Thursday, June 09, 2011

am I anti-intellectual?

Am I anti-intellectual? That may seems a strange question to ask for someone who has a PhD, who reads philosophy for entertainment, who likes to discuss Kant, thermodynamics, artificial intelligence, foundations of mathematics, ... and well, you get the idea ... why would someone like that be asking if he is anti-intellectual?

It's because I've been described as anti-intellectual by Larry Sanger (link from Instapundit). I don't mean that he described me specifically as anti-intellectual, but that he described what he sees as an anti-intellectual movement among "geeks", and I seem to fit his description to a large extent. Like his anti-intellectual geeks, I am employed in the computer industry. Like them, I am not particularly impressed by or intimidated by credentialed experts such as college professors. Like them, I am not too worried about an "information glut". Like them, I think reading "War and Peace" sounds like a colossal waste of time. Like them I think memorization is not very valuable in a world where facts are so easy to check and it is enough in many cases to simply remember a broad outline. If you need details, you can always refresh your memory on-line. I also tend to think that college educations today are over-rated and a lot of people would be better off if they did not feel that they had to go to college to be a success.

However, I seem to have a somewhat different take on these things than Sanger. He summarizes what he takes these views to be. I'll quote his summary below with my response in italic
1. Experts do not deserve any special role in declaring what is known. Knowledge is now democratically determined, as it should be.

I would not say that experts have no role at all but that experts with traditional credentials no longer receive the same level of deference that they used to receive. This is partly because there are so many credentialed experts, and partly because it is so easy to go on-line and find another credentialed expert to contradict whatever your credentialed expert says.

2. Books are an outmoded medium because they involve a single person speaking from authority. In the future, information will be developed and propagated collaboratively, something like what we already do with the combination of Twitter, Facebook, blogs, Wikipedia, and various other websites.

I don't think books will vanish, but they will become less and less important relative to other information sources.

3. The classics, being books, are also outmoded. They are outmoded because they are often long and hard to read, so those of us raised around the distractions of technology can’t be bothered to follow them; and besides, they concern foreign worlds, dominated by dead white guys with totally antiquated ideas and attitudes. In short, they are boring and irrelevant.

He has the reason wrong. The classics are not outmoded as knowledge; to the contrary they never were of any particular value as knowledge. Their only value was as a cultural indicator to demonstrate to others what social class you were in. They are outmoded not because their knowledge has become antiquated, but because no one any longer wants to be a member of the social class that they define.

4. The digitization of information means that we don’t have to memorize nearly as much. We can upload our memories to our devices and to Internet communities. We can answer most general questions with a quick search.


5. The paragon of success is a popular website or well-used software, and for that, you just have to be a bright, creative geek. You don’t have to go to college, which is overpriced and so reserved to the elite anyway.

Once again, Sanger misses the point because he misses the class implications. College is not primarily about gaining knowledge except in certain limited fields such as engineering. Primarily it is about establishing class membership and a marker of success. Modern geeks have largely dispensed with college as a marker of success and have largely constructed their own class system which --while it does still offer some deference to education-- offers more deference to other signs of success.

Sanger displays what I think is his greatest misunderstanding of the geek mindset a few lines later:
You don’t really care about knowledge; it’s not a priority. For you, the books containing knowledge, the classics and old-fashioned scholarship summing up the best of our knowledge, the people and institutions whose purpose is to pass on knowledge–all are hopelessly antiquated.
I've never seen any sign of this attitude. Instead, geeks value knowledge highly, but they they value only certain kinds of knowledge. In particular, they do not value the knowledge to be found in the classics, viewing it as a mere bit of arcane culture. Objectively speaking, "War and Peace" is no more valuable as knowledge than say, knowledge of ancient Japanese theater or the Talmud or an encyclopaedic knowledge of baseball statistics. The fact that Sanger picks one of these things and arbitrarily assigns it the status of Important Knowledge strikes me, and probably the average geek, as simple cultural prejudice.

Furthermore, I think it is not just geeks that feel this way. Sanger has simply hit upon the process of cultural evolution. The old cultural elite tries to solidify their authority and power by surrounding themselves with tokens of power and Signs of wisdom. Whether by accent or skin color or clothing, or ability to quote scripture, or the ability to quote Leo Tolstoy (I found the author of "War and Peace" by googling), the current set of elites try to recognize each other and keep each other in power.

While the elites hire everybody, those who show the Signs are those who are destined for promotion and greater things. They vote for other cultural elites and appoint cultural elites to their boards. Sure, they may let a few who are not of the Blood into the halls of power, but only those who grasp after the Signs, who do whatever they can to learn and mimic he Signs, panting after the affirmation of the true elites like loyal puppy dogs. Such people the elites suffer, on occasion, to rise.

Then one day a new opportunity comes along, whether a technology, or a trade route, or a new land to exploit, and great wealth flows to some among the non-elite. Even worse, this great wealth flows to some of those of the great unwashed who not only are non-elite, but do not even grasp at the approval of the elites. Some even show contempt or !gasp! condescending amusement at the Signs! When such barbarians gain enough wealth then they gain power. They gain power on their own, not as a favor from the elite but despite the contrary efforts of the elite. And then the elite are shocked that these people do not hold the traditional Signs in proper respect.

So if intellectualism is to be understood as an appreciation for the cultural knowledge of the elites, then I am proud to be listed among the anti-intellectuals. Well, my attitude is not so much against intellectualism as it is condescending toward intellectualism. Isn't that cute how they all think their classics are so important? It's fun to watch those intellectuals talking, like watching baseball fans argue about who was the best left fielder of all time, so absorbed in their little cultural minutia.

But fear not. Our day will come as well. One day I, or a spiritual descendent, will record a vocaleet (a vocally recorded comment that is automatically grammer-corrected, reduced to text, and posted on the Idea Circle --a concept somewhat related to a world-wide group blog) complaining about those disrespectful punks who think they are so smart because they made their money mining astroids but they don't know any QRHTML76.2 so they have to hire people to manage their on-line life and they couldn't recognize a Monty Python quote to save their life. What a bunch of maroons.