Last time I wrote about willful ignorance as one good definition of stupidity. This time, I want to explore some ideas about why there seems a growing amount of it in modern society. Of course that necessitates first addressing the question: Is there a growing amount of it? I believe the answer is yes, but I also believe a lot of the reason for it is the growing complexity of society.
There was a time when a clever person could fix their washing machine or their car. Our machines were fairly simple then: a motor, a few hoses, some wires and belts. It wasn’t hard to figure out. A clever person with experience and tools could even fix their radio or TV. Replacing a burned out “tube” was a common household activity.
Now our machines bear the warning: “No User Serviceable Parts Inside”
And as a former repair technician, I know that often these days, “servicing” those parts often involves merely replacing entire units. The PC boards and other assemblies of modern machines aren’t intended to be fixed, just replaced.
The power supply of your PC died and released its inner smoke? Just throw in another unit — despite that it might be a single capacitor or resister that fried, a two-dollar component.
But when the unit takes special tools to open, or requires a special environment, such simple repairs require a factory repair facility if they are repaired at all.
More likely they are just recycled (or worse, trashed).
Back when TVs and radios had vacuum tubes (or what my UK friends would call “valves”), people routinely opened up those boxes, risked the hazard of a (typically startling, but not usually life-threatening) shock, pulled the tubes from their sockets (taking careful note of which came from where) and carted them — literally, we used carts in those days — down to the local drugstore’s tube tester to see which one had given up the ghost.
Those were simpler times. Machines were simpler, life was simpler, even science was simpler.
When I wrote about Pluto (the planet), I mentioned how the discovery was headline news. People were excited about a cold, distant rock none of them would ever see, let alone experience.
The Renaissance idea of exploration and discovery was still important to us then. We believed science meant salvation from the Dark Ages.
Newspapers published articles about Einstein’s Theory of Relativity with the expectation that many of their readers would be interested — and they were right.
Now it’s gotten a lot more complicated. Even quantum physicists don’t actually understand the quantum world — no one does. We have our mathematical models, and the experiments we can do provide results that match those models, but no one really knows what an electron is despite that we’ve been using them since Marconi.
Anyone, with not much effort, can understand Isaac Newton‘s laws of motion. The math involved is trivial, and those laws match our day-to-day experience.
Anyone who’s helped push a dead car knows massive objects are hard to move and hard to stop. We all know things fall down, not up. Our lives connect with Newton’s science.
Albert Einstein‘s Theory of Special Relativity actually isn’t that much harder to understand. Anyone who can handle Pythagoras’ Triangles can handle the math involved in Special Relativity.
But accepting — let alone understanding — what the theory implies can be mind-bending. None of us directly experience how moving fast enough changes our perspectives of time and space and mass.
By the time you get to Al’s Theory of General Relativity, the math gets downright ugly (tensors; anyone? anyone?). The Theory of GR is considered one of the most thoroughly tested theories in science — it’s been examined down to umpteen decimal points, and has proven dead spot on every time.
Yet it is in complete conflict with our other greatest theory, the theory of the teeny, tiny world, Quantum Mechanics. One of the greatest efforts in science today is trying to reconcile these two conflicting, highly tested, well-demonstrated, theories.
But did you know that GPS requires General Relativity? It wouldn’t work if the devices involved didn’t take it into account. The speed of the GPS satellites, as well as their distance from Earth’s gravity, require the compensation provided by Einstein’s complicated theory.
So this is the problem.
We’ve gone from easily understandable Newton to difficult Einstein and what almost amounts — for now — to a kind of magic we’re still trying to fathom. We know it’s real, our experiments all confirm it, but even the best minds don’t quite understand it. Not really.
I think that sums up how complex life has gotten for us all.
We’ve gone from an era when we could grasp life, hold it in our minds, to an era where trying to understand even small parts of life seems a real challenge.
It requires dedicated effort, and life offers so many other distractions and choices that don’t require that.
As Leon Wieseltier said, it “places an extraordinary intellectual responsibility” on people, but that effort is demanded of us, least we become “delinquent citizens” of our society.
Unfortunately, modern life makes it easy to be ignorant.
It isn’t just that our tools and science have become too complicated to understand. It’s that understanding increasingly is no longer required. We’ve allowed ourselves to become intellectually lazy.
TV commercials, for one example, go out of their way to point out all the things you shouldn’t try at home. Or at all.
One, after showing its tiny car acting exactly like a skateboard, tells me that, “Car is not a skateboard.” I’m glad they cleared that up. A skateboard car sounded pretty cool!
