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Breaking Bad Habits:
A Review Essay
"The chains of habit," wrote Samuel Johnson, "are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken." We have discovered, just as Augustine warned, that what we did not instantly resist has now become an ineluctable necessity, or, to cite the divine-like Dante, "All [our] fear is changed into desire."
Two books present themselves to us as pictures of the coming apocalypse, the soon-to-be Armageddon of the information endgame. First is Quentin Schultze's book, Habits of the High-Tech Heart, a perfect history of how, as Robert Theobald put it, information has doubled and knowledge has halved while wisdom has quartered. Next in line, as if a one-two punch, is well-known librarian-philosopher Michael Gorman's The Enduring Library. Both books cover the same subject matter and in many ways touch upon the same themes and occasionally in the same manner. But both have profoundly contrary Weltanschauungs, as each tackles the information implosion and what to do about it.
If one were to sum up in one line what Schultze's book is about, vis-à-vis technology, it could be argued that it is this: the bad habits of our virtual existences are such that they first impressed us and have now overwhelmed us. The overwhelming far exceeds those first favorable impressions. Schultze calls for a collective breath-taking followed by a moment of introspection to find out where we are in the cyberage and, more important, where we're going. In this way, Habits of the High-Tech Heart echoes Robert Putnam's excellent Bowling Alone. Putnam makes [End Page 452] the case that the Web, among many other things, has made narcissists of us all; as a consequence, we are not only finding human interaction more difficult than before, but we're also finding it downright annoying. Putnam sounded a call for a return to community. Schultze does too, but from theistic presuppositions. The combination of excellent research and careful writing makes Habits one of the must-reads of the year.
Schultze begins with what he calls "promiscuous knowing." Promiscuous knowing comes from our habit of seeking information rather than "intimate knowledge." Indeed, our lust for information is Rabelaisian in scope. Roger Shattuck, in his magisterial Forbidden Knowledge, makes a similar case when he contends that there are things humans can know but perhaps should not be so eager to explore. In other words, for Shattuck, in some cases, it is still better not to know. For Schultze, it is this promiscuous knowing that drives us to desire what we cannot (or perhaps should not) know. We are stuck in what he calls "our informationism," "a non-discerning, vacuous faith in the collection and dissemination of information as a route to social progress and personal happiness" (26). If we are not more careful about our cybermania, and immediately so, this dis-ease may well be terminal. (I am not sorry about the pun.)
Informationism removes us ever farther away from real knowledge because "the plethora of available information makes us more dependent on experts who supposedly can interpret it for us" (25). Librarians of all people should be cheering in unison, as we have witnessed firsthand the appetite for ever more information only to see it all but disappear from our databases or vanish from our hot-linked Websites. In many ways, the Web has not made life easier so much as it has made life more complex, more weighted down with the desire to know what's there without really understanding why we need to know it, if we should know it, what we...