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”.

#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 Communication

1600 – 1900: The age of revolution

Knowledge is Power – we realized that in the 1600s, a few hundred years after we invented the printing press. The more we know, the more we have to think about, and when we expand our minds, we do everything differently. Written language means we can expand eachother’s minds, and the printing press meant one individual could reach a lot of people. Over the centuries that followed, literacy rates gradually rose – and sure enough, revolutions started happening. When we gain the knowledge that things can be different, we want them to be different . When we realize there are other people – a lot of other people – who share our dissatisfaction, we realize we can stand up to money and power, if we stand together. When we see that change is possible, we start to INSIST things change.

The 20th century: the age of suffrage

In the twentieth century, literacy increased exponentially: women, visible minorities, and the working class started reading. Their knowledge made them realize they wanted – and deserved – the same rights and freedoms as the wealthy white males, and when enough of them reached that realization, the patriarchy couldn’t stop them from getting the vote.

But even as late as 1990, printing still required money. A self-published book wouldn’t reach very many people; you had to convince a large company with greater resources to publish your thoughts, if you wanted to reach the masses. And those publishers have to make money. Same story with Newspapers and TV stations: they have to make a lot of money to run all those presses, distribution systems, video and sound systems, broadcast towers, etc. So they need advertising sponsors, and stories that will draw lots and lots of readers and viewers. The result is that, though the traditional media churns out a lot of information, they end up giving considerable preference to the information that pleases corporations. With the traditional media only, information was still a slave to money. The only way for an individual to share ideas with a large audience was to a) have a lot of money, or b) have ideas that people with money saw favourably.

The 21st century: the digital age

But the Internet – ah, the internet changes things. A computer with an internet connection is vastly more accessible than a printing press or a broadcast station, and can reach just as many people… no, in fact, a whole lot MORE. In 1990, perhaps 5% of the population of the world had the resources to share an idea or a perspective with more than a few thousand people. In twenty years, the power to reach tens of thousands (even hundreds of thousands) has fallen into the hands of the majority of the world.  In the industrialized world, it’s not just a 50% majority, it’s everybody. Anyone can walk into a library, sit down at a computer, and publish to the world. And that, my friends, is HUGE.

We suddenly have the ability to tell eachother what’s happening, what we’re thinking, everywhere in the world. What’s really happening, what we’re REALLY thinking; not through the lens of the wealthy and powerful, but through the un-edited perspective of the masses. And it’s changing everything. I believe the next few decades will see by FAR the most significant changes EVER in how the human race thinks and behaves. And some of those changes are very, very good. We’re already starting to see them, and in future posts I’ll explore those changes in more detail.

21st-century optimism

I’ve been called a very “modern” person, because I love technology. But the reason I love technology is because I love people. And I believe that, this century, technology is having a profound and positive effect on people; how we think, how we behave – how we live.

There are many who feel right now is one of the most frightening times in humanity’s history, and with valid reasons.  Even if you do believe, as I do, that humans are fundamentally designed to be forces for good in eachothers’ lives, power and money will always corrupt, and corrupt people manage to screw things up. And today, power-and-money empires have reached a level of sophistication that can seem impossibly formidable.

But I believe today is also the most fascinating and exciting time in our entire history, because things are happening that have never, ever happened before. Money and power have always loomed large, but they’ve yet to beat the human spirit into submission. And today, the human spirit has an unprecedented game-changer on its side: the internet. Ordinary people have never been able to communicate with eachother from around the world.

The internet is something totally new, and it’s re-shaping the playing field. Technology itself isn’t a force for change; it’s a channel for the organic forces that have always existed, that make humanity great: communication, empathy, thoughtfulness, spirituality. Those forces have taken a back seat for thousands of years, because their power is in numbers, and the physical expanse of the world has kept people separate. Today, that’s changing – and so the world is changing, in ways we’ve never seen before. It all starts with global communication – and that’s where this blog will start. Stay tuned!