March 14, 2003

Reruns: Ontological Breakdown...

Brent Sleeper realizes that he's heard of me before:

Blogger and Child Reunion (Brent Sleeper's Web Site): For much longer than I've been publishing my weblog, I've been carting around a manila folder stuffed with interesting articles and pictures I've clipped to remind me of particular places and times. I was looking through it this morning and had a funny moment of recognition: one of my favorite clippings turns out to have been written by Brad DeLong...

Here's what he's talking about:

Ontological Breakdown

Date: Mon, 31 Jul 1995 15:16:24 -0700
From: (Brad DeLong)
Subject: Ontological Breakdown

I am not at all sure that this is the right place to put this. I can already hear Chuq Von Rospach saying "Now, if this were apple-philosophy-internet-virtuality..."

Nevertheless, the experience was profoundly disturbing, and made we want to consult a philosophical professional (in the same way that a health problem makes me want to consult a medical professional...)

Let me back up. For the past year or so one of my main Internet activities has been to use it to look for pictures of dinosaurs. The five-year-old sits on my right knee and the two-year-old on my left. We stare Triceratops eye-to-eye, and to count the teeth of Tyrannosaurus Rex. (The five-year-old is pretty good at following links; the two-year-old is still at the "Twicer'ops. Piktur Twicer'ops" stage.)

One of our favorite places is the address above: the University of California Museum of Paleontology-the UCMP. On the Internet, the UCMP is a marvelous virtual, interactive museum. It carries the endorsement of Adam C. Engst, who writes that he could "spend the rest of my afternoon here, browsing the exhibits, and all without hurting my feet."

Last June I stopped being a Senior Treasury Department Official, and became a Berkeley economics professor. Since the UCMP is in /, I asked around, and was told that the UCMP had just moved into the newly-renovated Valley Life Sciences Building.

So one afternoon I paused in my attempts to deal with the pile of paper created by the Associate Vice Chancellor for Sending Junk Mail to Faculty and the Assistant Associate Vice Chancellor for Thinking Up Pointless Rules, and the five-year-old, the two-year-old, and I crossed Strawberry Creek to enter the Valley Life Sciences Building.

We walked past a wall of news clipping and pictures of paleontological digs. We soon found ourselves in the central stairwell in front of a banner that said "University of California Museum of Paleontology." There was a very impressive Tyrannosaurus skull behind glass. On the next floor up there was a similarly impressive Triceratops skull. The hip bones of a Tyrannosaurus (a different Tyrannosaurus) hung suspended in the stairwell.

That was pretty much it. The UCMP really had just moved, and did not have all the public exhibits unpacked yet. By mid-September a Tyrannosaurus Rex will fill up the entire three-story stairwell. But the public fossil collection is very small: the UCMP is a _research_ museum, not a display museum: it is for twenty-five- year-old graduate students fascinated by posters with titles like "Acid Rain an Agent of Extinction at the K-T Boundary--Not!" This research museum is not designed for five-year-olds, or for thirty-five-year-olds who don't know as much about geology and chemistry as they should.

I stood in the stairwell. I looked at the few-very impressive-fossils. I thought to myself, "Let's get back to my office computer, so that we can link to and see the real University of California Museum of Paleontology.

"The real museum," I thought, "has audio narration by the discoverers of dinosaurs. The real museum has many more bones-a Diplodocus skeleton, for one thing. The real museum has detailed exhibits on dinosaur evolution and geology...


"_This_ is the real museum. The Internet Web site http://ucmp1. is just the "virtual" image-an electronic reflection-of this place."

And that was when I felt I needed a consulting philosopher real bad.

There have long been speculations about how the electronic shadows made possible by the computer and telecommunications revolutions will acquire the intensity of effect, the immediacy, the complexity and the depth to become-in a certain sense-real. That afternoon in the Valley Life Sciences Building was the first time in my life that I had compared a place in the real world, the UCMP, to its virtual electronic image in cyberspace-and found the real world lacking, found that the real world experience lacked, compared to its virtual electronic image, the intensity of effect, the immediacy, the complexity, and the depth necessary for reality.

