Rites and wrongs in a post 9/11 scenario

Posted: Oct 16, 2003 12:00 AM

NEW YORK CITY - The buzz among the oh-so-hip in Gotham is about a new play called "Omnium Gatherum," translated with ironic understatement to mean "a collection of peculiar souls."

An assorted group of fashionable men and women gather at a chic dinner party to discuss the latest "ins" and "outs," "ups" and "downs," rites and wrongs in the post-9/11 world. The characters are the smug and arrogant elite who care more about what they say than what they hear.

Imagine a Martha Stewart-like figure as hostess for a party of ideologues where more isms are tossed around than the different lettuces in an organic salad - Marxism, capitalism, feminism, sexism, terrorism. Many of the characters are based on real-life celebrity intellectuals, but the food for the tummy is more important than food for thought. The hostess takes the cake, literally. "I'm aware of my wealth," she says. "I used to be middle-class. I know how that feels."

The menu includes wild salmon from the Columbia River, "freshly blessed lamb" that is "a favorite among moderate Shiites," and a "tower of sliced ruby-crescent fingerlings" that most of us call "potatoes." This is haute cuisine for those who aim at political sensibilities below the belt(way).

"A lively, contentious debate is the heart and soul of every dinner party," says the hostess, as the sparks begin to fly. "But I do think we should wait until the main course is served, don't you?"

The play mocks first the Manhattan dinner party, but the satire extends to elite newsmakers everywhere - the politicians, academics, pundits and intellectuals more concerned with performance than substance, who polarize everything because that's where the ratings are.

While the guests exert an effort to exude profundity, they glide over the polished surface, relying on rhetoric as empty as the crystal decanter from which their fine wine was poured. Information overwhelms, but as one character in this play observes with the chilling certainty that links him to an empathetic audience: "We all got this on the Internet!"

"Omnium Gatherum" is about a world flooded with data. We take it in and spit it out according to ideology, but much of what we say lacks the process once known as contemplation. The Internet, for example, is wonderfully accessible, but the user online often refuses to exercise the discipline it takes to understand what can be downloaded. (No wonder so many teachers at schools and universities worry about plagiarism.)

When Marshall McLuhan famously said, "The medium is the message," he was talking about the way television and movie images influence thought processes. After the invention of the printing press, we studied by reading language as written in books, but that began to change as television images trumped the thousand written words. With virtual reality, visual pathways and iconic doorways, we're subject now to a different medium and message that poses a subset of dangers we're only beginning to explore.

If television appeals to the short attention span and the Sesame Street approach to learning, the Internet exposes us to a bombardment of even faster and often more superficial ways of gathering information. Computers change the way we write, talk, think and persuade.

In an essay in the New Yorker critiquing Microsoft Word, the ubiquitous word-processing program, Louis Menand warns that we're played for fools by a microchip and held hostage by a system overloaded with icons, menus, buttons and incomprehensible Help windows. A student can turn in a term paper, he writes, that "is now 65 elegantly formatted laser-printed pages, including a four-color cover page and scanned-in illustrations." But a question remains: What has he learned?

My high-tech friends tell me that we're on the brink of a mind makeover. Neuroscientist Susan Greenfield, a professor of pharmacology at Oxford University, predicts that computers combined with smart drugs will dramatically change human nature as we know it. Intelligent machines will bypass our brains and do most any informational task better than we can do ourselves.

In "Tomorrow's People: How 21st-Century Technology is Changing the Way We Think and Feel," she becomes a Jeremiah of cyberspace. "The private ego is the most precious thing we have," she writes," and it is far more vulnerable than ever before."

Let's hope she's wrong. Whatever difficulty the private ego causes us today, it's surely better than a mentality standardized by data-processing machines. So pass the tower of sliced ruby-crescent fingerlings and freshly blessed lamb, and log off. The Help button can't help.