Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship Summer 1999

Book Reviews

Holding On to Reality: The Nature of Information at the Turn of the Millennium

Gregory K. Raschke
Reference Librarian and Information Consultant
Library & Information Center
Georgia Institute of Technology

Holding On to Reality: The Nature of Information at the Turn of the Millennium. Albert Borgmann. Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 1999. 274 p. $22.00 (ISBN 0-226-06625-8)
As a society, we strive to understand the nature, historical context, and impact of the information age. While living in the midst of the information age, we struggle to conceptualize the varied and numerous changes it has rendered on our economy, social structures, perceptions of reality, and culture. Although a number of texts, in some form or another, have addressed the history, development, technological foundations, and impact of the information age rarely do scholars bring a holistic and humanistic approach to understanding the history of information while addressing the context and cultural significance of information in modern society. Albert Borgmann's Holding On to Reality: The Nature of Information at the Turn of the Millennium provides a historical, humanistic, and philosophical perspective on the information age that aids the reader in understanding its historical significance, cultural impact, and influence on reality. Borgmann takes a somewhat unique approach by addressing the historical antecedents and development of the information age and using that groundwork as a basis for his discussion of information, information technology, and the relation of information to reality in modern society.

Borgmann's introduction includes several key statements that set the tone for his exploration of the history of information and the role of information in today's society. He reveals his reservations about the information age when he writes, "Yet with all these gains we sometimes feel like the sorcerer's apprentice, unable to contain the powers we have summoned and afraid of drowning in the flood we have loosed." He goes on to ask the key question of the entire work when he states, "Will information technology create a new division between haves and have-nots or deepen the old division? This is surely a fair question. But it tends to divert us from the deeper question of whether the recent and imminent flood of information is good for anybody, rich or poor." By recognizing the discomfort and anxiety that arise from technological advance, rapid innovation, and information overload, Borgmann is able to conceptualize information technology and the information age and place it into historical, social, and cultural context. The first two sections, which focus on the history and development of information, prove invaluable in providing the background knowledge and contextual structure of information. As a result, the first two sections lay the foundation for the third section's discussion of the relation of information to reality, cyberspace, and the nature of information in the modern era. Unfortunately, Borgmann's cultural conservatism holds him back when he discusses the cultural changes information technologies have brought about and what individuals and society as a whole can do to address the social and cultural uncertainties, anxieties, and ambiguities. By recognizing the modern deluge of information and laying out the historical and cultural structure of the information age, Borgmann takes important steps in dealing with the flood of information that threatens to suffocate reality as well as individual identity. However, he stops short of exploring hard solutions to the problems he identifies, and as a result, the text ignores the more empowering aspects of information and in doing so limits the overall analysis.

That said, no one could be expected to provide all of the answers to the various conflicts and problems associated with the information age. By providing a unique account of the history of information and taking an innovative look at the information age, Borgmann is able to ask the right questions and provide the context and background information to aid individuals and society in exploring answers in an era of uncertainty. The result is a fully informative and powerfully thought provoking account of information and technology and their respective impacts on the reality of modern society.

Borgmann is currently Regents Professor of Philosophy at the University of Montana. His extensive and distinguished career as a professor, scholar, and author focusing on the philosophy of society and culture with a particular emphasis on technology is evident in the intelligent, well-written, and meticulously thought out text. With its unique scholarly content and wide appeal, Holding On to Reality is recommended for all academic libraries, information professionals, philosophers, postmodernists, culturalists, and anyone generally interested in the information age, its historical antecedents and its socio-cultural implications.


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