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March 18, 2004

Natasha Lee (French)
Knowledge and Responsibility,
or a Few Questions Kant Might Have About the Information Society

Summary
Prepared by Anne Dalke
Additions, revisions, extensions are encouraged in the Forum
Participants

Guided by a few quotes from Kant's "An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?( 1784) Natasha invited us to listen in on how the eighteenth century thought about ideas of the subject: How does the individual process knowledge, decide on the level of sorting, the use of filters? How do we respond to and produce meaning, how do we decide on what is noise? Understanding how past centuries thought about the popularity and consumption of print-reading gives us a historical perspective on current anxieties about the internet. We understand the internet (as we once understood t.v. and radio) as offering a radical epistemological change, transforming the way we receive and produce knowledge. We have questions about our constant exposure to new information: Who should process it? Should we do so alone or together? What is the I supposed to do with all this information? What do we trust as information?

The information revolution has meant more effective dissemination of information, and increased participation in technological commerce. But Kant invites us to consider that a change in information-reception operates differently than a radical change in politics. Was a revolution in knowledge technologically constrained in the 18th century in the way it is not now, as ideas spread more quickly, over steadily increasing bandwidths? Or is there a constant between that century and this? Information can "happen @ once," but that does not change the process whereby enlightenment occurs. (Comparison was made to Mao's attempts to institute a permanent state of revolution, and to the fear, among our students, of "going first" in demonstrating knowledge in a classroom.) It was suggested that the way to avoid the repeated "substitute of one opiate for another" is for each of us to become our own judge; the collective enlightened state is one in each individual thinks alone. The revolution can occur, step by step, if each of us believes in our own observations. This involves moving out of "nonage," the state of not speaking for ourselves (=not having "power of attorney" for ourselves). The question raised by the web is the same question raised, in earlier centuries, by the printing press: are we going to fall back on others' organizing information for us?

The web for us, like books for our 18th century predecessors, offers a critique of traditional relations of selves and knowledge: Are we going to pay for mentorship? Or are we going to pay to think for ourselves? The web is important because it means that, in principle, everyone can be an author, be their own judge, conduct their own vetting process, and not default to other creators. 18th century thinkers knew that we cannot believe everything, but also that we can make distinctions between what is worth reading and what is garbage. The fear then was that people would read ("false") novels and think that what they read was true. We are similarly concerned, today, that our children and students will think in ways we don't want them thinking. Indiscriminately using Google to collect information is not thinking for oneself or making one's own judgments. The liberal arts idea is that we will each be our own critic. The post-enlightenment position is actually that we "come to nothing with belief"; this is the paradox and contradiction of Occum's Razor. The state of permanent skepticism is achievable enlightenment: nothing is ever beyond question. We were reminded, however, that we don't become human beings alone; the person each of us has become arrived at that state through previous interactions with other individuals and institutions. We are made up of our conversations. This is why a computer can never simulate a mind: it cannot replicate the process whereby we alter what we believe in interaction with others. (As one of our students said, the Word is a tremendous responsibility!!! )

Kant also suggested, however, that there are two "who's" in the self: the individual who operates in the public arena (and can say what she pleases) and the individual operating in an annointed capacity, who is more constrained. There are two levels of thought circulating: one's own opinion and the official one. The line we draw between our public and private selves is always shifting. If one's private story is heard by others as being an official one, it will limit the sharing of other accounts. Enlightenment was about defining the truth; to get to "full enlightenement," there can be no restraint on the telling of stories. (Is this about courage, or about smartness? Are there class differences, differences in genre or knowledge states?)

Our next meeting will be on Thursday, March 25, when Nancy Collins (Director of Public Affairs) will ask "Is It All Noise? What Matters in Public Relations." In a world of 24-hour, instantaneous news coverage and ever-increasing competition to fill the news "hole," many people believe that any publicity is good publicity. But is it? Looking at standards in four arenas - entertainment, politics, manufacturing and nonprofits - we can determine when noise will suffice, and when a higher goal, such as opinion change or action, prevails. We'll also define public relations and common ways - meaningless and meaningful - to measure its effectiveness.

All are welcome to join in the ongoing conversation on "Information, Meaning and Noise" continuing on-line.

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