The rise of intellectualism: smart is the new cool

The internet gave us access to a lot more information, and Twitter gave us a new appreciation of critical thinking. Time for another positive, internet-fueled trend in society: pro-intellectualism. For the first time in history, ordinary people are starting to believe it’s okay – in fact, cool – to be smart and well-informed.

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Anti-intellectualism: a product of powerlessness

As long as we’ve had knowledge, we’ve had anti-intellectualism (Wikipedia); feelings of disdain and distrust for anyone who has more knowledge than we do. Galileo was executed; nerds got wedgies. Anti-intellectualism is very much an emotional phenomenon. I mean, it’s pretty ironic to distrust someone precisely because they know more than we do! What’s happening is we get frustrated – not by the simple fact that someone knows more, but by the feeling that we can’t do anything about it. We perceive a huge, insurmountable gap between someone else’s knowledge and our own (even if, in reality, that gap might consist of a single piece of information). We have to work and support ourselves, and books cost money and take time, and we imagine we just won’t ever have enough knowledge to close that gap.

That feeling is powerlessness, and powerlessness is the cause behind what we call anger. When we feel distress and lack of control at the same time, our fight-or-flight instinct kicks in and our blood boils. Our brains use anger to make us feel better, at least for the moment. We find a way to believe the seemingly-unattainable thing isn’t worth having, anyway. When we feel we can’t ever know as much as someone else, we scoff and label them a silly intellectual. So anti-intellectualism boils down to fatalism; a lack of faith in our own ability to learn.

The internet: making knowledge more valuable – and easier to get

But the internet is changing things. We deal with more information every day, and in fact we need more information to go about our daily lives. We use the internet to find a doctor’s office, to compare prices on diapers – and doing that research saves us time and money. Knowledge is becoming more and more materially valuable. More credible sites get more visitors, and aha! Suddenly, knowledge is influence. We respect people who know things because they actually make our lives easier. And we see the respect they get, and want some of our own.

Most importantly, we see that we can get it. The internet is removing the fatalism. We’re realizing that we can learn whatever we want – and also, that there’s so much information out there, nobody can ever learn it all. The gap between someone else’s knowledge and our own isn’t such a big deal anymore. If somebody else knows something I don’t? Whatever, I probably know things they don’t know. And if I want to know I’ll just google it, and that’s that.

When we feel empowered, we stop glorifying ignorance. We don’t end conversations with “..I dunno. Who cares”, any more; we go online and look it up. In fact, we’ve gone from scoffing at smarts to scoffing at mental laziness; if someone is asking a question that would take two seconds to look up, we post a link to to www.letmegooglethatforyou.com .

The kids might just be alright

I knew things were really changing when TED talks started to become popular. Amidst the cute cat pictures, the porn, the ridiculous “news” stories, and whatever else manages to go viral, here were these thoughtful, intelligent discussions of real ideas. And people are sharing them – not just people over forty with university degrees; teenagers, nine-to-fivers, everybody! A few weeks ago I was sharing a public computer lab with some rambunctious 20-year-olds. In between the flirting, the giggling, the chatting about music videos, and so on, somebody suddenly mentioned a TED talk. The most flirtatious of the girls eagerly piped up “I totally watch a TED talk every day. That’s, like, my goal”.

And you know what, I don’t even care if she learns anything from them, or if what she said is even true. Her saying “I voluntarily learn something every day” made her more cool, where 20 years ago it would be social suicide. That’s a pretty huge shift.

“My god”, I thought: “there may be hope for us after all”.

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#firstworldproblems: why this hashtag restores my faith in humanity

In my last post about social metadata, I mentioned how great it is that we’re considering the tone and context of our day-to-day messages. My absolute favourite hashtag, #firstworldproblems, is a fantastic example. It demonstrates an unprecedented level of awareness, gratitude, and unity in our day-to-day thinking.

Gratitude: a product of information, not age

For decades, mothers have told their children to be grateful for their brussel sprouts because other children were starving, but it’s always been a bit of an eye-roller. Finding happiness by considering the misfortune of others is kind of a Zen thing; a quite subtle, spiritual exercise that becomes more accessible as you get older.

