Newsletter of the Association of Library and Information Science Students (ALISS)




 title of the newsletter: The Silverfish


June 2004

Vol VIII Issue V

Next article >>

Time to Defrag and Unplug:
A Synopsis of the Public Forum on Information and the Quality of Life

By Blythe Summers, MLIS Day

On May 10th at Town Hall, the public forum entitled “Information and the Quality of Life” kicked off Professor David Levy’s conference “Information, Silence, and Sanctuary.” While the conference was invitation-only, the public forum was a chance for several attendees of the conference to engage the public. It was definitely the stuff of 550-land, but the issues discussed at the forum carried relevance for everyone. Each of the different speakers offered a different diagnosis for the problem of information overload and its effect on our quality of life.

Bill McKibben, author of Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age and The Age of Missing Information, began with the idea that people need to occasionally remove themselves from the information world—to “unplug.” Darkness, solitude and silence, he pointed out, often have a negative connotation in our society, but according to McKibben, all three hold important values for us in dealing with the flood of information. He suggested we live in an enchantment—one that has lulled us into a false sense of good. The spell is cast and we are in love with our information, but instead of enriching our lives, information is fragmenting us, distracting us, distressing us. It is easy to pretend that because we all have numerous emails, the Internet, and hundreds of TV channels, that we are living full lives. But as McKibben argues, we do not have a full life if we have no time to stop, take a breath, and reflect on the information we encounter and on our lives. Embracing darkness, solitude and silence as important components of our lives may be key in improving our relationship with information.

John Seely Brown, former Director of Xerox PARC and author of The Social Life of Information, offered the suggestion that we begin to look at how we can transform our technology to better reflect our needs and values. He is alarmed by the increasing stress caused by the “unnecessary complexity” in our lives. Technology is encouraging us to have tunnel vision; we are looking ahead to the future to see what we can invent next, but not looking around us to see if what we have is truly working. Technology and society, he urged, need to evolve together.

Carla Pryne, Episcopal minister and cofounder of Earth Ministry, discussed the Sabbath. She gave compelling reasons why we all need the experience of some kind of Sabbath in our lives in order to achieve balance. Practicing a Sabbath is one way of setting boundaries on one’s life—boundaries that help ensure the preservation of self. She encouraged people to view Sabbath not as simply a respite from daily life, but as a climax to life. The danger in not taking time for ourselves is that we have less time for things that are really important. For example, she drew a connection between our overwhelmed lives and the lack of democratic participation. As a society, she explained, our vision is going to come from people who take time to reflect, it is not going to come from those who work 24/7.

The common theme running through all of the speakers was that people need to take time to reflect—whether that reflection is done by quieting down, by paying attention to what is going around us, or by removing ourselves from the 24/7 world for periods of time. The speakers cautioned that our tools of technology, promising to connect us to the world, are seducing us into believing it is better to be connected than be alone. It is alone-time, however, that gives us the opportunity to look within ourselves for answers. Pryne pointed out that we are being convinced we do not have the knowledge we need within ourselves, when often we actually do. We just need to reclaim our time and space in order to find it.

The recommendations, for some, are easier said than done. It is not easy to extract oneself from what has become daily life for so many of us. The suggestion to do so, however, is compelling and the implications of change reach beyond the individual. Kirsten Foot, assistant professor in the Communications Department here at the UW, ended the forum with a series of thoughtful questions to help frame further thought: How do we recognize real knowledge? What kinds of ethical frameworks do we need? What institutions do we have and need to recognize these concerns? And, perhaps most compelling of all, what will it take for us to view those with technology as truly having something?

Next article >>