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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