Smart Masses

in ideas internet media

In my last post I explored the characteristics of public intellectuals and pointed out that they are defined somewhat by their audience; which has recently become fragmented to the detriment of the occupation of public intellectual. Today I would like to examine the characteristics of a sophisticated, intellectually engaged audience. Does an audience that can appreciate the dying, generalist public intellectual even exist?

Like the public intellectual, the intellectual audience has evolved over the past few hundred years. The culture of curiosity and willingness to engage in social critical discourse has never been universal. Only a privileged few were able to turn their attention from mere survival and put energy into developing mentally, morally and aesthetically. Private tutors date back to classical times, teaching with the dialectic in an oral manner. Print revolutionized the spread of knowledge, but in the middle ages it was still limited to the clerical class with their Latin texts. Intellectualism had been pulled under into the murky depths of theological navel-gazing. The shining light of the Renaissance brought books, book clubs and parleys in coffee shops. Newspapers and journals became the vehicle of ideas in an era where “public opinion” began to become recognized. Literacy was becoming more widespread, as was education. In the modern era education meant classical training in Latin and Greek, the trivium and quadrivium. Since the 20th century literacy and education became widespread and the label of “educated person” has lost its former status. An intellectual or “sophisticated” audience was no longer merely the literate or the educated. Not that I am criticizing the “universal opulence” of education (to borrow a phrase from Adam Smith). Humanity, and myself, have benefitted greatly. But do not equate the growing population of literate and educated to those who share a culture of curiosity and inquiry. Just because you can read doesn’t mean you can think.

The commodification of media in recent generations has also fragmented audiences. During the years of network television and magazines of opinion, public intellectuals could attain a reach further than any previous generation. Furthermore, standardized education and mass media meant that the populace had a common pool of literary, philosophical, aesthetic work to draw upon. A common technique for intellectuals is to introduce new concepts through the reference and synthesis of previously expressed ideas. There is an assumption of familiarity with the “classics”.

The explosion of media in the past twenty years (magnified by the world wide web) has meant that it is easier to access gads of information in your chosen niche. Similar to the silo-fication of academic knowledge we now have the silo-fication of popular knowledge. Negative criticism of this development have been brought up in countless books and articles, for example Eli Parser’s The Filter Bubble. Regardless of the value judgement, the result has been shattering of “public” into multitudes of smaller, more personal “publics”. Jeff Jarvis explores this concept in his book on sharing in the digital age Public Parts. From the perspective of the public intellectual, rather than a smart mass, we now have smart masses.

Polymathism and shared intellectual culture have given way to the specialization of knowledge and a multiverse of publics, each with their own canon of knowledge. Maybe it is my own nostalgia, but I long for the time when one could read a thought-provoking essay riddled with literary references. Nowadays it seems the mark of “high” culture is a reference to The Wire.

As we have evolved away from the “classical” education of Latin and Greek, we are evolving into a culture with new forms of literacy — less focus on rote facts, more around problem-solving and knowledge synthesis skills. We no longer need to memorize long passages of poetry or scripture. What need for a common educational experience when a literary or cultural reference is merely a click away with Google and Wikipedia?

Moreover, the sheer amount of information accessible by the average human today is daunting. I have a book titled Too Much to Know that (somewhat ironically) sits unopened on my Kindle shelf. By the gods I had to take an information diet!

The path for the 21st century intellectual might be to go in search of a public of his or her own. A subset of that public should be philosophes, the people with a culture of inquiry. The intellectual must appeal to this audience, using references from that domain to forge new ideas and perceptions of society at large. They must achieve intellectualism within their chosen public. Then perhaps they can connect the sophisticates from their public to other publics.

This nodal approach might be a better representation of nuanced public opinion. Nowadays public opinion has been reduced to mere mathematical averages (as if two integers could encapsulate the breadth of thoughts and feelings of a nation). The blind authority the public gives to these polls is compounded by their misunderstanding of mathematics. The Irish mathematician and satirist Des MacHale quipped that the average human walks around with one breast and one testicle.

The high initial curve of the power law graph expressed in the Long Tail shows that there still will be the occasional superstar public intellectual with wide reach. Where they once laboured in lonely obscurity, the long tail intellectuals can be successful within their own cultural niche (a different kind of obscurity, to be sure). I am not sure what this means in terms of calibre. Seeing how quality is expressed in the long tail of entertainment makes me not want to discount the small-time intellectuals. I mean, who wants to be the Justin Bieber of public intellectualism?

As to the question of whether to pursue a classical, generalist education, or follow the new evolution of sophistication within smaller publics, I have decided — in light of my own deficiencies — to experiment with the traditional route. Within my own public (techno-geeks?) I am fairly well-read, and can enjoy discourse sprinkled with references to geek culture. However, I feel at a disadvantage since I have no “classical” training. Ever since the age of 16 I focused on the language, history, culture and religions of the Far East. I spent my formative years reading (translations) of Japanese literature. In university my eyes opened to the wider world. I became a newshound, but this will give you no insight into the intellectual foundation of the West. I have since learned the wisdom of Thomas Jefferson: “The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.” For 2013 I think I will put genre fiction on the shelf (except for one or two currently in my pile) and attempt to read more “literature”. If the experiment goes awry, I can always return to my warm and comfortable niche. As always, you can see what I am reading on Goodreads.