The Age of Stupid

Dumb people have taken over culture and society.

We live in a civilization that glorifies and elevates stupid people. The heroes of the previous centuries were all philosophers,Guest Posting scientists, and authors. Our role models are muscle-bound footballers, empty-headed pop stars, and rapacious, narcissistic businessmen. This dumbing down of Mankind is the culmination of several trends. I. The Population Bomb

Scholars and decision-makers – once terrified by the Malthusian dystopia of a “population bomb” – are more sanguine now. Advances in agricultural technology eradicated hunger even in teeming places like India and China. And then there is the old idea of progress: birth rates tend to decline with higher education levels and growing incomes. Family planning has had resounding successes in places as diverse as Thailand, China, and western Africa.

In the near past, fecundity used to compensate for infant mortality. As the latter declined – so did the former. Children are means of production in many destitute countries. Hence the inordinately large families of the past – a form of insurance against the economic outcomes of the inevitable demise of some of one’s off-spring.

Yet, despite these trends, the world’s populace is augmented by 80 million people annually. All of them are born to the younger inhabitants of the more penurious corners of the Earth. There were only 1 billion people alive in 1804. The number doubled a century later.

But our last billion – the sixth – required only 12 fertile years. The entire population of Germany is added every half a decade to both India and China. Clearly, Mankind’s growth is out of control, as affirmed in the 1994 Cairo International Conference on Population and Development.

Dozens of millions of people regularly starve – many of them to death. In only one corner of the Earth – southern Africa – food aid is the sole subsistence of entire countries. More than 18 million people in Zambia, Malawi, and Angola survived on charitable donations in 1992. More than 10 million expect the same this year, among them the emaciated denizens of erstwhile food exporter, Zimbabwe.

According to Medecins Sans Frontiere, AIDS kills 3 million people a year, Tuberculosis another 2 million. Malaria decimates 2 people every minute. More than 14 million people fall prey to parasitic and infectious diseases every year – 90% of them in the developing countries.

Millions emigrate every year in search of a better life. These massive shifts are facilitated by modern modes of transportation. But, despite these tectonic relocations – and despite famine, disease, and war, the classic Malthusian regulatory mechanisms – the depletion of natural resources – from arable land to water – is undeniable and gargantuan.

Our pressing environmental issues – global warming, water stress, salinization, desertification, deforestation, pollution, loss of biological diversity – and our ominous social ills – crime at the forefront – are traceable to one, politically incorrect, truth:

There are too many of us. We are way too numerous. The population load is unsustainable. We, the survivors, would be better off if others were to perish. Should population growth continue unabated – we are all doomed.

Doomed to what?

Numerous Cassandras and countless Jeremiads have been falsified by history. With proper governance, scientific research, education, affordable medicines, effective family planning, and economic growth, this planet can support even 10-12 billion people. We are not at risk of physical extinction and never have been.

What is hazarded is not our life – but our quality of life. As any insurance actuary will attest, we are governed by statistical datasets.

Consider this single fact:

About 1% of the population suffer from the perniciously debilitating and all-pervasive mental health disorder, schizophrenia. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were 16.5 million schizophrenics – nowadays there are 64 million. Their impact on friends, family, and colleagues is exponential – and incalculable. This is not a merely quantitative leap. It is a qualitative phase transition.

Or this:

Large populations lead to the emergence of high density urban centers. It is inefficient to cultivate ever smaller plots of land. Surplus manpower moves to centers of industrial production. A second wave of internal migrants caters to their needs, thus spawning a service sector. Network effects generate excess capital and a virtuous cycle of investment, employment, and consumption ensues.

But over-crowding breeds violence (as has been demonstrated in experiments with mice). The sheer numbers involved serve to magnify and amplify social anomies, deviate behaviour, and antisocial traits. In the city, there are more criminals, more perverts, more victims, more immigrants, and more racists per square mile.

Moreover, only a planned and orderly urbanization is desirable. The blights that pass for cities in most third world countries are the outgrowth of neither premeditation nor method. These mega-cities are infested with non-disposed of waste and prone to natural catastrophes and epidemics.

No one can vouchsafe for a “critical mass” of humans, a threshold beyond which the species will implode and vanish.

II. Democracy
One person – one vote systems afford stupid people the advantage of sheer quantity: they outnumber the smart, the educated, the expert, and the knowledgeable. Moreover, “democracy” is not the rule of the people. It is government by periodically vetted representatives of the people.

Democracy is not tantamount to a continuous expression of the popular will as it pertains to a range of issues. Functioning and fair democracy is representative and not participatory. Participatory “people power” is mob rule (ochlocracy), not democracy.

