Richard Reeves

Are We Thinking Too Fast for Our Own Good?

NEW YORK -- Could the Civil War, or the War Between the States, as Southerners called it, have been prevented if the telegraph had been developed in the 1820s rather than the 1850s?

The argument might be made that the transmission of simple unmodulated electric impulses by wire -- dots and dashes that universalized news and other information -- might have made South Carolinians more like New Yorkers and modulated their desire to start killing each other. After all, the first "wire service," The Associated Press, was created to develop new methods of homogenizing news to make it acceptable most anywhere in the country.

A silly question probably. There is evidence that goes the other way. For instance, it could be argued that modernized information distribution is making millions of Muslims more hostile toward Americans and other carriers of Western ideas. If the Taliban existed in slower times, they might know less about our offensive ways -- offensive to them, that is -- and we might not even know they existed until British travel writers or National Geographic Society photographers found their way over the Hindu Kush.

What brought all that to mind was a provocative recent essay by James Glanz in the science pages of The New York Times. The point being considered was whether the development of the Internet and other satellite communications systems was creating a tyranny of conformity in scientific research. How can one man or woman brooding alone, perhaps producing truly original work or theses, compete against the bandwagon effect that may be endemic to this new time of speeded-up communication?

"Instead of fostering many independent approaches to cracking each difficult problem, the Web, by offering scientists a place to post their new results immediately, can create a global bandwagon in which once-isolated scientists rush to become part of the latest trend," he wrote. "In the resulting stampede, all but a few promising areas are quickly abandoned. The pressure to conform can be especially intense for young scientists."

And, history tells us, young scientists acting alone, challenging the conventional wisdom of their day, are the people most likely to significantly advance human knowledge, particularly in the basic research fields of mathematics and physics. To make that point, Glanz quoted history of science professor John Norton of the University of Pittsburgh, who invoked the magic name: "Isolation was important for Einstein."

Other mathematicians and scientists cited the breakthroughs of physicists in the Soviet Union who were isolated from many Western scientific advances, but, it turned out, were actually doing more significant work in such areas as quantum field theory.

Going from the sublime to the ridiculous, most of us probably see the dangers of less original information and less isolated individual effort in our own fields of endeavor. In journalism, I see it happening everywhere -- in ways separate from the obvious profit-driven consolidation of newspapers and news-gathering operations. In Internet journalism, where the premium is on speed, it is not difficult to see that hundreds of sites and, presumably, thousands of reporters and editors are simply updating and recycling other people's work. Although that appears to produce more information and insight, perhaps it is doing just the opposite.

I have thought for a couple of years about a scene I saw outside the Capitol a couple of years ago when dozens of reporters and cameramen converged outside after a shooting inside the building. I happened to be coming out of the Library of Congress and could see the whole scene from a distance. What I basically saw was reporters walking in small circles, 20 feet or so away from each other, all of them with cellphones to their ears. They were talking to their editors back at the office, and the editors were telling them what was on the wires, on CNN and on the Internet.

Almost no one was doing what they had done in the old days, before they had instant access to their offices, which was looking for and talking to witnesses, asking what they had seen. My guess is that with all the new tools and speed, the process is actually producing less new information than reporters generated in the old days.

Journalism, of course, is not exactly rocket science, and rocket science is not exactly basic research. But the lesson for all may be the same. It was articulated in an old-fashioned way to Glanz by physicist Carlo Rovelli: "The problems fundamental physics is facing right now very much require stepping back, sitting down, taking off the shoes and talking by the fire."

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