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Misinformation Age

David Gelernter | Weekly Standard | Friday, December 30, 2005

Misinformation Age

December 30, 2005

We are supposed to be living in the "Information Age." If we are, exactly what topic are people so well--informed about? Video games? The same experts who know for sure that we are in mid--Information Age take it for granted that young people are colossally uninformed. And young people are more likely than anyone else to spend long hours beating their way happily through the dense, trackless electronic jungle. They grow up with computers, the web, cell phones, hundreds of cable TV channels, and digital electronics in countless forms.

Consider the Information Age in the context of the dominant news story of recent years, the Iraq war. You can be superbly well--informed about Iraq if you follow the right websites. On the other hand, the Bush administration, the Democrats, and all the world's intelligence services were poorly informed about Iraqi WMDs. (Although every few months, the rumor pops up that they were all relocated to Syria. Is it true? We don't have that information.) Most people who visit Iraq nowadays remark when they get home that Americans are poorly informed about the situation on the ground. And leading Democrats presuppose a second layer of misinformation: When they accuse the administration of misleading the nation about WMDs, they assume that the public is badly informed about the extent to which the Democrats (along with everyone else) were badly informed. It's true that Iraq was and is an Information Age war. The coalition war effort would have been radically different without networks and digital electronics. But many people have not been so informed.

Returning to young people (the cultural climate affects young people most)-either the Information Age is real, and they would be even less well--informed without it (which is hard to picture); or it's a fraud and has failed to help or actually made things worse. The more carefully we ponder the facts, the more unsettling they become. And this issue is important. We can't abolish the Cybersphere, and few people would choose to. But that doesn't mean we have to take it as it is and like it and keep quiet. There is remarkably little commentary on the Cybersphere beyond consumer--level recommendations. You'd have thought Cybersphere criticism would be nearly as well developed as literary criticism by now. It isn't.

So what's the truth about the Information Age?

We can all agree that American public schools are a joke, and are more responsible than anything else for rising levels of public ignorance. Endless illustrations are available, but take just one for concreteness. Consider the contrast between mathematics and history. History teaching has been raked by heavy fire from ed--school ideologues for several decades. College--preparatory math classes have been relatively undamaged. In consequence, serious math teaching has made no progress but has (at least) held its own. History teaching has fallen to pieces.

College--preparatory math had been making steady progress. Before World War II, most incoming college freshmen weren't prepared for calculus. By the 1960s, good colleges had cut out teaching any math course below calculus. In the late '60s, math--teaching moved a step higher: High schools started teaching calculus, and smart college freshmen routinely enrolled in second--year calculus courses. Since then, progress has stopped. Today most public high schools offer essentially the same math sequences they did a generation ago.

History has (predictably) been much harder hit. In the early 1970s, many good students took a year--long college--level ("Advanced Placement") survey course in modern European history, and another in American history. Since then, modern educational techniques have worked an outright miracle. Today most incoming college students don't seem to know any history at all. (Except what they've learned by themselves, or their parents have taught them.) The high school history textbooks favored by public schools here in southern Connecticut are pathetic. Their left--wing bias is blatant; the authors don't even try to hide it. Maybe they don't even see it. Recently, a graduate student at a major research university told me that she knew doctoral candidates in humanities departments who had never heard of (for example) Devil's Island and the Dreyfus Affair. They will soon be turned loose on the world as aspiring young scholars.

It's unfair to expect computers and the web to fix what the schools have broken. It is fair to ask whether the digital jungle has made things better or worse.

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.

The most important solution to the problematic Information Age has nothing to do with the web. Eventually we will get over the idea that playing with computers and the Internet is inherently virtuous. Schools ought to take the same line on web--browsing as they do on poker; it can be profitable if you're lucky, but do it on your own time. It's true that some schools have made sound educational use of computers and software. But my guess is that, on balance, American schools would do better if they junked their Macs and PCs and let students fool around somewhere else. Schools should be telling students to read books, not play with computers.

David Gelernter is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard. His book on Americanism is due to be published by Doubleday in 2006.
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