Is there a new geek anti-intellectualism? – Larry Sanger Blog

Is there a new anti-intellectualism?  I mean one that is advocated by Internet geeks and some of the digerati.  I think so: more and more mavens of the Internet are coming out firmly against academic knowledge in all its forms.  This might sound outrageous to say, but it is sadly true.

Let’s review the evidence.

1. The evidence

Programmers have been saying for years that it’s unnecessary to get a college degree in order to be a great coder–and this has always been easy to concede.  I never would have accused them of being anti-intellectual, or even of being opposed to education, just for saying that.  It is just an interesting feature of programming as a profession–not evidence of anti-intellectualism.

In 2001, along came Wikipedia, which gave everyone equal rights to record knowledge.  This was only half of the project’s original vision, as I explain in this memoir.  Originally, we were going to have some method of letting experts approve articles.  But the Slashdot geeks who came to dominate Wikipedia’s early years, supported by Jimmy Wales, nixed this notion repeatedly.  The digerati cheered and said, implausibly, that experts were no longer needed, and that “crowds” were wiser than people who had devoted their lives to knowledge.  This ultimately led to a debate, now old hat, about experts versus amateurs in the mid-2000s.  There were certainly notes of anti-intellectualism in that debate.

Around the same time, some people began to criticize books as such, as an outmoded medium, and not merely because they are traditionally paper and not digital.  The Institute for the Future of the Book has been one locus of this criticism.

But nascent geek anti-intellectualism really began to come into focus around three years ago with the rise of Facebook and Twitter, when Nicholas Carr asked, “Is Google making us stupid?” in The Atlantic. More than by Carr’s essay itself, I was struck by the reaction to it.  Altogether too many geeks seemed to be assume that if information glut is sapping our ability to focus, this is largely out of our control and not necessarily a bad thing.  But of course it is a bad thing, and it is in our control, as I pointed out. Moreover, focus is absolutely necessary if we are to gain knowledge.  We will be ignoramuses indeed, if we merely flow along with the digital current and do not take the time to read extended, difficult texts.

Worse still was Clay Shirky’s reaction in the Britannica Blog, where he opined, “no one reads War and Peace. It’s too long, and not so interesting,” and borrows a phrase from Richard Foreman in claiming, “the ‘complex, dense and “cathedral-like” structure of the highly educated and articulate personality’ is at risk.”  As I observed at the time, Shirky’s views entailed that Twitter-sized discourse was our historically determined fate, and that, if he were right, the Great Books and civilization itself would be at risk.  But he was not right–I hope.

At the end of 2008, Don Tapscott, author of Wikinomics, got into the act, claiming that Google makes memorization passe.  ”It is enough that they know about the Battle of Hastings,” Tapscott boldly claimed, “without having to memorise that it was in 1066.  [Students] can look that up and position it in history with a click on Google.”

In 2010, Edge took up the question, “Is the Internet changing the way you think?” and the answers were very sobering.  Here were some extremely prominent scientists, thinkers, and writers, and all too many of them were saying again, more boldly, that the Internet was making it hard to read long pieces of writing, that books were passe, and that the Internet was essentially becoming a mental prosthesis.  We were, as one writer put it, uploading our brains to the Internet.

As usual, I did not buy the boosterism.  I was opposed both to the implicit techno-determinism as well as the notion that the Internet makes learning unnecessary.  Anyone who claims that we do not need to read and memorize some facts is saying that we do not need to learn those facts.  Reading and indeed memorizing are the first, necessary steps in learning anything.

This brings us to today.  Recently, Sir Ken Robinson has got a lot of attention by speaking out–inspiringly to some, outrageously to others–saying that K-12 education needs a sea change away from “boring” academics and toward collaborative methods that foster “creativity.”  At the same time, PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel sparked much discussion by claiming that there is a “higher education bubble,” that is, the cost of higher education greatly exceeds its value.  This claim by itself is somewhat plausible.  But Thiel much less plausibly implies that college per se is now not recommendable for many, because it is “elitist.”  With his Thiel Fellowship program he hopes to demonstrate that a college degree is not necessary for success in the field of technology.  Leave it to a 19-year-old recipient of one of these fellowships to shout boldly that “College is a waste of time.”  Unsurprisingly, I disagree.

2. Geek anti-intellectualism

In the above, I have barely scratched the surface.  I haven’t mentioned many other commentators, blogs, and books that have written on such subjects.  But this is enough to clarify what I mean by “geek anti-intellectualism.”  Let me step back and sum up the views mentioned above:

1. Experts do not deserve any special role in declaring what is known.  Knowledge is now democratically determined, as it should be.  (Cf. this essay of mine.)

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.

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.

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.

