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Village of Babel

When I visited James Quello, head of the Federal Communications Commission, in his office to discuss surveys that showed a surprising lack of knowledge about political affairs among the American public, he commented, “If people would just tune in, they’d be better informed.” The problem, of course, is that people are tuning in but they’re acquiring specialized knowledge.

“There is so much information,” laments pollster Andrew Kohut, “that people throw their hands up and say, Well, I’m going to focus on this very narrow part of the world.’”

A pluralistic democracy requires a certain amount of tolerance and consensus rooted in an ability to agree on common questions. Yet in an electronic world of endless communication choices, we increasingly speak different languages and share fewer metaphors, icons, historical interests, and news events. Bill Gates’s celebrated “asynchrony” is but an eloquent way of saying that we are out of step with one another.

This response is one reason for the troubling level of social polarization plaguing the United States. We face a paradoxical spiral in which the more information we come upon, the more we narrow our focus and retreat into different spheres of knowledge. We are, as writer Earl Shorris says, “A nation of lonely molecules.”

The Internet promotes this trend. Although 11 billion words on 22 million Web pages give us access to more information than ever before, Web surfers often explore their personal interests, and are often rewarded with highly specific information and communicate only with people who share those interests.

Software enabling us to create “smart agents” that automatically filter out information we don’t think we need will further exacerbate this trend: stumbling onto new and interesting subject matter becomes much less likely in a customized information environment. Nicholas Negroponte of the MIT Media Lab insists that smart agents can and should include an adjustable “serendipity dial.” But one can not automate spontaneity.

The Internet does allow previously disenfranchised groups to communicate cheaply without geographic limitation. Gays and lesbians, for example, inherently dispersed throughout society, have benefited tremendously from online forums that offer the opportunity to share their thoughts about what it means to be gay, practical considerations about living a healthy, happy life, and techniques for forcing politicians to take them seriously as a group with important interests. But there is a great danger of mistaking cultural tribalism among people with obviously common interests for real, shared understanding among more diverse groups.

Journalists can provide the vital social glue that makes us a common unit, and also help us analyze competing statistical claims. Unfortunately, many journalists reflexively balk at the prospect of stories that smell of “old news,” reporting instead the latest opinion poll, the shocking personal indiscretion, this morning’s testimony.

The news-flash mindset arose among a group of producers at a weekly editorial meeting I attended years ago for National Public Radio’s “Talk of the Nation.” One of us had suggested an educational show on AIDS prevention, in light of polls that showed much ignorance on the subject. But both the senior producer and the host quashed the idea, insisting that the information had already been reported and that it was “not our job to educate people.”

But by limiting their purview to news flashes, journalists are absolving themselves of having to consider a variant of the tree-falls-in-the-woods dilemma: what happens when information is reported but everyone is too distracted to notice? Many journalists haven’t yet come to terms with the implications of our society’s fundamental shift from scarcity to glut, which is why Yahoo, Alta Vista, and other World Wide Web search engines are on their way to becoming our primary information sources. Journalists need to approach information as a natural resource that has to be managed and analyzed more than simply acquired.

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