a sense is a mini computer because I can get online and do many of the things I can with my laptop).  Though I know more computers than people in a household is not a norm, it’s clear that computers are mass consumption items.  I think our society has come to see the computer as more of a necessity than a priviledge, though not the case in all areas of the world.  On p. 32 Roszak discusses that it is the thought of many that our lives would essentially stop if technology were to break down.  Is this the case?  I’m not sure because it hasn’t happened, though the looming thought of it during Y2K certainly seemed to paint that picture.  I do know that working in a school when the Internet goes down, some people seem to panic.  I have students asking me – what will we do in class if there is no Internet – being the Comptuer teacher I simply respond – do we ever go on the Internet in this class?  the answer is No so this doesn’t cause any issues for me.  In a recent meeting we were discussing what a 21st century learner/student would look like.  One of the skills I thought they should have is the ability to develop a Plan B.  So many times I have seen situations where students have become so reliant on technology that if something goes wrong (Internet goes down, sound doesn’t work, picture doesn’t show up, etc.) they have no plan B.  It reminds me of a quote I have on the wall in my classroom:


Home computers are being called upon to perform many new functions, including the consumption of homework formerly eaten by the dog. – Doug Larson

Students in some ways have become too reliable on technology to solve their problems, leading us back to Roszak’s quote about mature technology that it has to generate as many problems as it solves.

Later in the Data Merchants chapter Roszak discusses Toffler’s book again and refers to a house that will respond to it’s occupants and appliances where if a toilet leaks, the house will detect and find a plumber to fix it (p. 34).  However, if technology has come that far – will toilets even leak anymore?  It seems that if we can create a technology that can detect a leaking toilet and find a plumber that it would make more sense to just create a technology that keeps a toilet from leaking in the first place.

Throughout much of Roszak’s book he talks about how computers are so much smarter than humans in the way that with the touch of a button they can produce total recall, etc.  I hear that, loud and clear but am left thinking – yes they might be smarter than humans – but they are created by humans.  On p. 39 Roszak writes about the [possible] creation of the UIM (ultra-intelligent machines) in the 1990s which will, of course, be smarter than humans.  I quickly scrawled a note in the margin that said “but created by humans.”  How can something created by us, be smarter than us?  Finally on p. 41 Roszak writes:

…scientists need to be reminded that the organisms (human beings) which came before mechanisms are far more remarkable pieces of work than the tools they may occasionally invent when they are not spending their time singing songs, making jokes, telling tales, or worshiping God.

FINALLY! (I wrote that in the margins next to that quote too).  I have been waiting for him to mention that for the last seventy-some pages (including Preface)!  Later on the same page he disscusses that computers take part of some type of evolution.  I think it’s important to note here that we control it’s evolution.  The computer will not evolve on it’s own without some type of human poking and prodding.

I’m going to stop here and discuss some of the other chapters later this weekend.

(Seems I forgot to hit Update Post and didn’t publish my full text until Saturday, sorry about that!)


One response to “Roszak’s Cult of Information

  1. With regard to creating a plan B, I actually had the same thought while reading something else (Ellul, Postman? I can’t even remember now). With technology, you definitely have to be ready with almost a backup lesson. But computers aren’t the only reason to have a backup. What if your school is supposed to have an outdoor activity, and it rains/snows all day? What if the class has a trip to the museum planned, and the bus breaks down? What if a certain student is supposed to play the lead in a play, and he’s sick that day?

    I think Roszak’s points regarding UIMs revolve around building a computer that can learn by itself. I know what you mean when saying that they are created by humans, but his point is “What if computers can evolve without our help?” He’s basically discussing a computer that has a mind of its own … for example, I was created by my mother and father, but they do not completely control my evolution. Will computers really have those thought processes that can make them smarter than humans? I don’t really see it, but who knows?

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