Granted, “people power” is often required in order to establish democracy where it is unprecedented. Revolutions – velvet, rose, and orange – recently introduced democracy in Eastern Europe, for instance. People power – mass street demonstrations – toppled obnoxious dictatorships from Iran to the Philippines and from Peru to Indonesia.

But once the institutions of democracy are in place and more or less functional, the people can and must rest. They should let their chosen delegates do the job they were elected to do. And they must hold their emissaries responsible and accountable in fair and free ballots once every two or four or five years.

Democracy and the rule of law are bulwarks against “the tyranny of the mighty (the privileged elites)”. But, they should not yield a “dictatorship of the weak and the stupid”.

III. Materialism
Why did the Beatles generate more income in one year than Albert Einstein did throughout his long career?

The reflexive answer is:

How many bands like the Beatles were there?

But, on second reflection, how many scientists like Einstein were there?

Rarity or scarcity cannot, therefore, explain the enormous disparity in remuneration.

Then let’s try this:

Music and football and films are more accessible to laymen than physics. Very little effort is required in order to master the rules of sports, for instance. Hence the mass appeal of entertainment – and its disproportionate revenues. Mass appeal translates to media exposure and the creation of marketable personal brands (think Beckham, or Tiger Woods).

Yet, surely the Internet is as accessible as baseball. Why did none of the scientists involved in its creation become a multi-billionaire?

Because they are secretly hated by the multitudes.

People resent the elitism and the arcane nature of modern science. This pent-up resentment translates into anti-intellectualism, Luddism, and ostentatious displays of proud ignorance. People prefer the esoteric and pseudo-sciences to the real and daunting thing.

Consumers perceive entertainment and entertainers as “good”, “human”, “like us”. We feel that there is no reason, in principle, why we can’t become instant celebrities. Conversely, there are numerous obstacles to becoming an Einstein.

Consequently, science has an austere, distant, inhuman, and relentless image. The uncompromising pursuit of truth provokes paranoia in the uninitiated. Science is invariably presented in pop culture as evil, or, at the very least, dangerous (recall genetically-modified foods, cloning, nuclear weapons, toxic waste, and global warming).

Egghead intellectuals and scientists are treated as aliens. They are not loved – they are feared. Underpaying them is one way of reducing them to size and controlling their potentially pernicious or subversive activities.

The penury of the intellect is guaranteed by the anti-capitalistic ethos of science. Scientific knowledge and discoveries must be instantly and selflessly shared with colleagues and the world at large. The fruits of science belong to the community, not to the scholar who labored to yield them. It is a self-interested corporate sham, of course. Firms and universities own patents and benefit from them financially – but these benefits rarely accrue to individual researchers.

Additionally, modern technology has rendered intellectual property a public good. Books, other texts, and scholarly papers are non-rivalrous (can be consumed numerous time without diminishing or altering) and non-exclusive. The concept of “original” or “one time phenomenon” vanishes with reproducibility. After all, what is the difference between the first copy of a treatise and the millionth one?

Attempts to reverse these developments (for example, by extending copyright laws or litigating against pirates) usually come to naught. Not only do scientists and intellectuals subsist on low wages – they cannot even augment their income by selling books or other forms of intellectual property.

Thus impoverished and lacking in future prospects, their numbers are in steep decline. We are descending into a dark age of diminishing innovation and pulp “culture”. The media’s attention is equally divided between sports, politics, music, and films.

One is hard pressed to find even a mention of the sciences, literature, or philosophy anywhere but on dedicated channels and “supplements”. Intellectually challenging programming is shunned by both the print and the electronic media as a matter of policy. Literacy has plummeted even in the industrial and rich West.

In the horror movie that our world had become, economic development policy is decided by Bob Geldof, the US Presidency is entrusted to the B-movies actor Ronald Reagan , our reading tastes are dictated by Oprah, and California’s future is steered by Arnold Schwarzenegger.

IV. The Demise of the Work Ethic
Airplanes, missiles, and space shuttles crash due to lack of maintenance, absent-mindedness, and pure ignorance. Software support personnel, aided and abetted by Customer Relationship Management application suites, are curt (when reachable) and unhelpful. Despite expensive, state of the art supply chain management systems, retailers, suppliers, and manufacturers habitually run out of stocks of finished and semi-finished products and raw materials. People from all walks of life and at all levels of the corporate ladder skirt their responsibilities and neglect their duties.

Whatever happened to the work ethic? Where is the pride in the immaculate quality of one’s labor and produce?

Both dead in the water. A series of earth-shattering social, economic, and technological trends converged to render their jobs loathsome to many – a tedious nuisance best avoided.

