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A Rose-Tinted "Information Society"?

The "coming of the information society" has caused a world-wide sensation.
Some have gone so far as to call it a revolution. Nations, businesses, even individuals who are slow to jump on this bandwagon face having their prosperity and their very existence put in doubt. For this reason, investing enormous amounts in network hardware and information-technology equipment of even slightly higher performance capability is seen as normal. Home use of the internet is becoming popular, and there are plans to teach elementary school children how to use computers. People have delirious, almost fevered views on the subject.

Among students of mine who have been persuaded to believe claims like "quantity of information will determine one's fortune," there are some who even say, "From now on, the most important intellectual ability will be the ability to do information retrieval." If quantity of information was really so crucial, people who do not watch television, or do not read newspapers, or do not own an encyclopaedia would have so much less ability to make synthetic judgements than people who do watch television, or read many newspapers, or do own an encyclopaedia. This is simply not the case. This is because what actually influences synthetic judgement is the substance of things, and information and substance are not the same.

It seems like the press is full of school bullying incidents and violence every day. Day after day we are told the details of the incidents, and hear the opinions of the offenders, the victims and their parents, bystanders, teachers, and pundits. Why this has been happening with such frequency recently, I do not know. It is said to be a matter of various things, like the inability of schools and teachers to grasp the situation, the absence of education in the home, the lack of moral education, television and comic books that are full of violence, the stress associated with entrance examinations, and too much emphasis on scholastic competence of children, but none of these explanations really perceive the substance of the problem in the least.

There are many more similar examples. There can be many misleading elements in a lot of information, and it is not very useful for having insight into substance. For a mathematician like myself who is only interested in substance, it is a great frustration to me that related information is taken indiscriminately while substance lies in a fog.

Furthermore, when people are so flooded with information, their response to each separate piece of it becomes dulled. It seems to me that, compared to just a short while ago, we have developed a capacity to "tune out" even shocking incidents like a someone hanging himself after going bankrupt or a student stabbing his teacher. Even terrible crimes like the "Yoshinobu-chan Incident" (the kidnapping and murder of a child that took place in 1963) that raised such an outcry some years ago would be viewed as a common occurrence by today's standards. We are becoming desensitized.

There was a psychology experiment that gave dogs an electric shock every time they exhibited a certain behavior. As one might expect, the dogs learned to avoid that behavior. But when the procedure was changed, and the electric shocks were delivered at random, eventually the dogs became desensitized and grew lethargic. This was the only way they could cope with the stress of the electric shocks.

Perhaps our "tuning out" the repeated occurrences of violent incidents is the wisdom that allows us to live with the information society. Information volume has already surpassed the processing capacity of mere living beings like humans. The information that enters our eyes and ears willy-nilly would cause our brains to break down if we did not have a good way to tune out. When we get accustomed to tuning out, we do not think to delve deeply into things, and grow even less able to grasp substance. This is how a great many people have lost emotional sharpness, and become listless and vaguely irritated, or frustrated with unsatisfied wants.

Some of my friends are troubled by these trends. Among them are some mathematicians who have thrown away their televisions, and also an artist who went so far as to abandon even newspapers. People who need refined, delicate sensitivity cannot tolerate exposure to random bombardments of complex information. No doubt the energy required to digest information saps creativity.

The problem that confronts us now is not how we can acquire more information, but how we can protect ourselves from it, and at the same time, how we can extract substance from this overabundant information. If our skills in this area are uncertain, we might well find ourselves swallowed up by a sea of information; however, acquiring such skills would not be an easy task for anyone. This is why, while it is currently popular to idealize the information society, there is no way that I would describe it as a rose garden.

[Source: This article was originally written for "Shinken News" August, 1998 issue published by Benesse Corporation]
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