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5.0 out of 5 stars Information and reality, 24 Nov. 2011
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This review is from: Holding On to Reality: The Nature of Information at the Turn of the Millennium (Paperback)
Albert Borgmann is a professor of philosophy at The University of Montana, USA, and well known for his work on philosophy of technology e.g. Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry (1984). `Holding on to reality' is dedicated to information, the subtitle `the nature of Information at the turn of the millennium' might give the impression that it is primarily concerned with the textual digital information. But, Borgmann (1999) approaches information more broadly and offers a framework to approach or analyse information, which is illustrated historically with different information systems and the impact they left on us, before he discusses the impact of digital information.

In the first couple of chapters, Borgmann (1999) turns to the nature of information and offers a framework or theory that he uses throughout his book. In this framework Borgmann positions five concepts related to information. Information is conveyed by Sign's and these are separated from Reality. The Person and his/her Intelligence interpret the sign in a Context. A sign can be almost everything, a song, written note, rock art or a digital string of numbers. In order to be recognised as a sign, it must be a representation of, or make a reference to reality, it is an `object of some sort that are about some things' (Borgmann, 1999: 17). For an object to be recognised as a sign, as a distinction of being part of reality, a Person is required, as a `person is informed by a sigh about some thing' (Borgmann, 1999: 18). The person will require a certain form of Intelligence to make interpretations of the sign and its reference to reality. However, a sign is only meaningful in a certain context, under different circumstance it might not be recognised and been seen as a part of reality. To summarise in Borgmann's (1999: 22) own words: "Intelligence provided, a person is informed by a sign about some thing within a certain context".

Although, there are five notions in Borgmann (1999) framework he spent most of his further chapters on the nature of signs and shows how our culture and understanding of the world changed by different signs. He illustrates this by investigating the transition from an oral culture to a written culture, whereby relative week sign's, a full personal engagement with reality and an intimacy with the context made place for a written culture. Writing allowed a greater detachment from the person who transmits the information, its location and its context. With the transition to a written culture, structural information becomes more developed and helped us to describe reality in greater detail. However, only so much can be captured in writing and Borgmann (1999) shows that different signs were introduced that extended what we can capture about reality, but also changed our experience of reality. Grids of sign's, which are concepts as time and money, techniques like engravings and printing to create books, maps and tables, or methods like mathematical equations and music notations, enhanced what we can capture in what Borgmann (1999) calls structural information. The value of these grids lay in there economy and information becomes more assessable, efficient, reliable, mobile and uniform, and increased in clarity and precision. Information technology, like the computer and the internet over automation, computation and transmission enhance in some respects the transparency, clarity and our control over information. Nevertheless, signs are "vehicles and vectors. The meaning they convey directs us beyond themselves to things", they are instructions and "provide information about reality" (Borgmann, 1999: 85-6). To create meaning and apply information or as Borgmann (1999) calls it to `realise' and `comprehend' information the intelligent person in a specific context is required.

Despite the fact that the quality and quantity of our methods to capture `about reality' in signs increases according to Borgmann (1999), there will be always a discrepancy between us and reality. There is an `ambiguity' between us and reality that can only be "resolved by our engagement with an existing reality, with the wilderness we are disagreed about" (Borgmann, 1999: 185). Several examples illustrate his point e.g. the difference between music on sheets and the reality of hearing music, or the difference between our calculations, chards, maps and plans and the reality of building the Freiburg Minster. As Borgmann (1999: 113) puts it, "no design can specify its realization fully".

The discrepancy between information `about reality' and reality becomes lost in the digital world, according to Borgmann (1999). Even if, we have not reached a technical advance level of fully virtual world yet, a simulated world, with all its attraction, will create its own discrepancy between the virtual sign and the simulated world. The link between virtual sign's and reality will be lost, leaving the user considering trivia about a world that not really exists. "The computer, when it harbours virtual reality, is no longer a machine that helps us to cope with the world by making a beneficial difference in reality; it makes all the difference and liberates us from actual reality. Of the five terms of information where, intelligence provided, a person is informed by a sign about some thing in a certain context, intelligence, things, and context evaporate and leave a person with self-sufficient and peculiarly ambiguous signs" (Borgmann, 1999: 183).

Borgmann (1999) framework to approach information seems to me the strongest point of this book and the notion of the economy of sign's makes it worth reading. Borgmann (1999) tries to get beyond the description of information systems and the description of their impact, by focusing more closely on the difference between information about reality and reality itself. However, except from illustrating this point with quotations of e.g. the physics Steven Weinberg, beautiful though, is unable to develop this point on a sufficient level. Considering that the nature of reality at least was, and still is, one of the main questions of philosophy you might expect a slightly more perceptive approach than some, almost esoteric, remarks that reality despite our best effort seems to be out of our reach by its contingency. As Borgmann (1999) takes this point forward to discuss the consequences for digital information and simulated realities the argument becomes a little superficial and more can be said about virtual realities for pleasure and (applied) science and there discrepancy with reality. Lastly, the framework that defines information seems individual orientated. Borgmann (1999) speaks about the person that makes an interpretation of the sign, but there is no explicit notion of the other in this framework. The person makes an interpretation of the sign in a certain context. Whereby the context can be geographical, historical and culturally interpreted and might include some notion of the other. It seems to me that information is in first instance a social act, a sign is produced to inform others and the development of technology especially that of grids is very much a collaborative effort. The comprehension and application of these, sometimes very advance grids, requires a social environment. To come back to Borgmann (1999) doubt on virtual realities, the discrepancy between the virtual sign's and reality might be trivial on an individual level, but meaningful in a virtual social context.

If interested in information and meaning than this book is strongly recommended and a read worthwhile. It will require, by times, some attention and some chapters e.g. one the Freiburg Minster and Boolean algebra drag on a bit.

Borgmann, A. (1999) Holding on to reality. The nature of Information at the turn of the millennium. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
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