Four articles you don't want to miss: Info overload, Charleston mayor, tragedy of Arabs, yada yada

FWIW, it might be possible to be too plugged in

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Being too connected can make you dumber.

Well, not quite. But The New York Times has an interesting piece about research that suggests that being wired into too many information inputs can actually make your thinking and brain-storming more myopic and narrow, not more expansive and broad.

It’s a counter-intuitive idea (that happens to confirm my own prejudices).  The research is based on observing people playing a very complicated whodunit kind of game.  Some players were clustered together for heavy information sharing, some weren’t.

In looking for unique facts or clues, clustering helped since members of the dense communications networks effectively split up the work and redundant facts were quickly weeded out, making them five percent more efficient. But the number of unique theories or solutions was 17.5 percent higher among subjects who were not densely connected. Clustering reduced the diversity of ideas.

The research paper, said Jesse Shore, a co-author and assistant professor at the Boston University School of Management, contributes to “the growing awareness that being connected all the time has costs. And we put a number to it, in an experimental setting.”

So being too plugged in reduces creative, individualistic processing. Maybe. As the young, plugged-in generation says, “FWIW.”

The Times also ran a great political story and a rare political story because it is positive and laudatory. It’s a short profile of Charleston, S.C., mayor Joe Riley, who has been elected to office a dazzling 10 times. 

“Politicians around the country speak of him reverently, casting him as the sagacious Obi-Wan Kenobi (or maybe Yoda) of local government and noting that no current mayor of a well-known city has lasted so long,” Frank Bruni writes.

Perhaps politicians around the country will read the Riley story for inspiration.

The Economist has a typically erudite special report called The Tragedy of the Arabs. The site has a pay wall but the lead editorial is accessible:

A THOUSAND years ago, the great cities of Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo took turns to race ahead of the Western world. Islam and innovation were twins. The various Arab caliphates were dynamic superpowers—beacons of learning, tolerance and trade. Yet today the Arabs are in a wretched state. Even as Asia, Latin America and Africa advance, the Middle East is held back by despotism and convulsed by war.

Hopes soared three years ago, when a wave of unrest across the region led to the overthrow of four dictators—in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen—and to a clamour for change elsewhere, notably in Syria. But the Arab spring’s fruit has rotted into renewed autocracy and war. Both engender misery and fanaticism that today threaten the wider world.

Why Arab countries have so miserably failed to create democracy, happiness or (aside from the windfall of oil) wealth for their 350m people is one of the great questions of our time. What makes Arab society susceptible to vile regimes and fanatics bent on destroying them (and their perceived allies in the West)? No one suggests that the Arabs as a people lack talent or suffer from some pathological antipathy to democracy. But for the Arabs to wake from their nightmare, and for the world to feel safe, a great deal needs to change.

Worlds collide: From the tragic to the trivial, finally, a treat for Seinfeld fans on the 25th anniversary of the first episode – an interview with Peter Mehlman, one of the writers and the inventor of iconic phrases like yada yada, shrinkage and double-dipping. It’s a Seinfeld Festivus.

What’s his favorite episode? Read the piece.

Dick Meyer is Chief Washington Correspondent for Scripps News. An experienced writer, reporter and author, Meyer was executive producer for the BBC's news services in America, NPR's executive editor and editorial director of CBSNews.com. Meyer also wrote a book on American culture and politics,  "Why We Hate Us: American Discontent in the New Millennium"  (Crown Publishing/Random House, August 2008).

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