1. Job security is a thing of the past. Itinerancy in various McJobs reduces the incentive to invest time, effort, and resources into a position that may not be yours next week. Brutal layoffs and downsizing traumatized the workforce and produced in the typical workplace a culture of obsequiousness, blind obeisance, the suppression of independent thought and speech, and avoidance of initiative and innovation. Many offices and shop floors now resemble prisons.

2. Outsourcing and offshoring of back office (and, more recently, customer relations and research and development) functions sharply and adversely effected the quality of services from helpdesks to airline ticketing and from insurance claims processing to remote maintenance. Cultural mismatches between the (typically Western) client base and the offshore service department (usually in a developing country where labor is cheap and plenty) only exacerbated the breakdown of trust between customer and provider or supplier.

3. The populace in developed countries are addicted to leisure time. Most people regard their jobs as a necessary evil, best avoided whenever possible. Hence phenomena like the permanent temp – employees who prefer a succession of temporary assignments to holding a proper job. The media and the arts contribute to this perception of work as a drag – or a potentially dangerous addiction (when they portray raging and abusive workaholics).

4. The other side of this dismal coin is workaholism – the addiction to work. Far from valuing it, these addicts resent their dependence. The job performance of the typical workaholic leaves a lot to be desired. Workaholics are fatigued, suffer from ancillary addictions, and short attention spans. They frequently abuse substances, are narcissistic and destructively competitive (being driven, they are incapable of team work).

5. The depersonalization of manufacturing – the intermediated divorce between the artisan/worker and his client – contributed a lot to the indifference and alienation of the common industrial worker, the veritable “anonymous cog in the machine”.

Not only was the link between worker and product broken – but the bond between artisan and client was severed as well. Few employees know their customers or patrons first hand. It is hard to empathize with and care about a statistic, a buyer whom you have never met and never likely to encounter. It is easy in such circumstances to feel immune to the consequences of one’s negligence and apathy at work. It is impossible to be proud of what you do and to be committed to your work – if you never set eyes on either the final product or the customer! Charlie Chaplin’s masterpiece, “Modern Times” captured this estrangement brilliantly.

6. Many former employees of mega-corporations abandon the rat race and establish their own businesses – small and home enterprises. Undercapitalized, understaffed, and outperformed by the competition, these fledging and amateurish outfits usually spew out shoddy products and lamentable services – only to expire within the first year of business.

7. Despite decades of advanced notice, globalization caught most firms the world over by utter surprise. Ill-prepared and fearful of the onslaught of foreign competition, companies big and small grapple with logistical nightmares, supply chain calamities, culture shocks and conflicts, and rapacious competitors. Mere survival (and opportunistic managerial plunder) replaced client satisfaction as the prime value.

8. The decline of the professional guilds on the one hand and the trade unions on the other hand greatly reduced worker self-discipline, pride, and peer-regulated quality control. Quality is monitored by third parties or compromised by being subjected to Procrustean financial constraints and concerns.

The investigation of malpractice and its punishment are now at the hand of vast and ill-informed bureaucracies, either corporate or governmental. Once malpractice is exposed and admitted to, the availability of malpractice insurance renders most sanctions unnecessary or toothless. Corporations prefer to bury mishaps and malfeasance rather than cope with and rectify them.

9. The quality of one’s work, and of services and products one consumed, used to be guaranteed. One’s personal idiosyncrasies, eccentricities, and problems were left at home. Work was sacred and one’s sense of self-worth depended on the satisfaction of one’s clients. You simply didn’t let your personal life affect the standards of your output.

This strict and useful separation vanished with the rise of the malignant-narcissistic variant of individualism. It led to the emergence of idiosyncratic and fragmented standards of quality. No one knows what to expect, when, and from whom. Transacting business has become a form of psychological warfare. The customer has to rely on the goodwill of suppliers, manufacturers, and service providers – and often finds himself at their whim and mercy. “The client is always right” has gone the way of the dodo. “It’s my (the supplier’s or provider’s) way or the highway” rules supreme.

This uncertainty is further exacerbated by the pandemic eruption of mental health disorders – 15% of the population are severely pathologized according to the latest studies. Antisocial behaviors – from outright crime to pernicious passive-aggressive sabotage – once rare in the workplace, are now abundant.

The ethos of teamwork, tempered collectivism, and collaboration for the greater good is now derided or decried. Conflict on all levels has replaced negotiated compromise and has become the prevailing narrative. Litigiousness, vigilante justice, use of force, and “getting away with it” are now extolled. Yet, conflicts lead to the misallocation of economic resources. They are non-productive and not conducive to sustaining good relations between producer or provider and consumer.

