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 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.
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?