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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.