by Seymour Schechtman

We all have an intense respect for knowledge and its dividends but sometimes we do go to extremes. Alexander Pope back in the 18th century in his celebrated, oft quoted couplet "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, drink deeply or taste not that Pierian Spring" felt that more knowledge was the way to go, but today I think Pope might have some reservations about his enthusiasm. We have not a paucity but a plethora of fact and fancy and this could be a major impediment to our appreciation of the celebrated coming of the telecommunications boom and boon(?) which we are all awaiting with trembling anticipation. Not that one would downplay knowledge but many times its application, when new and different, can be unsettling or downright traumatic, producing very negative results at times. When Eve way back then--what we fondly call "the beginning"--convinced her mate Adam that they should both eat of the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge, immediately dire results were evident. Banishment from paradise and the burden of human life with sweat, toil and pain.

And then somewhat later on, when this "sinfully" acquired knowledge evidently was effective we had another explosion of divine recalcitrance as the aspiring mortals down below were constructing a tower to the heavens to enhance their status and knowledge. This hubris was met with the scattering of all humanity and the confounding of their previously uniform language into the "Babel" of tongues that we have today. Thus the threat of increasing human knowledge was forestalled by a fearful Deity, reluctant to watch their merely mortal creations attain more of their godlike dimension.

Much time elapsed and humble humanity continued with only inadequate oral transmission of life’s events, past and present. The favored few who were able to read and write, besides the warrior class, held great power over the great mass of illiterates. Even with the inventions of the printing press in the early middle ages the situation was much the same. Very few people could read. Gradually, over many centuries, literacy improved and the printed word, in the form of books, pamphlets, and newspapers became more common. And schooling became more a customary procedure. Even unto the eighth grade. And some people had a high school education, usually the wealthy ones whose parents had no need of the immediate income producing potential of their children. And then, by the close of the nineteenth century we had the beginning of the first communications revolution---products that could materially alter one’s thought or life style, or both. We first had the telegraph and then the telephone and the exciting first message of the inventor--Alexander Graham Bell-- "What miracles God hath wrought!"

And then, early into the 20th century came the true prime universal information dispenser, breaking the iron bound mold of the still too limited literacy that prevailed with its purely aural allure. Radio! which spanned the air free of the limitation of phone lines and could speak to people of all levels and inform regardless of intellectual limits. And with short wave as a delightful exotic embellishment, even getting London or Paris on the primitive radio crystal kits---static and all-- but still there to supplement the breakthrough that was becoming generally available to all. A sort of tentative equilibrium was established.. what with the gradual spread of universal education up into the secondary, high school level. Information, fact and knowledge was far less scarce and the eager eyes and ears of the populace was more than ready to absorb it..

Then, almost midway into the 20th century came the invention that upset the tentative information and knowledge balance. From the very first this development burst upon the scene with dynamic and upsetting impact. Even in its most imperfect infancy this novelty called television was overwhelmingly compelling and in the few years before color sets were available almost everyone was almost addicted to what we now regard as its primitive black and white beginning. A few stalwart souls refused its justified allure; but then came color TV! and all barriers were overturned. Not only entertainment but all forms of learning and knowledge programs were the order of the day’s airwaves. The term "couch potato" was coined, and beer and snack food consumption soared as people spent a major part of their lives in front of the TV, even unto forfeiting the delights of the dinner table.

As Newton Minow somewhat endearingly characterized the situation years ago as a "wasteland", alluding to the generally banal entertainment standards TV adhered to, so perhaps was the level of news and fact dissemination. But copious indeed was the volume of such video display. TV news became an important segment of total programming, if only as part of the compulsion to fill the large amount of available time. And prime time too, as it became evident that there was a genuine interest in the "entertainment" value to of current and past events, history, public affairs, etc. and their significance. Ultimately, as with radio, the magnetic power of attraction of these visual and audio mediums almost literally impacted our ability to make sound political judgments as the 30 second visual and or aural "sound bite" polluted our air waves with its almost primitive visceral appeal.

But lo! on the polar opposite side of the information and knowledge spectrum we also have the quantum proliferation of the most respected journalistic sources we have. The New York Times is a prime example of this. The avowed "mother of all reliable media", --the New York Times, -- was in those benighted days before TV,s broadening incursion into our constricted mental horizons a mere two section affair. Only on Sunday was its massive presence felt. Ambitious families then planned their day to circumvent its multi section onslaught by dividing up the paper judiciously. There was always enough to go round to satisfy even the most extensive of clans, even if some rotation of parts was necessary. A form of musical chairs with the Times and only youngest not accounted for. For there was no comic section then and even now.! As we shall see the Times has gone on to much change and evolution but its stance on this quintessentially American creation has not changed. It confidently assumed, and undoubtedly rightly so in most instances, that all the minimally literate small fry in Times reading families would quickly jump up to "all the news thats fit to print" status, emulating the upscale peer models they were surrounded with. And why not? In all these admirable families one or both spouses would probably find time to engage the fearsome and prestigious Sunday Times crossword puzzle --found, as ever, in the back of the magazine section. And even in ink, no less!