10. Moral relativism is the mirror image of rampant individualism. Social cohesion and discipline diminished, ideologies and religions crumbled, and anomic states substituted for societal order. The implicit contracts between manufacturer or service provider and customer and between employee and employer were shredded and replaced with ad-hoc negotiated operational checklists. Social decoherence is further enhanced by the anonymization and depersonalization of the modern chain of production (see point 5 above).

Nowadays, people facilely and callously abrogate their responsibilities towards their families, communities, and nations. The mushrooming rate of divorce, the decline in personal thrift, the skyrocketing number of personal bankruptcies, and the ubiquity of venality and corruption both corporate and political are examples of such dissipation. No one seems to care about anything. Why should the client or employer expect a different treatment?

As Weber observed largely correctly, the Protestant work ethic underlies the rise of modern capitalism. Calvinism regarded work as a form of worship and success as proof of divine approval. Protestants of all creeds valued time – God’s-given gift – and sought to maximize its benefits.

But the Puritan and Non-conformist empathic values of a Commonwealth wherein everyone is equal before God and therefore deserves to be treated well and with respect were abandoned along the way. Even the infusion of Jewish values – charity, community, industriousness, the idea of progress and self-betterment, learning, and pragmatism – in the late 19th century failed to stop the erosion in communality and the rise of malignant, short-sighted narcissism, the anathema of the work ethic.

11. The disintegration of the educational systems of the West made it difficult for employers to find qualified and motivated personnel. Courtesy, competence, ambition, personal responsibility, the ability to see the bigger picture (synoptic view), interpersonal aptitude, analytic and synthetic skills, not to mention numeracy, literacy, access to technology, and the sense of belonging which they foster – are all products of proper schooling.

12. Irrational beliefs, pseudo-sciences, and the occult rushed in to profitably fill the vacuum left by the crumbling education systems. These wasteful preoccupations encourage in their followers an overpowering sense of fatalistic determinism and hinder their ability to exercise judgment and initiative. The discourse of commerce and finance relies on unmitigated rationality and is, in essence, contractual. Irrationality is detrimental to the successful and happy exchange of goods and services.

13. Employers place no premium on work ethic. Workers don’t get paid more or differently if they are more conscientious, or more efficient, or more friendly. In an interlinked, globalized world, customers are fungible. There are so many billions of potential clients that customer loyalty has been rendered irrelevant. Marketing, showmanship, and narcissistic bluster are far better appreciated by workplaces because they serve to attract clientele to be bilked and then discarded or ignored.

V. Technology

Whenever I put forth on the Internet’s numerous newsgroups, discussion fora and Websites a controversial view, an iconoclastic opinion, or a much-disputed thesis, the winning argument against my propositions starts with “everyone knows that …”. For a self-styled nonconformist medium, the Internet is the reification of herd mentality.

Actually, it is founded on the rather explicit belief in the implicit wisdom of the masses. This particularly pernicious strong version of egalitarianism postulates that veracity, accuracy, and truth are emergent phenomena, the inevitable and, therefore, guaranteed outcome of multiple interactions between users.

But the population of Internet users is not comprised of representative samples of experts in every discipline. Quite the contrary. The barriers to entry are so low that the Internet attracts those less gifted intellectually. It is a filter that lets in the stupid, the mentally ill, the charlatan and scammer, the very young, the bored, and the unqualified. It is far easier to publish a blog, for instance, than to write for the New York Times. Putting up a Website with all manner of spurious claims for knowledge or experience is easy compared to the peer review process that vets and culls scientific papers.

One can ever “contribute” to an online “encyclopedia”, the Wikipedia, without the slightest acquaintance the topic one is “editing”. Consequently, the other day, I discovered, to my utter shock, that Eichmann changed his name, posthumously, to Otto. It used to be Karl Adolf, at least until he was executed in 1962.

Granted, there are on the Internet isolated islands of academic merit, intellectually challenging and invigorating discourse, and true erudition or even scholarship. But they are mere islets in the tsunami of falsities, fatuity, and inanities that constitutes the bulk of User Generated Content (UGC).

Which leads me to the second myth: that access is progress.

Oceans of information are today at the fingertips of one and sundry. This is undisputed. The Internet is a vast storehouse of texts, images, audio recordings, and databases. But what matters is whether people make good use of this serendipitous cornucopia. A savage who finds himself amidst the collections of the Library of Congress is unlikely to benefit much.

