Cerebral Fodder

February 2003



The Web and Whitehead

When I was trying to come up with an idea for a regular feature, I decided that I should start off with a "Thought for the Month". It would be in tune with "Cerebral Fodder", the main title above. This would also allow me to occasionally address some of the important issues of our time. Some of them may well be controversial.

What better topic to launch this feature than the very medium on which these words appear; a medium that has become our daily staple.

The Web is a uniquely modern way of whiling away precious time, stuffing our minds with plenty of information, both useful and useless, forcing us to make choices. Then there's the bias of the presenter, which can often distort reality. It's not just a question of making creative use of such an easy and abundant source of information, but of putting both information and the ease of communication to good use in solving the world's pressing problems: poverty, corruption, war, famine, disease, environmental degradation, illiteracy, gross injustice, etc.,etc. If this jet-age technology could do even that, nothing else would matter. There are many other avenues for the creative or higher life. But our obsession with gadgets and conveniences will keep these technologies humming for generations to come.

The philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead (known for his profound work, Process and Reality), once said, as though prophetically, that "a merely well-informed man is the most useless bore on God's earth". Provocative words. I started reading Whitehead in high school, and still dip into his classic book, Science and the Modern World. I recommend it to anyone, with or without a science background, since this book is concerned more with philosophy and the thought behind science than with science per se. Whitehead thinks and speculates on the most generous scale. He died long before the information age, and well before his collaborator in mathematics, Bertrand Russell passed away.

As far as education was concerned, Whitehead always insisted on a liberal education in the widest sense, in order to inculcate in us the capacity for generalization and cross-disciplinary thought. This way we never lose sight of the principles underlying all human endeavor. If one thinks in terms of principle, one doesn't get bogged down in the sordid details. Details come after, as a practical adjunct to the idea. Add to this an essential quality at the heart of all inquiry: curiosity, without which new knowledge and originality would elude us.

In keeping with the cyber phenomenon, it wouldn't be out of place here to say a few words about that powerful and much-used (or abused?), yet often unreliable, service we all know as Email. It is both a noun and a verb—you receive email, and also email someone.

Picture the current use of E-mail:

E-mail commerce is like a bunch of people casually tossing around a ball. Nobody especially wants to catch it, or pass it on, much less return it. The ball does not merit much attention, just like email. It's just a toy, not to be taken too seriously. And of course, the more such toys there are in circulation, the less attention is paid to them. At best they're a 'harmless' nuisance that we wish would go away. But therein lies the paradox—we all like to receive something, including mail, but when called upon to give something in return, we shrink away with dislike, champion procrastinators that we are. Indeed we may end up disliking the person who sent the message(s) because of the 'unreasonable' burden he has suddenly imposed on us. We crave indulgence, but shirk engagement.

Email is supposedly an antidote for the laziness that seized people when they had to scribble on paper and mess with stamps and envelopes. Now all it takes is a few light taps and clicks to get your message across in seconds. So why the resistance or indifference? I think this can be put down to the lethargy of abundance. Too much of anything is bad for you. The media guru, Marshall McLuhan once observed that we like receiving, say, a magazine once in a while, not in a regular, predictable fashion that tends to devalue it. In short, abundance, coupled with regularity, can be evil, and leads to a paralysis of action.

In this age of digitized information, we're forever in danger of becoming merely well informed. The definition of being well-informed is itself in question: who reads books these days? The Web has taken over people's minds, shortening their attention span. For that reason alone I think it's worthwhile for the more intrepid among us to read books in quiet contemplation, distill their essence, and then post that wisdom on the Web so that it is not lost. It will at least be made accessible to the millions who now roam cyberspace with an unprecedented frenzy.

see also

Whither the Web?

Cyber Musings

Jayant Deshpande