The warnings of modern life don’t just protect you from shocks and things you can’t fix anyway. They go out of their way to assume you’re pretty damn stupid and need to be warned that coffee is very hot, that you shouldn’t hold the business end of a chainsaw, and that people and pets should not be put into a washing machine.
We live in a world where a Superman costume has a label warning us that wearing the costume does not confirm upon the wearer the ability to fly. Or scarier, the ability to deflect bullets. (You ever notice how Superman ducked when the crook threw the empty gun at him?)
And did you know that a can of peanuts, “May contain nut products.”
How nutty is that?
Life is indeed more complicated, but that doesn’t excuse us from paying attention and using our minds.
Not being able to understand all of it doesn’t mean we can’t understand some of it.
Yes, that’s harder, but is it really so different from an hour at the gym to improve your body?
As we would fight our flabby bodies, shouldn’t we also fight our flabby minds?
October 16th, 2014 at 9:22 pm
All I can say is that I’m so happy that those little packets of silica gel that come inside products are marked “Do Not Eat.” Otherwise I’d be munching away. It’s so easy to confuse them with Pop Rocks, right?
October 16th, 2014 at 10:02 pm
They do seem crunchy and tempting, but I imagine they’d give you an extreme case of dry mouth.
(Looking at various warning labels on the ‘net, I saw that the iPod Shuffle carries the warning: “Do not eat iPod Shuffle.” Music is sometimes described as “tasty”… but not literally people!)
October 17th, 2014 at 6:02 am
Has the consumerist culture we buy into and inhabit itself created our intellectual slovenliness, or is that shifting the blame? If I am so busy acquiring, bettering, faking my status to keep up, and one might even say just surviving in this **cked-up world, then is fighting my flabby mind something I have time for, or have any need to do? We’re all post-modern, ironic morons now, and that’s cool isn’t it? Of course not; but you get my drift?
October 17th, 2014 at 10:47 am
I do, indeed. I think we may have touched briefly on this topic before, the degree to which the winds of media and culture push us versus the degree to which we bear the responsibility to steer our own ship. As I recall, I said then that ultimately it comes down to us, but it’s never that simple. For example, I’ve written quite a few posts arguing that violence and sexuality do — or at least can — influence us.
I think it’s a relationship that goes both ways. And, of course, those creating the texts and images are also “us” so it still ends up being “us” in the long run. Humans have an ability we don’t see in animals; we are unique in our ability to pass on information; we build on the discoveries of those that came before. That’s a process that can only accelerate. We stand on the shoulders of those who stand on shoulders of others standing on more shoulders… turtles all the way down, so to speak.
If you pick almost any social indicator and graph it over time, the curve trends increasingly upwards — the curve is exponential. They all show more growth over shorter spans. It becomes a heedless rush into the future, and I think a great deal is lost along the way. And the social environment does make it easy to abdicate thinking in that it offers all your thoughts for free (for a price, or at least for a cost).
“Buy Coke, it’s the best.” “No, buy Pepsi, it fits your lifestyle — it’s sexier.”
On some level, this is inevitable, which makes it all the more crucial to be a bit smarter than the culture. It’s only through our intelligence that we avoid being easily fooled. But, yeah, as you say, the pressures to just go with the fleet make a pretty heavy wind.
Have you ever seen the Mike Judge movie, Idiocracy? It posits a (very familiar) dystopian future supposedly 500 years, but has numerous elements that seem eerily already present. It’s a little terrifying.
October 17th, 2014 at 1:29 pm
Forgive me for having traced old ground in my comment; the older I get the more the needle gets stuck in the groove. Yes, it does ‘come down to us’, though as you suggest, we reflect the generic. You and I contribute to the creation of this culture we both view with disdain, whilst partaking of whatever benefits we may snatch from it too. The mainstream media feeds me asinine junk with an ironic wink, saying – ‘Hey you, have some of this crap, and as we both already know it’s crap, don’t stress about it or complain to us, just consume it ironically. Then you can imagine you’re smart; you dumb sucker’.
How to ‘be a bit smarter than the culture.’? I don’t really know; I suppose reading has become a little counter-cultural:
[YouTube link deleted because video was deleted]
October 17th, 2014 at 3:03 pm
Oh, sorry, I didn’t mean to imply the conversation was a lot of old hats (although, at a guess, I’d guess we both do, in point of fact, wear old hats). I was just touching back on it as a reference point. I’ve quite enjoyed our conversations recently, and you’re a most welcome guest here.
