4.0261 Clearing Houses for Information? (1/55)

Elaine Brennan & Allen Renear (EDITORS@BROWNVM.BITNET)
Tue, 10 Jul 90 16:45:18 EDT

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 4, No. 0261. Tuesday, 10 Jul 1990.

Date: Mon, 09 Jul 90 20:51:42 EDT
From: Willard McCarty <MCCARTY@vm.epas.utoronto.ca>
Subject: clearing houses for information?

In 4.0257 of Humanist, Mike Heim wrote that,

"If information becomes the backdrop of business and commerce,
then the University as the clearing house for information becomes the
invisible paradigm for intelligent work....
But what is the relationship between information and humanism? Is
information the same as humanistic endeavors?"

While respecting the question, my verbal fur is rubbed the wrong way by
two expressions here, "clearing house" and "information". I would argue
that since words are all we have here, getting the right ones for the
question is worth some bother.

"Clearing house", I suggest, is all wrong for the job because it
connotes a chaotic place in which quantities of stuff are sold at a
discount or otherwise distributed with a minimum of care or fuss. Rare
or precious things are not found in clearing houses except by accident;
accidents may, of course, be happy accidents, one may find a real
bargain, just what one has been looking for. You cannot reasonably
expect to find every size and shape of thing, however, and you must take
special care that what you do find is worth carrying away. Universities
to my mind should not be dumping grounds or clearing houses for whatever
piles of information may have accumulated. Furthermore, the idea of the
university as a kind of business, a vendor of things people happen to
think they need at the moment, seems to me pernicious. Universities are
part of society and so must respond, but the question is how? Isn't the
idea of a Socratic opposition still as necessary as it has always been,
perhaps even more so?

"Information" seems wrong to me also. All knowledge is in a sense
information, and the etymology (suggesting that to be in-formed is to be
given intelligible shape) suggests further that information is what
every philosopher strives for, or should. The current English word
connotes, however, "factual information", as in how to drive a car,
build a circuit, enroll in a course, or mix paint. "Knowledge" is quite
different in ordinary usage, "wisdom" even more so. I wonder very
seriously if the vision of the Information Age, when our most important
commodity is information, has any room at all for the knowledge of poets
and philosophers. Surely as computing humanists we are best equipped to
understand the difference between "information" (what can be fed into
the computer, and what comes out) and the "knowledge" or even "wisdom"
that we may occasionally, with much hard work, be able to derive from

Words are important, such distinctions as I am trying to make are
important. Again from failing memory I pull out what I recall as a
Confucian gem. (I beg to be corrected or supplemented by those who
know.) Asked what one thing he would want to have done, the single, most
important change to be made to the world as he knew it, Confucius is
reported to have said, "the rectification of terms". Let us say clearly
what it is that we want.

Willard McCarty