At least, so we thought. Recent evidence suggests it’s not about age at all: gratitude happens when we feel enough empathy, which happens automatically when we get enough information. In the past, many of us didn’t acquire that kind of perspective until we got older, but today, we’re processing a lot more information a lot younger.

Remember how I said Twitter made us smarter?

We know an idea has really ‘sunk in’ when it becomes not only a part of language, but a form of humour among young people. Teenagers using #firstworldproblems is proof, to me, that global empathy is taking hold. We’ve realized our lot is better than others’, and that we ought to feel grateful for that; and we’ve accepted it so completely, we’re actually able to laugh at our own ridiculous complaints. As a result we’re more likely to help others, and we’re also happier with our own lives. Twenty or thirty years ago, who would have dreamed it would be cool to be honest and self-aware?

We’re doing so much critical thinking, now, that we aren’t just getting logically smarter; we’re also getting emotionally smarter. We’re learning, younger, the value of concepts like self-honesty and conscious gratitude; concepts previous generations struggled with through decades of therapy. #firstworldproblems makes me very, very happy. It’s the only way I know to mock my friends, and make them feel better, at the same time. For the west especially, bringing that kind of zen into casual conversation is a huge accomplishment!

Global Empathy, part 1: humanity’s secret weapon

I believe empathy is the crucial factor to human survival – past, present and future. Don’t believe me? Yeah, I thought that might happen, so I’ve made this a two-parter. Since I love to talk about the state of the world today it’s only natural that I start with…. the past. 🙂

Neanderthals: stronger than us, and just as smart

Btw, I’ve drawn considerable inspiration on this from a fantastic PBS miniseries called The Incredible Human Journey, which I heartily recommend.

This time let’s go right back to the beginning: say, 38,000 BC (or so). We – humans – are  not very strong, but we’re resourceful. We use tools to do things our bodies can’t, and we’re social animals; we band together. We look out for the rest of our pack, and fight anything outside. Sure, other species travel in packs, too, but our tools give us an advantage…

…except against the Neanderthals. Neanderthals used tools just as much as we did. In fact, their tools might even have been better than ours. And their bodies were definitely stronger. When a Neanderthal pack fought a Homo Sapiens (modern human) pack, the Neanderthal pack probably won. Fighting to survive was killing us.

So how did we turn it around? We don’t know exactly, but the short answer* is: we took this banding-together concept to the next level. (*in the words of…  me; but I’m basing this on research done by actual anthropologists. If you’re interested in reading more, here’s a great start: Rethinking Neanderthals | Smithsonian.com.) We started leaving other Homo Sapiens alone – saving our strength to fight Neanderthals, or even joining forces against them – and gradually, we outnumbered them. We won the war by choosing our battles. But…

Our evolutionary advantage

But the big question is, how did come up with that cooperative strategy? Our instincts told us (heck, they still tell us) to fight anyone we don’t know. How did we override that? It wasn’t with intelligence. Our best thinking wasn’t enough to outweigh the “protect-my-family-against-everyone-else” impulse (indeed, it still isn’t). So how did we see the big picture?

Well, something else happened around the same time: we started making little sculptures and drawing symbols on rocks. And those bits of creativity, made by strangers, had a bizarre effect on our thoughts: they inspired emotions. Humans we’d never met could make stuff that made us feel. Suddenly, we saw beyond the pack. Our feelings broadened our sense of identity. We became a culture.

We all know feelings are a powerful motivator. They speak louder than thoughts, or instincts. When instincts told us to fight eachother, feelings told us we were in it together – and the feelings won. And so, thanks to our empathy with eachother, we survived!

Empathy: simplifying life for 40,000 years

We often describe feelings as complicated, but, in a fundamental way, feelings are a great simplifier. Precisely because they’re so strong, so impossible to ignore. Big-picture logic is subtle and sophisticated; it’s tough to find amidst all the noise, the more immediate choices. In our struggle for survival, empathy cranked the volume on the best choice. Empathy made us shut off our narrow-minded instincts and find our collective strength. By drowning out our thoughts, our feelings made us smarter.

So… jump forward to the 21st-century. Ingrained empathy + brand-new world of global communication = ???? What are your thoughts? I’ll tell you what I think… next time!