I suspect that perhaps you, like me, have unplugged from as much of the current culture as we can manage reasonably. Speaking for myself, I lack many of the expected modern conveniences: no smart phone, no Twitter account, no Facebook account. I do have a YouTube account, because I find many valuable science and philosophy videos, plus there are some film-oriented channels I rather enjoy.
I think the more you expose yourself to other cultures, both current and historic, the more you can view the current mess with some perspective. Even in taking a careful look at the surrounding culture and our role in it, we can arm ourselves with inspection and introspection.
Reading is such an important anti-stupidity tool. It hasn’t been lost — people still read lots of (what I call) beach and airplane books (books you can use to pass the time). It is a pity more don’t read more substantial material. As you mentioned earlier, (a love of) philosophy and science should be instilled as early as possible. Forget “Find Waldo!” Find Socrates, Find Kant, Find Feynman. 🙂
October 17th, 2014 at 4:09 pm
Hey, no need for any apology my friend; it’s me that’s being repetitive. And thank you for saying I am welcome here; I’ll try not to abuse your hospitality. Ditto all of your behaviours as outlined in para. 2, and I don’t have a TV either (yes, I’m one of those dreadfully superior snobs).
October 17th, 2014 at 6:00 pm
Yeah, the TV is one aspect of modern life I’m not willing to surrender. In my defense, it’s a fairly old part of modern life. And its study is part of my hobby life, so… yeah, that’s my excuse! 🙂
October 17th, 2014 at 7:51 pm
I was always impressed with my Dad’s taking apart things, putting them back together, usually with all the parts back in place where they should be! ha ha! My son used to take apart the cassette player, the toaster, the video tape player, I was always hoping he would be an inventor or a scientist. He is a great chef and we are happy to get delicious food, he doesn’t mind taking apart bikes for his kids but leaves the equipment and car to ‘experts,’ now! smiles!
October 17th, 2014 at 9:12 pm
Heh! My dad used to despair at how I’d take things apart (but rarely bothered putting them back together). I ended up with a job as a Field Service Technician, so all that was just good practice.
I’m definitely a weirdo — “assembly required” sounds like a good time to me! Like a 3D jigsaw puzzle that turns into something useful when you’re done! 😀
October 25th, 2014 at 4:48 pm
Ha. My flabby mind needs help. 😉
“What are you reading for?” LOL Just watched that clip posted up above of Bill Hicks. There truly is an anti-intellectualism vein running prominently through our culture, and I’ve never fully comprehended why it exists. I suppose because, as you suggested, there appears to be less of a need for people to expand our minds when so much feels permanently outside of our grasps. We like to leave the hard thinking up to scientists and engineers and politicians (hahaha) and corporate leaders and then just wait to consume whatever they churn out.
Always leads right back to Idiocracy. ha Every frickin’ time…
Because if you do like to learn and play with ideas, you run up against so many others who then find what you’re speaking on boring since they aren’t interested in it. IME, it begins early on in grade school where there’s this push to not stick out or risk coming across as uncool. And nothing spells “uncool” like being deeply interested in a relatively obscured subject that requires devoted study and engaged imagination in order to comprehend its theories and ideas. Makes others feel dumb, therefore you wind up labeled as dumb for making them feel that way. haha And so it goes…
It’s almost as if our brain cells are hindering our capacity for peace of mind these days. Maybe with enough drug use we can all get dulled off enough to where we can finally see eye to eye with one another. Ha!
Anyway, take ‘er easy there, Wyrd. The downward slide is upon us. Not a flow I particularly care to go with either, but what can you do? Other than help generate interest in subjects by striking a spark in people’s minds, which is very valuable, but it seems if you don’t catch us when we’re young enough to be open-minded then reaching us becomes an exercise in futility ever-after. Sad, but appears to be true.
October 26th, 2014 at 10:27 am
I do think it’s true that it’s important to strike sparks in young minds! The most important lessons being teaching people to learn and instilling a sense of curiosity. Learning anything as an adult is harder (the brain is less plastic), plus having to manage real life adult concerns (job, money, home, relationships, etc.) takes a lot of time. It requires considerable effort and dedication for adults to continue their education.
The “uncool” problem is something we can and should address. I once thought shows such as CSI might make science or being smart cool again, but that lesson seems lost amid the musical montages and general silliness of the show. In fact, the smarter spin-off, the NY one, didn’t even survive.
Even a show like </Scorpion> — which is supposedly about genius heroes — presents them as largely unattractive misfits. The most attractive person on the show — by far — is the “dumb” waitress. To the extent our media reflects ourselves, we’re stupid, ignorant and shallow, and we often behave like assholes.
