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The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down To Size

Author: Tor Norretranders (Translated by Jonathan Sydenham)
Publisher: New York: Viking Press, 1999
Review Published: February 2001

 REVIEW 1: Tavia Turkish

The User Illusion is a new book by Tor Norretranders, a science writer whom Salon magazine dubs "the Danish James Gleick" for his accessible and popular style. It turns out to be a polemic against the information society. It is somewhat surprising to learn that it was first published in 1991 -- it seems especially directed at our world-view as it has been transformed by the mid-nineties arrival of the Web. The durability of Norretranders' critique, in an age when much other writing about the information society seems outdated almost before the ink dries, is impressive. Ironically, this work would have probably been ignored had it appeared in English translation in 1991 (Norretranders writes in Danish). And so, perhaps paradoxically, it has grown more timely with time.

Norretranders argues that we are misguided in our belief that the computer screen will provide a portal to an infinitely more rich stream of information and interactivity than has ever before been available to us. He dissents from the cyberoptimist prediction that computers will fulfill the Sixties promise of consciousness expansion. The very structure of consciousness, he argues, has set us up to overestimate the degree of reality's "bandwidth" that it allows in. Far from expanding consciousness, the information society promises to narrow even further the bottleneck between us and the world.

Norretranders spends the first part of the book in a somewhat idiosyncratic narrative romp through the development of what we would now call cognitive science. Developments in theoretical physics and information theory, he argues, construct a picture of a world far more complicated than consciousness cares to deal with. Not simply is there more information available out there than we can sense (ultraviolet light and all that), but what we can in fact sense is winnowed down extraordinarily before it is registered as conscious sensation. The challenge we face is not acquiring sense-data from the world. The problem is throwing away almost all the data that floods in, and constructing a useful picture from the trickle that gets past all our filters.

Norretranders compares consciousness to the graphical user interface of a computer, which represents the inner workings of a computer as "files," "windows," and colorful "icons." This interface by no means accurately represents the organization of information within the computer, but that is of no importance. It does not have to be a true picture of what is going on inside the computer. It only has to be useful to its user, to translate the binary ones and zeroes inside the computer into a form that is friendly and digestible. This is the user illusion.

The user illusion of consciousness is necessary equipment, and for Norretranders the history of consciousness is the history of human civilization and technological transformation. Without consciousness, we would not have gotten beyond the hunter/gatherer stage of social organization. The problem is that consciousness encourages us to confuse the map with the territory, and to repress an acknowledgement of the amount of sensory information we receive and act upon, but which never makes its way into consciousness. Norretranders cites disputed research that suggests consciousness actually lags behind decision-making by half a second, and that it functions more as a veto on decisions made subconsciously than as the sovereign "I" Descartes saw as central to human existence. The vast bulk of our interaction with the world, Norretranders asserts, actually occurs subliminally, literally below the threshold of consciousness.

Consciousness encourages us to ignore the amount of our experience that occurs outside its symbolic processes, and this presents a crucial problem for the emergent information society. Since the computer screen takes the model of our own consciousness, since it is in fact made in the image of our consciousness, it flatters consciousness. But because it is structured like consciousness, the information presented graphically through a computer is already narrowed significantly down from the amount that our sensory capacities expect to be dealing with. Computers introduce a second bottle-neck between individual consciousness and the world. The rich stream of information circulating around in what has become a world wide web, Norretranders argues, secretly bores us. Our eyes glaze over not because there is too much information there, but because there is too little. In an age when it is again being proposed that education can be decoupled from the classroom interaction between student and teacher, and delivered efficiently via distributed technology instead (this was the premise behind earlier distance-learning initiatives using telephone, television, and the mails), it is worth considering this argument. Our instinctive but hard-to-articulate revulsion at the prospect of earning a college degree through a modem, he would argue, is not simply a fear of change. Rather, it represents an accurate assessment of the holistic nature of education. Education is not just a technology transfer. It is a complex interaction between and among human consciousness, which technology may be able to enhance, but can never fully mediate or displace.

Not everyone will agree with Norretranders' science or even feel equipped to assess its accuracy. My hunch, as a non-scientist, is that his account of cognitive science is partial. His presentation tends to be in the genre of "gee whiz" popular science writing. It emphasizes a linear, progressive, and consensual account of scientific discovery. Norretranders does not propose to "teach the conflicts" in science, nor does he suggest that there are competing schools of thought on such questions as: In what sense is it meaningful or accurate to say consciousness lags a half second behind reality? In what ways does it make sense to insist that subliminal information is crucial to our experience and judgment of the world? Long-standing and central philosophical questions such as the question of free will are treated as if science had already ended the debate, and we have simply not caught up with it.

Norretranders repeatedly returns to the trope of science "hiding" its results from a reluctant public, casting himself as a whistleblower. The understandable purpose for this tropology is to add dramatic tension and excitement to his account of scientific debates normally conducted in a language inaccessible to a layperson. But it makes it all the more interesting that he chooses not to include this human need for narrative into his theory of consciousness. His reversal of conventional wisdom, the observation that information society is much more famine than feast, is finally persuasive to me. Still I wonder that he does not include storytelling among the human cognitive requirements that the computer screen fails to deliver, and what this omission tells about the limitations of his world-view. Surely the debate over the electronic book, for example, is intimately connected to a deep-seated feeling that, while the Internet may be fine for delivering the latest stock quotes, it ought not to be delivering the latest Toni Morrison. It is already a cliché to say that you cannot curl up in bed with a computer screen. Even when that changes, as it will soon, I imagine defenders of the book will continue to contrast the sensual pleasures of the physical book with the sterility of portable e-book readers.

Norretranders tells a story of a world, in all its immense grandeur, being funneled through our relatively meager consciousness, and the costs to ourselves of having that reality come pre-funneled through computers. But the study of stories (and what are the humanities if not the study of stories?), tells the tale in reverse. Here consciousness, the user illusion, unleashes the imagination that creates a reality whose proportions dwarf the world. Without an account of the world-making properties of consciousness, one could mistakenly read the history of consciousness as a steady winnowing down of reality by consciousness. Computers are not the first technology to deploy the user illusion. The old-fashioned book, after all, can also be accused of funneling reality into a meager trickle of words across the page. However timely, then, one could also imagine Norretranders' argument being made several centuries ago against Gutenberg. In the end, his polemic against the information society may end up resembling nothing so much as what Derrida long ago named logocentrism: the privileging of orality and the living voice over the dead voices of textuality.

In the end, if this work of popular science successfully cuts consciousness down to size, it also unwittingly underscores the ongoing role of the "other" culture, that of the humanities, in building consciousness back up again.

Tavia Turkish:
Tavia Turkish is a doctoral candidate in American Studies at Yale, and a research fellow at the Center for Humanities at Wesleyan.  <tturkish@wesleyan.edu>

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