A drawback of the Information Age

Americans' response to too much information may be to narrow their focus.

I'm thinking it might be a good idea for every major city in America to have a guy like Joe Turner on the payroll. He's the fictional CIA agent portrayed by Robert Redford in "Three Days of the Condor," a 1975 thriller that's one of my favorite spy movies.

In the film, Joe is a researcher in a clandestine agency office in New York City. He reads books and other publications from around the globe and picks out information that might indicate an awareness of secret CIA operations.

In today's world, he'd also be watching hours of TV, scanning for clues to potential nefarious activities. Boston could've used a guy like him last month when reports came in about strange electronic objects planted around the city.

I feel that Joe would've turned on his police scanner, heard a description of the blinking devices, and immediately called city hall to say, "Don't shut down the highways yet. This sounds like a promotion for Aqua Teen Hunger Force. It's an offbeat animated series with a small audience. This kind of publicity stunt is right up their alley."

Is it possible that no one in the Boston law enforcement bureaucracy is an avid fan of the Cartoon Network? I'm not being sarcastic.

I've mentioned in previous columns how hard it is for me to keep up with every detail of modern culture, and obviously I'm not alone in battling this information gap.

The old saying that knowledge is power still holds true, but how does anyone with a thirst for knowledge avoid being drowned by the tsunami of information that crashes over us each day? My fear is that many Americans are sliding into a narrow groove that includes a few topics of personal interest, and everything outside the groove is simply ignored.

A recent Nielsen survey of Internet users found that 12 percent of American respondents had never heard of global warming. I'd like to question those people more closely and learn how they decide what information is useful in their lives and what they don't care about.

It's a decision we all face constantly, and it never gets easier. A recent story in The New York Times explained that 10 publications in Washington carry a total of 14 columns focused on political gossip, up from only three such columns a decade ago.

I wonder what Joe Turner would do if I yanked him out of that movie and put him to work monitoring our cavalcade of modern media outlets? I have a feeling he'd just shake his head and opt for early retirement.

Jeffrey Shaffer writes on media, American culture, and personal history.

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