Now the Times has gradually evolved into a daily incarnation of its only once a week massive compendium of printable record of most of humanity’s foibles and important facts. Not only on Sunday do most of us have that guilty feeling of throwing out the Times with some or almost alll of its vital compilation of life as it is currently lived and its inner meaning. not having been read. Every day, unless we want to live our lives completely vicariously, via the Times or TV, do we have to the march to the garbage pile with reams of unread cogent material that "fits the print" according to the sincere, scrupulous Times editorial staff. In fairness one must admit that the daily crossword puzzle is still simpler and can be attempted by the bold with a pen. (If nothing else, from purely an ecological standpoint, think of the trees that have to be chopped and all that acreage reforested, for all major papers have followed this enlarged and inflated trend.)

But I do protest too much, even though that "Pierian Spring" of Pope’s has been vastly overflowing and threatening our lives with massive cascades of minutiae disguised as relevance. . I would not miss my morning’s exposure to the Times for anything. But sometimes its mere presence in the room or a quick glance at the headlines is enough. It is there for sublime support or profound disagreement but also for utter disregard when most of life has to be dealt with. I am an addict but still willing, unless sufficient leisure permits, to get my Times "news fix" on the replay, as anything really significant will surface again as the truly important events always warrant. But I do vaguely have a misplaced, guilty yearning for the simple days of yore when a paper called Pravda,--"Truth" in Russian-- was many times only an eight page daily newspaper of the Communist Russian empire. There were many other Soviet newspapers, but these mere eight pages was all the news that fit the censors idea of what was printable. There were no advertisements, unless those items that recurrently trumpeted the Soviets achievements over the decadent West would so qualify. Ardent "fellow travelers" did so believe--those worldwide do or die communists who refused to believe that capitalist greed would so "corrupt" the innocent worker into a system where his productive labor could profit both the entrepreneur and reward the worker too. Not fooled much by Pravda's "Truths" were the the Russian people who took to increasing amounts of absentism and alcohol.

But still, do we not luxiuriate excessively in blessed freedom’s bounty? That is, when it is embellished with the new literary style of composition that transcends journalism and becomes a small essay of the event -- we go too far!. Classic reporting in those good old times insisted that in the very beginning the reader, who must have other things to do besides relaxed leisureful time, should be apprised of the who, what, when, where and the how of the story if applicable, at the very start of the story. Now we have to spend three paragraphs before we even get the names of the place and people involved. First we must get the "feel", the atmosphere above all else! We suffer from enough verbiage already. Free speech with succinctness is much to be cherished. Not the lies of Pravda, but not the endless elaborations for effect.

Because in the arena of free speech beyond the printed word things are also getting excessively obfuscated. Radio, which we celebrated earlier for its pathbreaking beginning in modern communications, has evolved into another prime information source. And with a vengeance! During its intermediate gestation years radio was avowedly an entertainment medium, with sitcoms and music, and news broadcasts. This has now changed radically. No more Myrt and Marge, Amos and Andy, Fibber McGee and Molly, memorable children’s programs, or great radio comics. Jack Benny, Fred Allen, Burns and Allen,etc. These formats disappeared with the advent of television and what has gradually evolved has been a talk radio situation, shared equally with music. While the talk aspect varies from medical, mental, financial, religious, and political, some fair amount is overtly polemical political. With both sides--liberal and conservative-- talking aim at the print media for overt bias against their respective points of view. Mainly the conservatives inveigh against the "liberal" print media, since it seems to be true that most of the radio talk show hosts have a conservative bent. And there is also the growing Internet prescence in the media nformation mix. Besides its vast potential for commercial transactions there is obviously seemingly endless opportunity for the dissemination of information and knowledge techniques in all branches learning, study, and government, science and industry.

Adding this last imponderable but possibly overwhelming Internet factor to the mix, what we have, optimistically, is a glorious cognitive cacophony. A positive profusion of fact and knowledge allowing us to make informed choices that suit our indiividual needs and whims for the material and emotional and spiritual life paths that we are on. The blessed luxury of informed choice, laid in our figurative lap by the blessed opulence produced our thriving capitalist economy and our growing technical mastery of production and communications. As always, however, there are emotional Luddites, and also very sensible people, who are confused, or frightened by the accelerating pace of technological change. And this in addition to the so called "culture wars" which have engaged and changed in part or completely many entrenched attitudes about gender, sexual mores, and race. So it is very concievable that among a large part of our populace, those above thirty five or forty, who may have begun life with a more "traditional" orientation, there may be a cognitive disconnect. Some sort of withdrawal-- a mild form of shell shock. A hardening of the attiudes.--- "My mind is made up--don’t confuse me with any more facts.!"