Our values are so messed up right now. We value actors, rather than the writers and directors who are far more responsible for the TV and movies we enjoy. We value emotions and gut reactions over rational and thoughtful behavior (the very sort of thinking that leads to terrorism and school shootings). We live in visceral and actively anti-intellectual times. Things will not improve until we change that balance.
There is an vital difference between scientists or engineers versus politicians and corporate leaders. The latter group, especially politicians, has a vested interest in lies and bullshit. Their relationship with reality can be tenuous. Money often is a ruling star in their lives. And while there are a few scientists who’ve cooked their data, most of them revere truth — science is founded on the pursuit of truth and knowledge. It’s what draws most scientists to science. (It certainly isn’t money, fame or popularity!)
But engineers may be the most honest of the lot. Scientists do sometimes choose to chase grants in order to pursue their work, but engineers tend to focus only on building things and making things work. Sometimes their bosses have other ideas, but being forced by the boss to do something you know is wrong is on the boss. (It’s Captain Kirk’s fault the shields failed, not Scotty’s! 🙂 )
As a friend of mine quipped, “Science proceeds despite scientists.” Wrong ideas don’t last long. Science is “open” and the work is scrutinized by others. It’s a collective effort that builds on past successes and discards past failures.
And it’s proven to be extremely successful. The first transatlantic radio transmission was in 1902 — we walked on the moon in 1969. Pretty astonishing, that. If only politics could make such progress as that, yet it seems mired in the same political crap since our history began. Democracy, after all, is another one of those Ancient Greek inventions. It’s been 2500 years of… well, the same old shit.
October 26th, 2014 at 7:04 pm
Good thoughts. I think what I was getting at was how people out here in the public just expect these experts and leaders to know what to do and to drive this train on our behalves without this requiring much from us other than that we consume the outputs. So, in that respect, all of these figures are tossed into one box together and it’s assumed they know what they’re doing in order to save us all. ha It’s childish thinking, but it’s not uncommon. And I think we’re prone toward it since it alleviates our own sense of responsibility over matters that seem so far outside of our control — too technical, too complicated, too far removed from our little jobs and lives.
It’s actually understandable that it would come to that point though. Because everything has gotten so complex and beyond us as individuals that it can feel like a fool’s game in aiming to keep up with it all. For sanity’s sake I believe we have to accept this compartmentalization and leave a great deal of concerns for experts to worry over. BUT, the obvious downside of that is how infantile it turns us as a public, because we simply make demands over things we don’t thoroughly comprehend and we can’t manage the reins so as to check the imbalances of power where they crop up. And more and more, we turn away from deep exploration of the sciences and mathematics unless our income requires us to be knowledgeable in those departments. But people have to cut life down to a size we can chew, so it’s probably to be expected that this would be the outcome in a society this heavily populated, technologically sophisticated, and politically and economically complex.
October 27th, 2014 at 12:36 pm
It may be understandable, but there’s no reason it has to be inevitable. My post about Leon Wieseltier; he really nailed it in first acknowledging that, in a democratic society, there is an “extraordinary intellectual responsibility on ordinary men and women,” and about failing that responsibility: “a thoughtless citizen of a democracy is a delinquent citizen.”
It’s true that delving deeply into things is a challenge most don’t have the time, the will or the background for, but the inability to understand all of it doesn’t mean we can’t understand some of it. And it’s crucially important that we do understand some of it.
A lot of it is just common sense, not magic. My parents were hard-core technophobes. They were convinced it was a kind of magic they could never understand. As one example, they had no problem understanding that, when you play a vinyl record or a cassette tape, the music isn’t removed from the record or tape — you’re hearing a copy of what is on — and what remains on — the record or tape. But they had a disconnect with regard to files on floppy disks. They saw computers as “magic” and couldn’t (for a long time) wrap their heads around how a file on a floppy is no different than Bach on a record.
The alternative, of course, is to abdicate responsibility and let the “experts” run the world. One problem is that’s not what happens. People still make demands from a platform of ignorance. The other problem is the tendency to conflate science and politics. Not that there isn’t some politics in science — there is some politics in everything humans do.
But political goals have very little to do with reality and truth. Science is the pursuit of reality and truth. They’re as different as root beer and onions.
It’s tragic to me. There was a time when science was seen as that which lifted us up from the dark ages. Now, as we reject science (and even intellect), we seem to be sliding back down that slope.
