Kavita Sharma stays "connected" through most of her waking hours, spending at least 10 hours a day on the Internet. The 20-year-old sophomore is hard-wired to be engaged, or constantly distracted, with the enormous range of information "out there". She uses Google for everything she needs to know and has at least 30 browser tabs open on her Mac at any given time.
Kavita does not retain everything she reads on the Internet but remembers random bits of information. "I like to flit from one web page to the other. The great thing about Google searches is that it leads you to completely obscure information that you weren't looking for in the first place."
Sitting with a bunch of friends at a local watering hole just the other day, she wanted to know more about the Kamikaze (a shot of vodka, lime juice and triple sec). "I wanted to know about the origin of Kamikaze and found that there is an International Bartenders Association that sanctions a list of official cocktails…the word Kamikaze is Japanese for 'divine wind' and also refers to suicide pilots of World War II," she says and adds for good measure that the first instance of suicide attacks goes back to the ancient Chera dynasty in India.
Curiosity about a cocktail led Kavita to pick up bits on the Japanese language and military history as well as the origins of modern terrorism.
Kavita, in many ways, is like millions of other Net Geners who know a little something about everything but in minimal depth. Spread thin and wide, they acquire fragments of information from Wikipedia and Google as they surf the information highway, never really stopping to delve deep into any subject. They are the Pancake People. The evocative term was first coined by American playwright Richard Foreman and gained popularity as a more disparaging synonym for the internet-dependent generation.
Here's what Foreman had to say: "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."
He goes on to express horror at a world that has lost the thick and multi-textured density of a deeply-evolved personality. Foreman's pancake allusion caught on in the West and had academia and columnists deconstructing the Millennials — people born between 1980 and 2000.
In India, the term is little known but 23-year-old HR professional Reema relates to it immediately. "I would call myself a Pancake Person," she says, adding that she is constantly on her iPhone and is glued to Google for everything but nothing in particular.
"I look up recipes, read about mythology, political news, and keep up with the goings on," she says. Reema and her husband frequently whip out their smartphones whenever they have an argument — "once, about whether thermocol has plastic or not" — to look up "facts" from the Internet to throw at each other.
She also uses a lot of apps and likes 9gag — a social media website that is credited with bringing Internet memes to the mainstream. "It is like reading a paragraph in pictures," she says.
"I recall vague stuff, like I read somewhere that hybrid cars can do more damage to the environment than regular ones...it had something to do with nickel in the battery," she says.
Sri Raj, a 29-year-old businessman based in Delhi, says he meets a lot of "Pancakes", especially, now, during the election season. "Everyone seems to have an opinion on politics these days based on arbitrary information obtained on the Internet."
It is getting a little irritating, he says, with the online pro-and-anti Narendra Modi armies who mostly copy-paste half-baked summaries from articles and blogs. Sri Raj doesn't care much about Indian politics and isn't ashamed to admit it. "If I needed to make my mind up on (LK) Advani or Sonia (Gandhi), I'd pick up three biographies, read them and then talk," he says. He admits he is old-school and has very specific interests. He doesn't feel the need to know everything, like the Pancake People do.
It is still early to say whether the Internet and the way we consume information on the web will have a lasting impact on our social behaviour and the way we think. But experts believe constant digital distractions are bound to pose challenges to our ability to learn and focus. An average user often leaves web pages in 10 to 20 seconds.
Instant information can also impair our ability to delay gratification. Dr Dherandra Kumar, director at Psyindia and consultant (clinical and child psychologist) at Apollo Hospital, says the percentage of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) cases has doubled in the past five years. "But it's not just the Internet that's causing it, people are more aware now so they seek help unlike before."
A new field of study, interruption science, tells us that continuous electronic distractions affect our stress and frustration levels. Sunil Abraham, executive director at Centre for Internet and Society, says it is not technology per se but inappropriate use of technology that is to be blamed. In other words, the more we depend on technology to baby-sit us the less we are capable of doing things.
While there's a fear that Pancake People may tend to get entrenched in their own perspectives, looking up and reading things that only conform to their belief systems, Abraham points to another truth. "If I am on Twitter and use the hashtag, there's no way I can isolate myself from the views of others," he says. But isn't there a danger in treating everything you read on the Internet as gospel truth? "Just like we need legal literacy, we need media literacy to consume responsibly and have tools to establish truth in the networked public sphere."
It's natural for the older generation to feel nostalgic about old patterns and lament change. And, so, some feel Foreman was being a Luddite. "Yes, we are distracted and diffused but I see nothing wrong with it," says Bhairav Acharya, a 31-year-old Bangalore-based lawyer. He is uncomfortable with the moral overtone in Foreman's statement. "Just because information is accessible, doesn't mean it has no value."
"Also, those who want to delve deep will do it anyway irrespective of whether they do it on their laptops or in a public library," he says, adding that the Internet has taken academic research to new heights.
Jacob Joseph Puthenparambil, lecturer at Singapore Management University, feels the abundance of information has also meant that the bar has been set higher for the final output of work. "There will be those who will use the Internet to take shortcuts but there will also be those who will use it as a tool to produce a better body of work. If we encourage the latter kind of students, it would make for a richer academic experience," he says.
The Internet, then, like any other technology, has its flip side. But that is not to say that the technology itself is bad. For many, the Internet can mean easy access to trivia, which is fun but ultimately meaningless. But the Internet is also uniquely situated to help people divine inter-disciplinary currents. Someone interested in and searching for information about, say, Virginia Woolf can proceed to read about stream of consciousness which, in turn, can dovetail into its relationship with psychoanalysis, and so on. There is a lot on offer and to say that it is detrimental to our attention spans or learning abilities is perhaps to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Pancake paranoia: a counterview
Research director at the Centre for Internet & Society
The term Pancake People sounds like an interesting, if another misguided attempt at demonising a particular generation. There has always been a critique of digital natives — they are too soft, they are too scattered, they are too apolitical, and almost all of it is from the vantage points and hindsight of the old looking at the young.
There are many false presumptions in these declarations — one, there is a nostalgic creation of the older people that when they were young, they were focused and dedicated and committed. However, a historical analysis shows us that it is the prerogative of the young to be experimental, to be trying out different things, and to be scattered across a spectrum of interests, trying to figure out who they want to be.
The plug-and-play technologies and the distributed networks of the digital do concretely aid in these practices, but it, by no means, implies that these young digital natives are spreading themselves so thin that they are helpless. Just a quick glimpse at things from The Ugly Indian to the Blank Noise Project in India, from Tahrir Square to the Sunflower Revolution in Taiwan shows us that the young are as committed, if not more, in shaping their futures responsibly, and their multi-modal engagement actually allows them to approach it in ways that were not possible for older generations.
The argument about 'thinness', and 'loss of inner density', so to speak, was made in the 12th century when we moved from manuscript cultures to the print cultures as well. Or it was a paranoia that was voiced when the telephone became mass market — where people were scared that not being able to see the person at the other end would produce a civilisational collapse, because nobody would ever meet each other again, everybody would lie, cheat on their spouses and the world as we know it would be over.
Richard Foreman's idea of loss is just a nostalgic hankering for things as they were, even though in those days, all we did was complain about things as they were.