2001 : WHAT QUESTIONS HAVE DISAPPEARED?

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physicist, is Associate Vice Provost for Research at Columbia University and was Associate Director of the Superconducting Super Collider Laboratory
What does all the information mean?

The ubiquity of upscale coffee houses has eliminated the need to ask "Where can I get a cup of coffee?" But I suspect that the question "What questions have disappeared?" is meant to elicit even deeper and [perhaps] more meaningful responses.

The coffee house glut has been accompanied — although with no necessarily causal link — by an avalanche of information [or, at least, of data] and in the rush to obtain [or "to access" — groan] that information we’ve stopped asking "What does it all mean?" It is as though raw data, in and of itself, has real value, indeed all of the value, and thus there is no need to stop, to assimilate, to ponder. We grasp for faster computers, greater bandwidth, non-stop connectivity. We put computers in every classroom, rewire schools. But, with the exception of a great deal of concern about the business and marketing uses of the new "information age," we pay precious little attention to how the information can be used to change, or improve, our lives, nor do we seem to take the time to slow down and deliberate upon its meaning.

We wire the schools, but never ask what all those computers in classrooms will be used for, or whether teachers know what to do with them, or whether we can devise ways to employ the technology to help people learn in new or better ways. We get cable modems, or high-speed telephone lines, but don’t think about what we can do with them beyond getting more information faster. [Really, does being able to watch the trailer for "Chicken Run" in a 2-inch square window on the computer screen after a several minute long download, constitute a major advance — and if we could cut the download time to several seconds, would that qualify?]

Most insidious, I think, is that the rush to get more information faster almost forces people to avoid the act of thinking. Why stop and try to make sense of the information we’ve obtained when we can click on that icon and get still more data? And more.

RAPHAEL KASPER, a physicist, is Associate Vice Provost for Research at Columbia University and was Associate Director of the Superconducting Super Collider Laboratory.