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DROWNING IN THE INFORMATION AGE

I heard a man say today that there is now more e-mail in the country than the old-fashioned kind delivered by men and women in uniforms. I have no way of knowing whether that is true, though if I were a rich man, I would consider quitting work to catch up on the piles growing everywhere in the house.

I am not talking about junk mail. That I can handle. In fact, recognizable junk mail gives me great pleasure, a real sense of accomplishment. I can throw it away without fear that my phone will be cut off, my credit ruined, my car towed away or my children sent home from school.

The phone bill is a good example of a society, or perhaps just a life, spinning out of control. Then there are the credit card bills, stacks of them addressed to me and mine, though none of them seem to be from banks or companies I have ever heard of, much less dealt with. Some of them have changed names or owners or both three or four times since I first made the mistake of sending back a preapproved postcard to Publishers Clearing House. In those days, good and old, I was afraid that a clerk at a florist would reach for scissors to cut up my card. Now I would welcome that. I might do it myself if I could figure out which card was which.

In my own little clearinghouse, the mail is competing for space with the vitamins. It takes longer to sort out the miracle capsules and get them down than it does to eat what used to be called a well-balanced breakfast. Turning on the radio in the morning, I dread hearing the words "a new study has shown . . ." A new study means a new bottle of alphabet pills or stuff with names like St. John's wort.

If you know what wort is, you know that echinacea is not a place where ethnic conflict is likely in the near future. That is Kosovo. But it seems that even members of Congress -- the ones with the power to declare war and all that -- no longer have the mental energy to grapple with entities of complicated name. In fact, the morning paper just arrived with front-page news that the world's only superpower -- that's us -- may commit its citizens -- that's us, too -- to defend the citizens of Poland and the Czech Republic against all enemies foreign and domestic.

Why are we doing that? One headline says: "Senate Struggles to Pay Attention to Momentous Changes in NATO." That is our mutual defense alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. An attack on one is an attack on all, so pay close attention if you hear anything about trouble in Przemysi, a Polish place you are pledged to defend with your life, your fortune and your sacred honor because the Senate cannot deal with anything more complicated than Monica Lewinsky.

In fact, Lewinsky is getting so complicated that senators and other information-overloaded Americans are ready to drop out on that one, too. If three more women come out with tales of the Oval Office, the Senate may admit them to NATO.

For all things as great as the Senate and as small as me, there is a traffic jam on the superhighway of information. The same man who told me that there was more e-mail than mail-mail also told me that the little-bitty chip in greeting cards that talk has more computing power than all the computers in the world had in the 1940s. The Toshiba laptop with which I am writing this pathetic lament has more power to process information than the largest computer in the world had in 1989. I, like the U.S. Senate, do not know what to do with all that power. I think I will try to use it today to figure out what the lines "Analysis Fee" ($35) and "Point of Sale Usage" ($8.50) mean on my bank statement, which is about the size of the original NATO treaty.

Dedicated as I am, I expect I will find, somewhere at the end of the button-pushing trail, a recorded or digital voice telling me that the bank is not responsible for or knowledgeable about fees established under the name it had before last year's merger. Then I will be told that if I don't ante up the money pronto, I will be deported or beamed up into the void of old numbers and people without the power to handle the new ones.

Universal Press Syndicate

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