Smart Masses

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.

From Belletrist to Blogger: What progress, and the internet, has done to public intellectualism

Much like the cliché of society, the state of public intellectualism seems to be eternally in decline. Yet in the early 21st century, I think we have a legitimate claim to this omen. I propose two reasons: 1) the extreme specialization of knowledge, and 2) the method of public discourse.

As the sphere of human knowledge grows wider, the pursuit of knowledge has required more and more specialization. The unintended consequence of this evolution is the silo-fication of knowledge. Academics have a difficult time explaining themselves to non-specialists.

On my first day of studying theoretical linguistics at the University of British Columbia, the department head welcomed us with a speech glorifying the epistemological exploration we were embarking on, while simultaneously ensuring us that we would not be able to talk to anyone about our work at parties.

I think this is one reason why academics have a difficult time blogging. Modern academics deal in nuance; the foundation of knowledge required to understand such nuance cannot be imparted in a 300-500 word blog post.

Wikipedia’s entry on Intellectual is an engaging account of “men of letters” for the past three centuries — from belletrist, littérateur and literati to essayist, journalist and critic. The article defines the various categories of intelligentsia and does well by contrasting public intellectuals with scholars and academics. There is another category that I would add to the list: public educators.

For example: Brian Greene, Brian Cox, Neil deGrasse Tyson have all played an important role in public education and popularizing science. These men are all very public academics, but are too specialized and focused on their fields to be considered public intellectuals. Sam Harris and Steven Pinker might also fall into this category, but like Richard Dawkins and Noam Chomsky, they are a bit more rounded.

Rather than deeply specialized knowledge, a public intellectual is armed with informed and critical thinking, and should be familiar with a number of subjects. Public intellectuals typically cover topics relating to general society, public policy, ethics, politics, theology etc. Academic specialists may have a tough time traversing all of these topics. Two professions that are particularly capable in this regard are philosophers and journalists. The Wikipedians rightfully list Chomsky, Dawkins, Edward Said, Jean Paul Sartre and Christopher Hitchens. Notwithstanding the impressive academic backgrounds, there is quite a mix of philosophy and journalism in there. To me, multidisciplinarianism is a requirement of a public intellectual. Take Penn Jillette. Here is a man who can argue passionately about the libertarianism and atheism, who has invented a hot tub for women and who can catch a bullet in his teeth! That, my friends, is a polymath.

Furthermore, an engaging public intellectual should be erudite, witty, and somewhat of an entertainer. Unfortunately this particular characteristic has led professional entertainers to feel they have leave to become public intellectuals, which mostly has led to disaster (I cast my condescending eye towards Jenny McCarthy, while I praise the likes of Stephen Fry).

What about pundits? The television and radio waves are beset with perfectly-coiffed and syrupy-voiced idealogues. Public intellectuals strive to raise the level of public understanding. Pundits strive to push an agenda. They already have the answers, and are thus the enemies of reason and critical thinking. Pundits may be dismissed as simply talking heads.

We expect more from our public intellectuals. As good as the Wikipedia article is in its definition it misses one critical element: reach. Public intellectuals try to influence society, to effect (perceived) positive change (NOTE: I think this is why Fredrich Hayek thought that public intellectuals were disproportionately socialist, or “liberal” in the modern parlance). Defining a public intellectual is as much about the audience as it is about the individual. Technology has influenced how public intellectuals reach their audiences drastically.

Modes of public discourse have evolved over the millennia, but for intellectuals the printed word changed everything. Pamphlets, handbills, essays, books and maybe most important — newspapers — helped spread ideas to the masses and encouraged dialogue. In the twentieth century, radio and television became important modes of discourse. By the end of that century, broadcast media fragmented into hundreds of television channels and satellite radio stations, giving rise to specialty channels like C-SPAN, or to talk radio personalities. Presently, we have come full circle with the rise of the new “men (and women) of letters”: bloggers.

With the rise of the internet and explosion of the market of ideas — like record labels and newspapers before them — public intellectuals are becoming victims of the long tail. The broadcast era was a boon because it allowed ideas and arguments to reach the masses through a single pipe. It did not suffer (so much) the problem of the filter bubble, from the fractured masses self-selecting a narrow range of ideas to consume.

Yet the broadcast era undoubtedly suffered from a shallower market of ideas. “Mainstream” meant something in that era, and getting into the less-processed, earthy underground was difficult. However, the democratic nature of the internet has muddied the intellectual waters terribly. Recall Socrates criticism of the Sophists and his advocacy for a “knowledge-monopoly”, or Plato’s elitist notion of “philosopher kings”.

The justification of the role of public intellectuals is that the general public itself does not have the rigorous training in reason and critical thinking. Yet the public can easily fire up a blog and sell their thoughts in the market of ideas, regardless of their rigour (this includes, of course, your humble correspondent).

A public intellectual may be a blogger, but bloggers are not public intellectuals. It is in this regard that bloggers are similar to academics in their disqualification from public intellectuals. Academics have training but no audience. Bloggers have audience but no training.

The decline and fall of the public intellectual has come to pass on the heels of disappearing multidisciplinarians, ceding the public discourse to public academics. Secondly, they are relegated to obscurity thanks to the vast sea of ideas on the internet. The airwaves have already been conquered by primetime pundits who trade controversy for ad dollars, and the thoughtful magazines and newspapers that served as clearinghouses for erudition have been shuttering for a lack of those same ad dollars. Where do we turn to get a deeper understanding of society? It isn’t Twitter or Facebook, or even blogs. Maybe projects like Longreads, Matter and The Magazine will become new forums for deeper thought. Maybe it will be a more collaborative solution like Wikipedia or Branch. I am not sure, but I sure do miss Hitchens. I hope I can find more out there like him.