October 27th, 2014 at 4:58 pm
Not claiming to like it. Just reporting what I see out here. We can talk about people’s “extraordinary intellectual responsibility,” but how do you enforce it? How do we even entice others to care about it if they don’t? That’s where I’ve gotten stuck, because what I see a lot of is people either not caring much about hardly any of this or those who claim to zero in particular aspects and then buy into pseudoscience or fanciful ideological narratives that wind up skewing their understandings of past events or their vision for what scientific exploration should be used for. Most folks, so far as I can tell, aren’t interested too much in exploration for the sake of exploration, except perhaps in small doses that strike them as entertaining.
Sorry if that sounds cynical. I did read your post on Leon Wieseltier and went on to look up other interviews by him. So you turned at least one person out here onto someone I otherwise had never heard of. But I won’t pretend that information’s going to be terribly interesting to, say, hard-core gamers or most political ideologues or whoever else we encounter online. And I feel bad stating that since I don’t wish to dishearten you. Hence why my initial post was kept light and playful…because beyond that I’m not sure what I can say that won’t sound pessimistic or defeated on this subject.
Railing against people who don’t care doesn’t make them care — that much I’ve figured out to be true. So I’m not sure what we’re supposed to be doing here other than further educating ourselves and sharing information in hope that some others might be intrigued.
October 27th, 2014 at 6:02 pm
I think we’re pretty much on the same page with regard to all points you touched on. We’re both pretty cynical when it comes to society. What really rang my chimes with Wieseltier was seeing someone who sees the world so much as I do (and sees it better and articulates it way better — I was humbled and in awe).
As you say, railing doesn’t do much good, but it makes me feel better. Venting is a known palliative.
I think we both have, to some extent, a mission of “putting it out there” in hopes of planting seeds. There’s a Bible parable about sowing seeds… many don’t take root and grow, but — if we’re lucky — some do. People have indicated that some of my posts made them think or introduced them to new ideas. Maybe that’s the best I can do. We can lead the horses to water, but the drinking is on them.
[Every time I use that horse epigram an old “Johnny” joke forces its way into my mind: Teacher says, “Johnny, can you use the word ‘horticulture’ in a sentence?” Johnny thinks awhile and replies, “You can lead a whore to culture, but you can’t make her think.” Which then connects to the only other “Johnny” joke I can ever remember: Teacher says, “Johnny, can you use the word ‘politics’ in a sentence?” Johnny thinks awhile and replies, “Our parrot swallowed a watch, and now Polly ticks!” What can I say… I love puns!]
A interesting question is how we got here. What changed? Did we shoot ourselves in the foot in “allowing” (as if it was a choice) our technology to grow so complex as to befuddle ordinary people? As you suggested, is it just too many and too much? If so, is there any solution other than everyone going Amish?
I’ve always believed education and intelligence are key. Maybe it will take a fall back to the dark ages to revitalize our love of knowledge. Maybe it’s a cycle humankind must repeat until they get it right (or completely kill themselves off and allow the corvids and capuchins to have a shot at the brass ring). It obviously requires some sort of big social values shift, but it may take extreme events to force that to happen.
Which brings me to your first questions in your first paragraph… frankly, “at gunpoint” would be fine with me. 😐 “Learn or Die” may end up being the motto of our age, anyway.
October 27th, 2014 at 6:09 pm
A pun for W.S.
I told my pet barn owl that I’ve just got engaged to be married.
He said ‘you twit to who?’
[I’ll get my coat]
October 27th, 2014 at 6:20 pm
🙂 The tag I sometimes apply to puns I post on other blogs (on mine I’m shameless) is:
[g,d&r] — [grinning, ducking & running (away)]
Hey, did you ever read my Dead Duck Joke post? One of my favorites. Also the one about Sally… 😀
October 27th, 2014 at 6:49 pm
I like railing against things too. If I didn’t vent, I’d likely implode. 😮 ha
Did we shoot ourselves in the foot for allowing our technologies to become so complex that common people can’t grasp them anymore? Short answer: yes.
I personally am into the notion of “going Amish,” except in new, updated, non-religious ways. ha
Can’t force learning, honey. Much as you may want to. It’ll just result in people faking it and pretending. But Nature will likely force it, because it can. And we’ll likely die if it comes down to that. ha Sorry, I don’t mean to find it funny, but damn, what can I say? It is what it is.
October 27th, 2014 at 6:52 pm
“Some subjects are so serious that one can only joke about them.” ~~Niels Bohr
October 27th, 2014 at 6:57 pm
There are a lot of things in life that one can fake. Learning isn’t one of them. “Learn or Die.” I’m fine with either result. Too many people around anyway. 👿 <<– I so rarely get to use the “evil” icon!