Is there a war on smart?
Is there a war on smart? Certainly there are a lot of people who argue for all sorts of conflicting positions, often poorly, on every topic you can imagine. But is that really a new phenomenon? Let's think about what you would need if you wanted to generate lots of differing opinions about lots of topics.
First off, you need something to form an opinion about. You need information. It helps if this information is disjointed, incomplete, misrepresented, misinterpreted, out of context, and sometimes just plain wrong. It also has to be easy to access and have staying power. A newspaper article or a TV program may be seen by a large number of people, and it may influence opinion when it is first made public. But once you read a newspaper, you throw it away. And even if you record a TV program, how many have you ever watched more than once? Have you ever recorded a news program?
Second, you need a venue in which many people can participate to make their opinions public. Sitting around with your friends talking about the latest misguided government initiative doesn't cut it. You need something that will get your opinion to the masses. And again, it needs staying power. Once your opinion is available, it needs to stay that way to maximize the number of people who can access it.
And third, something that may not be necessary but something that I think helps the process along, is a participatory environment. An individual voicing opinions on some topic is one thing. A community of people, all reinforcing each other's point of view, is quite another.
I expect by now many of you have realized that we have everything that I've described above. Yes, I'm describing the internet. It has everything you need; piles of information of vastly differing quality, the ability to publish information that sticks around at relatively low cost, and the ability to build interactive communities.
We're not seeing a war on smart. What we're seeing is a democratization of information. Complicated topics are no longer the property of the few people who are engaged with those topics on a day to day basis. Now anyone, informed or not, can chime in. Not only that, but like-minded people can come together to reinforce a particular point of view. When I used the word community earlier, I meant just that; communities built around points of view. When people find a community they like, they will defend that community against outsiders. What was once an argument between different viewpoints on a particular topic becomes a fight to the death between different communities of people, because conceding that your point of view is mistaken means that the community perishes.
Let's face it, on any topic that isn't trivial, there will be far more uninformed people than informed people. It takes time to become informed, time and effort. And how do many people make themselves informed about a topic? They turn to the internet, the venue that is itself filled with disjointed, incomplete, misrepresented, misinterpreted, and just plain wrong information. Unless you come to the table with some ability to take apart arguments and measure their worth, it's easy to be led down the garden path by the first author who possesses a flare with words and writes with the power of conviction.
So, once again, I say there is no war on smart. We are simply seeing the consequences of giving everyone a voice, providing information of differing quality in amounts far too great for people to properly digest, and people's tendency to form opinions on topics they don't know much about.
- by andrew
- in News