Thinking back, I realized that the electronic world behind the computer screen has been slowly acquiring reality-and the real world losing it-for some years. I check the card catalog for something or other every week; but it has been four years since I saw a wooden or metal drawer with 3 by 5 cards in it. If I say "it's on my desktop," I almost surely mean that a pointer to the computer file exists at the "root" level directory of my notebook computer. As far as desktops and card catalogs are concerned, the "virtual" images have so swamped the "real" objects as to make them vanish from my consciousness.

My cousin Tom Kalil tells me that cyberspace has obtained "liftoff": traffic on the NSFNET electronic network backbone is up from 3.6 billion bytes in March 1993 to 4.8 trillion bytes in March 1995. "WebCrawler" and "Yahoo" now index over 4 million electronic documents, and receive more than 9.4 million hits per week.

Some are oblivious to this transformation: I think of a respected academic elder who claimed that all physical discoveries since 1930 (including our current computer and communications technologies) were less significant than the past generation's "discoveries" in literary criticism-and who had the lack of perception (or perhaps he was simply irony-challenged) to make this claim in an electronic mail message!

For two generations people have been talking about how computers will have an extraordinary impact on human society and human knowledge. Our children will think as differently from us as we think differently from pre-Gutenberg monks, who would spend ten years copying and writing a commentary on one single illuminated manuscript. Our children will find our doctrines and beliefs as quaint as we find Socrates' distrust of the written word as an unsuitable tool for education.

The evening after returning from our expedition to the Valley Life Sciences Building I went upstairs to put the five-year-old to bed. He was talking-but not to himself.

"If you want to read books," he said, "click on the bookcase. If you want to play with dinosaur toys, click over here." He was pretending to be a Help System.

"To play with Lion King toys, click on the bottom of the bed."

I have pretended to be many things at play and work-a space explorer, a wise king, a Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, a Berkeley professor. But I never pretended to be a help system.

"If you need help, click on my picture on top of the dresser. I'll be there in a flash..."

Not only is the virtual world behind the computer screen acquiring reality, but the real world is acquiring some aspects of virtuality as well...

Brad DeLong

"Now 'in the long run' this [way of summarizing
the quantity theory of money] is probably
true.... But this **long run** is a misleading  | Brad DeLong
guide to current affairs. **In the long run**   | Dept. of Economics
we are all dead.  Economists set themselves     | U.C. Berkeley
too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous  | Berkeley, CA 94720
seasons they can only tell us that when the     | (510) 643-4027  376-1362
storm is long past the ocean is flat again."    | (510) 642-6615 fax

Posted by DeLong at March 14, 2003 06:01 PM | TrackBack


Nice. Shouldn't things like this be published on paper, or am I irony challenged too? I particularly liked your point about how we can expect the internet experience to reshape the thinking of future generations in the same way Gutemberg did.

On a different note. The success of the Gutemberd's press was in large part a response to the intellectual opression by the Catholic Church. Who knows what future historians will argue? That the success of internet as a communication tool is to be explained by the conservative bias and self-censure of American media at the turn of the 21st century? Or by the fact that world culture had finally evolved to the point where mankind needed a communication tool that allowed no borderline? Or that human capital accumulation in advanced societies had reach such a point that media that did not allow interactivity with and feedback from the larger public had become unsatisfying.

Posted by: Jean-Philippe Stijns on March 14, 2003 09:34 PM

Leaving the auditorium, I heard someone say: "What a great concert! They were almost as good as the CD." A CD is not a concert any more than a web page is a museum. But we're getting there.

A web page is more convenient (efficient?) than a museum the way a museum is more convenient than flying to Africa to see the bones. The internet and a CD ROM is more convenient than seeking out and collecting great texts and reference books. A web page does not replace any of those things. A web page can enhance those things the way a book about Alaska can make a trip north more interesting.

We're still defining where in the continuum of communication media or learning tools or information stores "the internet" fits in. Many are still working out how to make "the internet" more useful and a possible alternative to travel, museums and books. Your virtual museum experience (and more important, your kids' virtual museum experience) was one better alternative. I hope there are many more.

Posted by: James Erlandson on March 17, 2003 05:29 PM
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