Techno-Rot -- Dawn of the Era of Blab

May 01, 1994|By HUGH HECLO

You've probably noticed how fancy phone systems have left you talking less to people and more to machines, or how the new e-mail account means you spend more time reading messages from people you don't want to hear from than from people you do.

Call it techno-rot, the tendency of communications technology to reduce the quality of information imparted even as it grossly increases the quantity. Techno-rot is the triumph of technique over substance, information over knowledge, processing over truly producing. And there's more coming. Soon the Personal Communication Device, the cordless phone uplinked to a satellite and attached to a miniature computer, will put you permanently on-line, on-demand with anyone anywhere.

But signs of a countermovement have also begun to emerge. A major Midwestern corporation recently replaced its call-forwarding system with live operators and drastically cut back on employees' use of answering machines. An ultra high-tech Japanese firm has guaranteed workers one hour every morning when they can work at their desks with no phone calls, faxes or other interruptions. Faced with 500 messages a day, some leading scientists have simply withdrawn from Internet, while others are instituting old-fashioned peer-review methods to screen out information.

Call the reaction to techno-rot ''downteching'' -- the equivalent to downsizing except that it involves firing machines rather than people in order to increase efficiency and effectiveness. Downteching is driven by a growing recognition of technology's potential to displace purpose -- as in information technology and its ostensible purpose, communication.

Even before the modern self-esteem movement, many people were convinced that simply because they thought something, it must be worth saying. This innate human tendency to produce ''blab'' -- undigested information pretending to be knowledge -- has historically been held in check by certain material realities. Left to its own devices, the human voice carries only a few hundred feet. A piece of paper once cost half a day's wage. Today, advancing information technology has reduced these transaction costs to the point where a person can now, at virtually no personal cost, inflict whatever pops into his head onto you and everyone else. Hence the faxes, e-mail folders and xerox trays clotted with blab.

If the conventional wisdom has held that cheaper communications technology produces better communication, blab theory argues the opposite. After a certain point, reductions in transaction costs -- far from enhancing communication -- are toxic to it, producing net losses in usable information.

As manufacturers, educators and politicians find common interests in overselling technology, such revelations are bound to grow, fueling the downteching movement. The Midwestern corporation regained customers by recognizing that a machine can do no more than process requests; only real people can ask if they can help you. It is only a matter of time before people realize that Vice President Gore's dream of giving every school child access to the Library of Congress through a national information superhighway won't solve the problem of kids who won't crack a book or can't find their way to the public library.

Recently, 16 distinguished educators gathered at IBM headquarters to use state-of-the-art conferencing software to rethink the design of higher education. Seated at 16 consoles, the educators typed away with stream-of-consciousness thoughts on the subject. Software compiled and correlated the topics, circulated this back to the consoles, received and sent out the comments on comments occurring in a simultaneous, networked conversation among the 16 participants. At the end of a full day, the technology recompiled and interactively edited the results to produce -- blab.

Expect the downtech movement to grow along with each new turn of the technological screw that claims to be able to turn blab into thought. A new therapeutic profession will develop to wean organizations and individuals from counterproductive dependence on technology. As in chemical detoxification, de-teching will be painful and replete with denial.

In the long run, the comparative advantage will shift from those with information glut to those with ordered knowledge, from those who can process vast amounts of data to those who can explain what is worth knowing and why.

But in the short run there are powerful economic and cultural forces arrayed against downteching -- particularly the unspoken presumption that if there is a technology to do something, we should do it. By contrast, downtechers say, ''let's think about it.'' More and more people in modern societies will find they need to do just that.

Hugh Heclo teaches public affairs at George Mason University. He wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.

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