Why then—with so much information—are we in an age of such unenlightenment? Why is virtually any idea of substance "dumbed down" for public consumption? Why is instant gratification so important to so many of us?
Easy access to information, it would seem on the surface, should be leading to a better educated, more knowledgeable population. So why is it that as information technology improves, most people move down, not up, the knowledge chain?
Some answers to these questions emerged from a symposium where a group of major American artists tried to grapple with creative issues facing them in the age of digital media. The session, called "Digital Expression," was held at the Media Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.
Peter Sellars, a director of theater, opera and film, offered some insight on modern information overload.
Hundreds of years ago, Sellars said, people in search of knowledge went on personal pilgrimages for information. The process, he said, could take years. By not having the information easily available, there was experience attached to the search that made the finding of the information far more meaningful to the recipient.
"The actual act of finding something had value," he said. "It was a beautiful thing because when you found something it meant something.
"Now we are getting all this information with no experience attached to it," Sellars continued. "Where there is no pilgrimage the information itself is debased, devalued and dehumanized. In a sense the ratio of experience to information content is radically altered today. What's irritating about the age of information is that it creates this yuppie denial of experience. We have everything at our fingertips but we don't value anything."
Unlike some others attending the symposium, Sellars embraced the "untamed quality" of the current Internet structure because it allows the user to wander and discover information through his or her own personal experience.
"To just meander is one of the pleasures of life," Sellars said. "To have the user making wrong turns through the information is exactly the point. That's where the juice is."
Today's mass media, said Sellars, reflects only a single voice, not the broad range of human experience. "You get the feeling that huge parts of human experience are going undocumented and unrecognized. A very narrow group of people are creating this insane (communications) gridlock," he said. "We are aware there are many, many voices that we don't hear today at all. The CBS Evening News represents only one voice."
Artists, he said, "must break out of the official information structure" to find new ways to express important subjects that mainstream media refuses to address.
"Aristotle wrote about the attempts to touch the totality of an experience," said Sellars. "As human beings, we are complex, divided and multilayered. Therefore, what satisfies us is complex, multilayered and has all these built-in conflicts just as we do. How do with set up (new media) structures that show how we really feel?"
The issue of experience was also addressed by the actress Jane Alexander. She embraced information technology as an important artist's tool but was clearly troubled by those who would use it as a substitute for experiencing reality.
"Seeing the Mona Lisa on a compact disc is not the same as seeing the real thing," she said. "Hearing 'If I Had A Hammer' on your computer speakers is not the same as hearing Pete Seeger singing it. There is no way to actually create live theater in a box or a game.
"The whole point about virtual reality is that it is virtually real, not really real," Alexander continued. "Technology cannot replace the seeing, the hearing and the experiencing of art. It doesn't replicate the doing of art. There's a big difference between a paint brush and a canvas and a mouse and a screen."
Perhaps one of the significant lessons we'll one day learn from this computer era is that information should never be confused with knowledge. Having instant access to all the world's databanks has little to do with genuine cultural progress.
Despite all the information age hype, the real information—the information that matters in life—comes only when we as human beings are ready to open ourselves to accept it. For most of us, this comes through living life, acquiring personal experience and searching for knowledge out of genuine curiosity.
(I wrote this column in October of 1994. I was reminded of it last night in a discussion about younger people who often use the Internet to substitute information (say from Wikipedia) for genuine knowledge. When I re-read it, it seemed as timely as ever. When it was written, Jane Alexander was chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Arts.)