The Magazine

Misinformation Age

More computers, less learning.

Jan 2, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 16 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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Of course it makes some people better informed, in some areas. But what's the overall pattern? We've heard about it for years: "narrowcasting" as opposed to broadcasting. As information channels become cheaper to build and operate, they are able to concentrate profitably on narrower ranges of material. The pattern is obvious in the cable TV explosion (made possible by digital electronics). TV watchers have hundreds of channels to choose from; most are one--topic channels or movie channels. websites and blogs have been this way from the start: Most successful blogs cover one topic in depth (or anyway, at length).

For years people have discussed narrowcasting and its side effects. In the pre--cable days, there were only three TV networks, and a large proportion of all TV watchers would be tuned into one of them. The networks had a unifying effect on American culture. You could count on loads of people having seen the same junk you had. And the networks used to cover presidential nominating conventions, major presidential speeches and press conferences, big public events like space shots, and so on. This sort of unifying cultural force no longer exists.

Of course, the heyday of the TV networks themselves only lasted three decades ('50s--'70s). Is it (perhaps) normal for U.S. culture to lack unifying influences? No. Before the TV networks, there were radio networks and mass--market picture magazines. Before that there were other sorts of magazines and, of course, books. (Abraham Lincoln famously remarked that Uncle Tom's Cabin caused the Civil War. He was kidding; but not entirely.) In the United States, with its hugeness and ethnic hodgepodge, there have always been powerful centrifugal forces just beneath the surface. Those who are eager to grind under heel (like cigarette butts) every manifestation of religion in public life should keep in mind that Judeo--Christian religion and the Bible have, traditionally, been the most important unifying forces in American life. (But, of course, many of those who would love to stamp out all traces of public religion would also love to see the country deteriorate into a messy mass of separate subcultures.)

In the Information Age, it's easy for people to stick with the topics they know and love. It's easy to watch nothing but fashion and gardening shows, or the news 24 hours a day. It's easy to read blogs that all focus on the same topic. Some people grow better and better informed about their topics of choice. Others just watch, read, or hear the same story (with minor variations) over and over and over-and grow less likely every month to meet with anything new.

Few of us are immune to the temptations. I'm certainly not. I have two boys, and the three of us are capable of sitting still for any number of World War II documentaries on cable TV; in fact, for any number of "The P--47 in the European Air War, 1943" documentaries. Each one teaches us a little more. But after a certain point, it becomes clear that each hour you spend this way is more apt to decrease than increase your store of knowledge-when you consider the other things you might be doing instead.

Of course the cybersphere is brand new, and things are bound to change. Two good developments are all but inevitable.

First: There's one specialized field that draws a broad instead of narrow audience; that expands instead of narrows a person's viewpoint. Namely, beautiful prose. At some point we will see a (sort--of) blog that does (in a bloggish sort of way) what the New Yorker did in the 1930s and '40s. It will publish paragraphs and short pieces on any topic, from no particular ideological angle. New pieces will appear every day, around the clock. Each will be lucidly written and precisely, beautifully edited. People will read for the sheer joy of reading. Information--Agers who don't know what good prose is will be dazzled and won over.

Second: Search engines are riding high, but they solve only half the problem. If you know what you're looking for, they help you find it. But people don't only want to search, they want to browse. Before long there will be websites that let you flip through dozens of other sites as easily as you flip through a magazine's pages; as easily as you browse lots of magazines at a newsstand.

But it's clear what the web's most important contribution to a well--informed public will be. Web--based schools will enormously expand our educational options, and make it much easier than it is today to circumvent educationally corrupt local schools. Many such web projects are already underway and doing fine.