Who are Pancake People?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

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.

The average high school student has access to more information than some of the greatest minds in history, such as Socrates.
The average high school student has access to more information than some of the greatest minds in history, such as Socrates.

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.

Mozart concentrated his energies on one discipline: music.
Mozart concentrated his energies on one discipline: music.

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.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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Discussion Comments


Gosh, it's not very nice to use the "stupid" word. The original post was just presented as something to think about. You have a great point but you nearly ruin what you said with how you said it. You should try to be more polite. You had strength in what you said without the personal attack.


I don't really like this article. I find the instant knowledge wonderful and it only sparks my interest more. It makes me want more knowledge. I feel very happy with the internet. Nothing is worse than growing up with boredom as I did. No tv because it was bad for me and no money so no activities. It was a miserable childhood with too much isolation, not enough reading material, no real social life and being left out at school. The internet is wonderful and the places of the world no longer seems like a place is fantasy but real. I now see how stupid and ignorant I grew up and what people meant when they said I was too sheltered.


I confess, I probably fall into this category. Mesmerized by new subjects and skills, I've flitted from one task or project to another, leaving a string of promising but often incomplete works and studies behind.

Only recently have I begun to see the necessity of focusing on a few topics.

While the "Renaissance man" is both a lovely concept and a past reality, it's good to be aware of the difference between dabbling and mastery. I want to be learning my entire life, and in as many subjects which interest me, but I'm also selecting a handful that I enjoy most to master.

The term "pancake people" doesn't apply to interdisciplinary study, but to an extreme that, unless you've observed it in others or experienced, may seem incomprehensible. The mere accessibility of knowledge doesn't cause the condition, but it makes the condition possible.


I think that this article has its pros and cons and and should not be seen as "rubbish". It was helpful and has sparked my curiosity to do more research.


I agree with anon203578. There are different kinds and levels of knowledge, and one is not necessarily inferior to another. People become fascinated with various things at various levels and add to the sum of knowledge to one degree or another, whether or not that is their intention.


The article is both right and wrong.

The new environment can give an individual such a wide range of choices of topics to explore deeply that even as he firms up, one topic he is distracted by another. He could almost become like a child who is learning without direction of a teacher.

The danger today is not so much the excess of information, but the loneliness that even young children in a good home feel and young adults on their first job in a strange city experience because everyone is so busy with their own lives.

The mere width and depth of choice in this loneliness could severely reduce the sense of control over one's own destiny and lead to depression, and even suicide.


The article seems too right, yet it is not precise.


This article is that rare thing: total rubbish.

William Shakespeare was the world's greatest author because he was interested in a vast range of things. Not just literature! Indeed (as he was primarily writing for performance and had no idea he would become 'literature') his primary function was to connect with and stir up the hearts and minds of his audience. Political science world view. It's all in there in spades.


This is utterly absurd. Some of the greatest breakthroughs in science have come from interdisciplinary work. How do you think we got fields like astrophysics and biochemistry. We think of these as disciplines in their own right, so much so we don't even bother hyphenating the names, but the names tell you where they come from.

It's also asinine because people don't concentrate on a particular subject because they don't have easy access to others. They do it because they have a fascination with and love of that field of research. I studied philosophy and logic because it was fascinating to me, not because other subjects were less accessible.

Truly, I have never heard such a bogus, half-baked theory in my entire life, and I've heard stupid proposals from people you might otherwise consider bright.


Highly interesting. What solutions have we got?

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