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Children born in the early 21st century will likely never know a world without the Internet, cable television, online museums, and other forms of instant intellectual gratification. The average high school student in any developed nation has access to more information than some of the greatest minds in history, such as Socrates or Da Vinci, ever had in their lifetimes. Some critics of this phenomenon fear that instantaneous access to all of this information has the potential to overload or overwhelm users, however. Instead of delving deeper into one particular discipline, many people are now dabbling on the surface of many interests and subjects of study at the same time. Author Richard Foreman described those who have spread themselves thinly across a wide spectrum of subjects as pancake people.
For many generations, scholars and artists tended to concentrate their energy on one particular subject or discipline. For William Shakespeare, that interest was literature; for Mozart, it was musical composition; and for Newton, physics. Visual artists were not expected to understand higher mathematics, nor were philosophers expected to study engineering. Without widespread access to libraries or the ability to disseminate their latest creations to the rest of the world instantly, many people toiled in relative obscurity to plumb the depths of their chosen vocations or subjects of interest.
With the development of the Internet and other sources of information that can be accessed quickly and easily, many people strive to gain at least a working knowledge of many different subjects. So-called pancake people no longer concentrate their energies on one area of interest, but instead choose to spread themselves thinly over a large area. As a result, a new generation have essentially become the proverbial jacks of all trades, but masters of none. A linguist from the 18th may have studied Spanish or French until he or she could translate even the most complex literary works composed in those languages, but modern pancake people only learn enough of the language to navigate as a tourist. As long as the information necessary to perform a task or create a new work is literally at a person's fingertips, there is always the risk of that person losing some intellectual curiosity.
The term pancake people is largely seen as a negative commentary on the current age of instantaneous information. The ability to access even the most obscure information in a matter of seconds may be seen as a positive social development on one level, but it can also cause some people to become less inclined to delve more deeply into one particular subject of interest. As a result, a generation of overloaded pancake people may become more obsessed with the more surface aspects of culture and less interested in the larger arc of human history.