But the situation is not that simple, even for the committed majority who understand there is "no free lunch", that there is a price to pay for the bounty of free speech that we are both blessed and plagued with. There is the demon of interpretation, what we do with the newly acquired facts and knowledge. Many times the increasing fund of knowledge is a confusing swirl. Not every new nugget of information supports the previous store of data, even if also of very recent acquisition. New medical research, now reported almost daily, even of questionable veracity or only inadequately researched, is rushed into print and can be very contradictory. Sociological studies claiming differing results for similar areas of study; and cherished historical truths regularly deconstructed in the fashionable academic tread of revisionism also add to the doubt and confusion. (Scholars need to "publish or perish" and the media is hungry for any scrap of dissent or controversy to stir readership interest and circulation) And then there is the serious task of public and political rhetoric and its interpretation. The so called "spinning" of the facts to suit one’e own agenda.

"Spinning" has has been with us even when we communicated without being able to talk. Some way of explaining away unpleasant events was always needed, even if only with abject shoulder shrugs or outstretched hands palms up in addition to the hopeless shoulder shrug. Since oral speech almost every event good or bad has been interpreted. Today we spin marvelous scenarios about what our children and especially grandchildren are really up to with their adorable and very portentious actions. On a higher level we have to interpret the real meaning of important actions and statements our leading politicians, diplomats and Alan Greenspan, among many other prominent influential people. Usually these statements are pleasant platitudes that reassure. In ancient times, in the Bible, the prophets were prime proponents of the spinning process, interpreting Israel’s misfortunes to the Lord’s displeasure with the Jews shortcomings. Which not only explained away the Lord’s lack of support at times but gave His long suffering people hope for the future as they improved their performance.

All this is mental and emotional and spiritual cacophony, a clutter that can bedevil as well as enlighten. It is an inner chatter that supports or afflicts our thought processes and disturbs or bolsters our spirits. It has no relation, I hope, to the real physical cacophony that we seem to subject ourselves to willingly in most of our social intercourse. The noise level in most public eating places is outrageous and self defeating. The human congress and pleasure of one’s fellow human being is almost completely denied by the babble of voices, each striving to surmount the rising decible level all around. And hearing aids are of no avail----they seem only to raise the total sound level, not screen the unwanted background sound so you can hear the voice of your dinner companions. And then there is the ultimate cacophonic horror, which destroys all cognition and reduces us to jungle imbecility. This is the disc jockey, the phenononem endemic at almost all celebratory events. He or she is usually only one person but with the amplification ability to rouse the animal instincts of the young and reduce all those not capable of this type of dance cavorting to helpless silence.

Clearly one has to take a firm stance with this noxious noise. Ear plugs in the prescence of the disc jockey if strenuous objections to the host and hostess do not work. For the restaurant situation sign language, lip reading or smoke signals?? Seriously, though, the cognitive cacophony must be dealt with not by closing off one’s receptive attitude to the change that seems to be continually upon us but be selectively receptive, reasonably optimistic that much more positive than negative will emerge. We have come along way upwards, past horrible roadblocks that the last century imposed in war and indiscriminate slaughter of over 100 hundred million people, hopefully now poised to enjoy a new era of increasing prosperity for many more people in the world. The danger for all moderate people is still the somewhat delicate balancing act that seemingly constantly enlarging or changing horizons always pose. We have all learned to be more tolerant and accepting as new moral and economic horizons appeared, some times with unwelcome impact, and we gradually learned to accept the validity of their prescence. Blacks, gays, and gender equality have all enlarged our social and emotional perspectives, as of course has the current telecommunications extravaganza. But there has been, as there always is, much that is redundant, self serving, and dead wrong in all the forward thrust. So while we can always be more tolerant and available in light of past successes our esssential moral and ethical values must still be in place. The relativistic "I’m right, you're right, he and she are right" makes good sense as compromise and regrouping are sought for, but the "dumbing down" that this can lead to, the lowest common denominator of values and standards is still a recipe for ultimate disaster. Personally while I welcome confidently this new century and millenium, having lived and endured over three quarters of the last century and emerged intact if somewhat aged scarred, and with different views on all manner of things, many old values still look good to me, starting with the Ten Commandments, of course, including number six, the one about adultery.

Here again the demon of relativity, or "spin" rears its dubious head. Adultery is much less harmful than murder, robbery and other very directly physically harmful or deadly prohibited deeds. But standards and goals are important in attaining the truly civilized society. As long as we uphold the sanctity of marriage, as most of us still do, than the adulterous act can only be honored in the breach. An act that we do not condone but have to accept. Something that is not our goal or standard and perhaps somewhat hypocritically we must endure. Even as we fallible mortals stumble forward to a morally higher plane. Compassion, forgiveness are the way upward on this path, but not the abject abandonment of the higher standard, which is our goal.

Pope was afraid of a little knowledge. I am not afraid of a little devout hypocrisy in trying, in this sometimes glorious but also cacophonous swelling of choice around us to keep to a path that resonates clearly with the profound messages of our heritage as well as the tentative revelations of the present. So a little adultery is not necessarily a dangerous thing but certainly infinitely less desirable than self restraint and upholding the sacred marriage vows.