If you are the sort of geek who loves all things Internet uncritically, then you’re probably nodding your head to these.  If so, I submit this as a new epistemological manifesto that might well sum up your views:

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.  Even your own knowledge, the contents of your mind, can be outsourced to databases built by collaborative digital communities, and the more the better.  After all, academics are boring.  A new world is coming, and you are in the vanguard.  In this world, the people who have and who value individual knowledge, especially theoretical and factual knowledge, are objects of your derision.  You have contempt for the sort of people who read books and talk about them–especially classics, the long and difficult works that were created alone by people who, once upon a time, were hailed as brilliant.  You have no special respect for anyone who is supposed to be “brilliant” or even “knowledgeable.”  What you respect are those who have created stuff that many people find useful today.  Nobody cares about some Luddite scholar’s ability to write a book or get an article past review by one of his peers.  This is why no decent school requires reading many classics, or books generally, anymore–books are all tl;dr for today’s students.  In our new world, insofar as we individually need to know anything at all, our knowledge is practical, and best gained through projects and experience.  Practical knowledge does not come from books or hard study or any traditional school or college.  People who spend years of their lives filling up their individual minds with theoretical or factual knowledge are chumps who will probably end up working for those who skipped college to focus on more important things.

Do you find your views misrepresented?  I’m being a bit provocative, sure, but haven’t I merely repeated some remarks and made a few simple extrapolations?  Of course, most geeks, even most Internet boosters, will not admit to believing all of this manifesto.  But I submit that geekdom is on a slippery slope to the anti-intellectualism it represents.

So there is no mistake, let me describe the bottom of this slippery slope more forthrightly.  You are opposed to knowledge as such. You contemptuously dismiss experts who have it; you claim that books are outmoded, including classics, which contain the most significant knowledge generated by humankind thus far; you want to memorize as little as possible, and you want to upload what you have memorized to the net as soon as possible; you don’t want schools to make students memorize anything; and you discourage most people from going to college.

In short, at the bottom of the slippery slope, you seem to be opposed to knowledge wherever it occurs, in books, in experts, in institutions, even in your own mind.

But, you might say, what about Internet communities?  Isn’t that a significant exception?  You might think so.  After all, how can people who love Wikipedia so much be “opposed to knowledge as such”?  Well, there is an answer to that.

It’s because there is a very big difference between a statement occurring in a database and someone having, or learning, a piece of knowledge.  If all human beings died out, there would be no knowledge left even if all libraries and the whole Internet survived.  Knowledge exists only inside people’s heads.  It is propagated not by being accessed in a database search, but by being learned and mastered.  A collection of Wikipedia articles about physics contains text; the mind of a physicist contains knowledge.

3. How big of a problem is geek anti-intellectualism?

Once upon a time, anti-intellectualism was said to be the mark of knuckle-dragging conservatives, and especially American Protestants.  Remarkably, that seems to be changing.

How serious am I in the above analysis?  And is this really a problem, or merely a quirk of geek life in the 21st century?

It’s important to bear in mind what I do and do not mean when I say that some Internet geeks are anti-intellectuals.  I do not mean that they would admit that they hate knowledge or are somehow opposed to knowledge.  Almost no one can admit such a thing to himself, let alone to others.  And, of course, I  doubt I could find many geeks who would say that students should not graduate from high school without learning a significant amount of math, science, and some other subjects as well.  Moreover, however they might posture when at work on Wikipedia articles, most geeks have significant respect for the knowledge of people like Stephen Hawking or Richard Dawkins, of course.  Many geeks, too, are planning on college, are in college, or have been to college.  And so forth–for the various claims (1)-(5), while many geeks would endorse them, they could also be found contradicting them regularly as well.  So is there really anything to worry about here?

Well, yes, there is.  Attitudes are rarely all or nothing.  The more that people have these various attitudes, the more bad stuff is going to result, I think.  The more that a person really takes seriously that there is no point in reading the classics, the less likely he’ll actually take a class in Greek history or early modern philosophy.  Repeat that on a mass scale, and the world becomes–no doubt already has become–a significantly poorer place, as a result of the widespread lack of analytical tools and conceptual understanding.  We can imagine a world in which the humanities are studied by only a small handful of people, because we already live in that world; just imagine the number of people getting smaller.

But isn’t this just a problem just for geekdom?  Does it really matter that much if geeks are anti-intellectuals?

Well, the question is whether the trend will move on to the population at large.  One does not speak of “geek chic” these days for nothing.  The digital world is now on the cutting edge of societal evolution, and attitudes and behaviors that were once found mostly among geeks back in the 1980s and 1990s are now mainstream.  Geek anti-intellectualism can already be seen as another example.  Most of the people I’ve mentioned in this essay are not geeks per se, but the digerati, who are frequently non-geeks or ex-geeks who have their finger on the pulse of social movements online.  Via these digerati, we can find evidence of geek attitudes making their way into mainstream culture.  One now regularly encounters geek-inspired sentiments from business writers like Don Tapscott and education theorists like Ken Robinson–and even from the likes of Barack Obama (but not anti-intellectualism, of course).

Let’s just put it this way.  If, in the next five years, some prominent person comes out with a book or high-profile essay openly attacking education or expertise or individual knowledge as such, because the Internet makes such things outmoded, and if it receives a positive reception not just from writers at CNET and Wired and the usual suspects in the blogosphere, but also serious, thoughtful consideration from Establishment sources like The New York Review of Books or Time, I’ll say that geek anti-intellectualism is in full flower.

UPDATE: I’ve posted a very long set of replies.