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Marshall P. Duke

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Pancake People, Rise Up!

Posted: 12/13/10 07:32 PM ET

There have been several terms applied to the Net generation -- one being of course the Net generation, but others being Generation Z, the Dreamer Generation, Generation Wisdom, or Generation I. All of these are either neutral/descriptive or mildly complimentary. However, there is one more that has not achieved the same degree of visibility, yet for me as a professor of psychology who has taught rising generations for forty years, it must be attended to and taken seriously. This is a term first used by playwright and ten time Obie winner Richard Foreman. He called the Net-Gen-ers by a less salutary name -- Pancake people.

But today, I see within us all (myself included) the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self-evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the "instantly available". A new self that needs to contain less and less of an inner repertory of dense cultural inheritance -- as we all become "pancake people" -- spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button. Will this produce a new kind of enlightenment or "super-consciousness"? Sometimes I am seduced by those proclaiming so -- and sometimes I shrink back in horror at a world that seems to have lost the thick and multi-textured density of deeply evolved personality.

Foreman hits upon something that we in academia began to see among college students within the past decade or so. When asked to memorize poems, some have said, "Why? I can find it in a second on Google." When asked to write papers on a particular topic, a class of 20 students will provide slightly different variations on work based upon the exact same set of references and sources. The reason? If they all search the web using the same search engine and the same search terms, they will come up with the same list of citations. Those permitted to have laptops in class (a controversial topic saved for another day), might instantly search a term used in class and hit the Save button to place it in a file for later cutting and pasting. What this all means is (and forgive the lapse into the psychologies of being and self) much of what used to be stored inside people's minds is now stored outside. What is kept inside is the awareness of where things are, not the things or ideas themselves. Hence, we have Foreman describing Net-geners (and let them not take the rap for us all, we are all doing this!) as pancake people -- able to cover and have access to enormous ranges of information yet having minimal depth of knowledge within.

Personally, and as a scholar, I like the access and the enormity of range of knowledge afforded by the internet. No other generation has had this capacity. But, there is a problem -- not a small one either. Let's go back to the citation/term paper search for a minute. If everyone enters the same search terms on the same search engine, the result is essentially the same set of ideas being used to create very similar sounding writings. What is missing are two things. First, there is the accidental discovery of something not directly sought after, yet conceptually nearby. Most people older than thirty will remember going into library stacks looking for a specific book and then finding similar or related works on the same shelf and finding them even more valuable than the originally sought volume (which often had the specific pages we wanted torn out! This doesn't happen on the internet -- things are not all bad!). These accidental discoveries made for greater inter-student originality and creativity, something that the net searches do not afford -- and this is bad.

The second thing that is missing when knowledge is stored outside of one's own mind is the capacity to make connections -- original connections, impulsive connections, bizarre connections, unanticipated connections, Eureka moments, insights, parallels -- the things that brilliance, progress and creativity are made of. The search engines would not have realized, as did Sir Alexander Fleming, that the penicillium mold forming on some accidentally spilled rye bread crumbs and preventing staphylococcus bacteria from growing in his Petrie dish could herald the discovery of the life-saving antibiotic, penicillin. All the bits of knowledge needed to be present in Fleming's mind at the same time (not near his mind or accessible to his mind). Similarly, search engines will not see that reading a book is like sailing a ship to a distant land unless they are stored in similar conceptual locations in the same Emily Dickinson:

There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
This traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of toll;
How frugal is the chariot
That bears a human soul!

It was Louis Pasteur who famously said, "Fortune favors the prepared mind" and in my experience this is deeply true. The key, of course, is the definition of the prepared mind. If a pancake is the current state of the prepared mind, I fear that fortune will not favor the Pancake People for the soil of fertile thinking is not rich enough in those who are spread so thin. I propose that we seek a different metaphor and, by so doing, conceive of a different way of integrating the amazing and wonderful breadth afforded us by the vast knowledge on the internet, with the need for internalizing at least some facts and ideas. Metaphorically, I propose that rather than settling for pancakeness, we set as our goal, the achievement of muffindom. Muffindom -- the state of having a very broad top, but with a significant and foundational area of depth beneath at least part of it. (It's interesting that even on a non-metaphorical level, bakeries offer muffin tops and many people prefer these to that pesky need to wade through all of that less well-done cakey-stuff embedded in the paper wrapper.)

I am serious about Muffindom. From an intellectual and scholarly perspective, I believe that the muffin is a useful and powerful integration of the important components of pre-internet thinking and notions of self, with the awesome capacity of the modern internet. To be sure we need the muffin top -- we need to know where all that externally stored information is, but we need that cakey part -- we must pack as much information as possible into our heads as well. If we don't store things inside us, not only will our minds and selves be pancakes, as Foreman warned, but the creativity will be drained from our lives and from our culture. How many different kinds of pancakes can you think of? Really. Buttermilk? Chocolate chip? How exciting can they be? How many different kinds of muffins? Where do we begin?!