The [Computer] Age of Illusion

I love my computers… mostly. But computers aren’t exactly what they seem to be for most people, and the wide-spread proliferation of computers and their omnipresence has had good effects and bad. One of the worst is that the “computer age” has generated a host of illusions that have, in general, had pervasively negative effects.

The first illusion is one I’ve mentioned before — the illusion of choice. The internet and the world-wide web — as well as satellite TV — offer an infinite array of choices, don’t they? No… not exactly. If… and it’s a big IF, often requiring considerable expense to someone, you have access to all the university libraries and research facilities through the web, there’s quite a bit to be found. The problem is that, first, most people don’t have universal access or anything close to it, and, second, even for those that do, the search systems are rudimentary, if not misleading, and often simply cannot find information that’s there. More to the point, for general users, the information resembles the “Top 40″ in hundreds of different formats — the same two paragraphs of information in infinite variety of presentation. The same is equally true of the software tools available. And it’s definitely true of all the varieties of TV entertainment. Yes, there’s great choice, and most of it’s in the packaging.

The second illusion is what I’d call the illusion of completeness. Students, in particular, but a huge percentage of those under thirty have the illusion that all the knowledge and information can be had through the internet. Just as an illustration I did a search on Paul Bowles, the composer and writer, and came up with a theoretical 285,000 references, which boiled down to 480 discrete references, which further decreased to 450 after deleting the other “Paul Bowles.” Almost 20% of the references dealt with aspects of his most famous book — The Sheltering Sky. Something like 15% were different versions of the same standard biography. Three other books of his received about 10% each of the references. From what I could determine, more than ten percent of all entries were totally useless, and over 70 percent of the detailed references, which might provide unique information, were either about works for purchase or articles or studies not available online. That’s not to say that such an internet search doesn’t provide a good starting point. It can, but, unfortunately, the internet is exactly where most students and others looking for information stop.

The third is the illusion of accomplishment. Americans, in particular, feel that they’re working harder than ever, and the statistics tend to support it. But what did all that work accomplish? With all the emphasis on reports and accountability, businesses and institutions are generating more reports and data than ever before in history. With email and cellphones, the majority of North Americans and those in the industrialized world are “instantly” available. With this instant access, supervisors, customers, and governments all want answers “now,” and more and more time is spent responding rather than “doing,” and all the need to respond to all the inquiries limits the time available to “do.”

The fourth is the illusion of the “quick and perfect solution.” In the world of the mass media, entertainment, and computers, problems are resolved in an hour or by the judicious application of software [and if you can't make the software work, that's your problem, not the software's]. Combine this with the niche-fragmentation of society, and each group has its own “perfect solution,” if only those “other idiots” would understand why what we’ve laid out is THE answer.

The fifth illusion is that of “reality.” Both the entertainment industry and the computer wizards are working hard to make the unreal look as real as possible and to convince everyone that everything can be handled electronically, and that there’s little difference between “electronic reality” and dirt-under-your-fingernails reality. That bothers me, more than a little, because electronics don’t convey the blood, sweat, striving, and agony that fill all too many people’s lives, and that lack of visceral appeal leads to more and more decisions based on image and profit — exactly exemplified in bankers who make million dollar bonuses while police, firefighters, and teachers have their wages cut and/or frozen whenever the economy dips.

But then, of what use is reality when illusion is so satisfying?

3 Responses to “The [Computer] Age of Illusion”

  1. Josh says:

    The second illusion has another aggravating way of manifesting, and that is in Wikipedia. I can't begin to say how many times people try to use Wikipedia as the end-all source of complete and correct answers, especially in the middle of a debate.

    Wikipedia is little more than a collection of opinions and second-hand information. While information is supposed to be properly cited, there is no guarantee that the original source information wasn't taken out of context. I'd like to think that most people would flag or change misleading data, but that brings me to two more tidbits. First, the vast majority of sources are not from trusted, peer-reviewed publications. A source is not credible if it's just some other editor or publisher's opinion. Second, just because information comes from a trusted source (assuming that it does), it isn't necessarily fact. How many studies are quoted and cited to back up an argument while there are ten times as many other studies that have different findings?

    Ultimately (and this ties back into the illusion of completeness), research itself should be researched. Dig deeper than the surface. If I find an article or some other publication that seems credible, it too should have sources. Those should be checked as well, at least to a reasonable degree.

    I check Wikipedia too, but I try to keep in mind its limitations. After all, opinions are fine and great, but they're not the final line of reason. Unfortunately, it seems that too many people see Wikipedia as the paragon of truth on the internet.

  2. christoph says:

    This reminds me of lecture a few years back in which the head of the University of Washington Information Sciences department estimated that approximately 15% of the info on the internet is accurate.

  3. Daze says:

    A classic example of this is a so-called quote from Martin Luther King- "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter". Practically every quotation site has it: many many sites of poetry or peace or both – 291 million references in all.

    I used it myself, then being a bit of an obsessive about primary sources, tried to get the exact reference – when did he say it, where, who to? That led me to the One Big Exception: the Martin Luther King complete archive at Stanford. Why are they the exception? Because he didn't say it, Bishop Desmond Tutu did, in a speech where, in context, it is clear that he is paraphrasing and simplifying a paragraph from the letter from Birmingham jail.

    Of those 291 million quotes, probably a couple of hundred have the correct source.