Alas, most people today are cultural savages, Internet users the more so. They are lost among the dazzling riches that surround them. Rather than admit to their inferiority and accept their need to learn and improve, they claim “equal status”. It is a form of rampant pathological narcissism, a defense mechanism that is aimed to fend off the injury of admitting to one’s inadequacies and limitations.

Internet users have developed an ethos of anti-elitism. There are no experts, only opinions, there are no hard data, only poll results. Everyone is equally suited to contribute to any subject. Learning and scholarship are frowned on or even actively discouraged. The public’s taste has completely substituted for good taste. Yardsticks, classics, science – have all been discarded.

Study after study have demonstrated clearly the decline of functional literacy (the ability to read and understand labels, simple instructions, and very basic texts) even as literacy (in other words, repeated exposure to the alphabet) has increased dramatically all over the world.

In other words: most people know how to read but precious few understand what they are reading. Yet, even the most illiterate, bolstered by the Internet’s mob-rule, insist that their interpretation of the texts they do not comprehend is as potent and valid as anyone else’s.

Web 2.0 – Hoarding, Not Erudition

When I was growing up in a slum in Israel, I devoutly believed that knowledge and education will set me free and catapult me from my miserable circumstances into a glamorous world of happy learning. But now, as an adult, I find myself in an alien universe where functional literacy is non-existent even in developed countries, where “culture” means merely sports and music, where science is decried as evil and feared by increasingly hostile and aggressive masses, and where irrationality in all its forms (religiosity, the occult, conspiracy theories) flourishes.

The few real scholars and intellectuals left are on the retreat, back into the ivory towers of a century ago. Increasingly, their place is taken by self-taught “experts”, narcissistic bloggers, wannabe “authors” and “auteurs”, and partisan promoters of (often self-beneficial) “causes”. The mob thus empowered and complimented feels vindicated and triumphant. But history cautions us that mobs have never produced enlightenment – only concentration camps and bloodied revolutions. the Internet can and will be used against us if we don’t regulate it.

Dismal results ensue:

The Wikipedia “encyclopedia” – a repository of millions of factoids, interspersed with juvenile trivia, plagiarism, bigotry, and malice – is “edited” by anonymous users with unlimited access to its contents and absent or fake credentials.

Hoarding has replaced erudition everywhere. People hoard e-books, mp3 tracks, and photos. They memorize numerous fact and “facts” but can’t tell the difference between them or connect the dots. The synoptic view of knowledge, the interconnectivity of data, the emergence of insight from treasure-troves of information are all lost arts.

In an interview in early 2007, the publisher of the New-York Times said that he wouldn’t mourn the death of the print edition of the venerable paper and its replacement by a digital one. This nonchalant utterance betrays unfathomable ignorance. Online readers are vastly different to consumers of printed matter: they are younger, their attention span is far shorter, their interests far more restricted and frivolous. The New-York Times online will be forced into becoming a tabloid – or perish altogether.

Fads like environmentalism and alternative “medicine” spread malignantly and seek to silence dissidents, sometimes by violent means.

The fare served by the electronic media everywhere now consists largely of soap operas, interminable sports events, and reality TV shows. True, niche cable channels cater to the preferences of special audiences. But, as a result of this inauspicious fragmentation, far fewer viewers are exposed to programs and features on science, literature, arts, or international affairs.

Reading is on terminal decline. People spend far more in front of screens – both television’s and computer – than leafing through pages. Granted, they read online: jokes, anecdotes, puzzles, porn, and e-mail or IM chit-chat. Those who try to tackle longer bits of text, tire soon and revert to images or sounds.

With few exceptions, the “new media” are a hodgepodge of sectarian views and fabricated “news”. The few credible sources of reliable information have long been drowned in a cacophony of fakes and phonies or gone out of business.

It is a sad mockery of the idea of progress. The more texts we make available online, the more research is published, the more books are written – the less educated people are, the more they rely on visuals and soundbites rather than the written word, the more they seek to escape reality and be anesthetized rather than be challenged and provoked.

Even the ever-slimming minority who do wish to be enlightened are inundated by a suffocating and unmanageable avalanche of indiscriminate data, comprised of both real and pseudo-science. There is no way to tell the two apart, so a “democracy of knowledge” reigns where everyone is equally qualified and everything goes and is equally merited. This relativism is dooming the twenty-first century to become the beginning of a new “Dark Age”, hopefully a mere interregnum between two periods of genuine enlightenment.

The Demise of the Expert and the Ascendance of the Layman

In the age of Web 2.0, authoritative expertise is slowly waning. The layman reasserts herself as a fount of collective mob “wisdom”. Information – unsorted, raw, sometimes wrong – substitutes for structured, meaningful knowledge. