“Did you hear what happened tonight? What happened tonight? I saw a pancake person. You did? And what did the pancake person say to you?”
Richard Foreman is good at naming things. He’s a dramatist whose Ontological-Hysteric Theater is now showing his final play, THE GODS ARE POUNDING MY HEAD (aka. LUMBERJACK MESSIAH). He recently stopped by Edge.org to bounce a theory off the resident technofetishists, futurists and AI theorists: Does this renaissance make me look flat?
He wonders if the basically instantaneous access to vast tracts of information is destroying the value of internalizing cultural knowledge and history; the depths and intricacies of a classical education drained away by a bilge pump named Google. It’s terrible, really. (As a side note, I used Google’s “define” feature to make sure I knew what a bilge pump was, because here at Baboon Palace we value analogical integrity. Does everyone know that you can type “define: x” into Google’s search and it will return definitions of x? It’s awesome. I love you, Google! You are magical!)
I see within us all (myself included) the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self-evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the “instantly available”. A new self that needs to contain less and less of an inner repertory of dense cultural inheritance—as we all become “pancake people”—spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.
The most interesting responses, I think, are by Stephen Johnson and Rebecca Goldstein. Johnson correctly points out that the old “information overload” trope is a sham: informaton technology has increased our ability to sift through huge quantities of data, not the opposite. Goldstein, on the other hand, accuses Foreman of being a luddite, comparing his fear of computer networks with Plato’s disparagement of written word. You see, Plato thought of books as capable only of dumb, mechanical repetition, rather than dialogue and persuasion, the real source of human knowledge and understanding.
It seems to me we’ve come full circle. Books have long now been the repository of cultural knowledge and learning, and now that networks are threatening to usurp this role, we find ourselves reverting back to the ancient discursive, social model of public knowledge.
Or not. At any rate, I find it distinctly odd that anyone would identify the metaphysical foundations of personhood in something as banal as research methods. Who would have guessed that the answers to problems of personal identity would be uncovered by Library Science?