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Mitchell: River of Knowledge Growing Wider, But Not Deeper

It has been more than 400 years since Polonius, a character in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, observed that “brevity is the soul of wit.” One-liners by comics still draw laughter and praise. There’s much to admire about concise communication. Always has been. There are no wasted words in the Ten Commandments, for example.

Today, in the age of Twitter, more people are communicating more tersely than ever before in human history. We should be, as we say in Mississippi, in high cotton.

But there’s a problem: Context matters. Sometimes we need more information than a few words can tell us. Increasingly, all people know or care to know about a topic or a development is what can be gleaned from a tweet, a Facebook post or a 15-second video. Short and shallow.

There’s a passion, especially among young people, for immediacy. Reading or hearing something before others is cool. Passing along the “news” enhances a person’s social status.

Be clear, this is not an epistle on what’s wrong with young people. I work with them daily. A segment of teenagers and twentysomethings don’t have a clue; a segment of them would like to have a clue but don’t know where to look for it; and a segment has a clue and doesn’t know what to do with it. But the proportions have not changed from my own youth.

What is different is that is the best and brightest exhibit far more knowledge, far more maturity, far more wisdom and worldliness than I remember any of my classmates showing. In sum, I don’t carp about “kids” or fret about the future.

Overall, though, the world is not the same. The Internet and instant communication gets the credit and/or the blame.

A typical exchange text message exchange goes something like this:



“What are you doing?”

“Nothing. You?”

“Nothing. Did you see where …?”

“Yeah. Awesome.”

“Want to do something later?”

“Yeah. Text me.”

(Actually, due to the advent of something called emoticons, the conversation related above would actually be shorter — employing images of exclamation points, smiling faces or clapping hands instead of words. But I digress.)

The Internet has also opened the door to specialized knowledge. People, young and old, “compartmentalize.” That is, when a person finds a subject of interest, he or she can spend hours and hours cruising the web to gain expertise. It could be about NASCAR, fashion, music, food, hunting…most any topic.

Young people demonstrate this. When they actually interact face-to-face, they know each others’ specializations. If the question is about where to eat, all will turn to the person known to be the foodie. If the question is about an article of clothing, all will turn to the fashion guru.

The down side is that there are fewer generalists. A person may know everything there is to know about optimizing Bluetooth functionality, but have no idea there is air in car tires — or that the pressure should be checked occasionally. A person may know tire inflation is important, but have no idea who fought in World War II.

In the not-too-distant past, it seems, there were more people who knew a little math, could answer some questions about history and were fluent in the basic principles of science. Today, the instant availability of vast amounts of information allows people to pursue what interests them most, leaving little time for other topics.

Sadly, those who know little about the world outside their areas of specialization tend to be more gullible. They are easily misled on matters such as public policy. In a recent race for a U.S. House seat, a candidate promised Mississippians he would reduce taxes and balance the budget. Good-enough ideas, but no one asked him how in the world he intended to do that. It sounded appealing, and that’s what mattered.

We live in a world where a lot more is being said and a lot less is being understood.

Again, this is not a lament. It’s a reality check. People — not just young people — love facts (or what they believe to be facts) and tossing them around in cyberspace. Fewer are sticking with anything long enough to determine rationales. “Why” leads the list of questions not being asked.

Don’t believe it? Try asking. Next time a friend makes an unequivocal statement of support for or against an idea or, even better, a politician, ask, “What’s your basis for that?”
You’re likely to hear “ah” and “uh” several times.

The river of instant knowledge and strong opinions grows wider every day — just not deeper.

Charlie Mitchell mugshot 2013

Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at cmitchell43@yahoo.com.

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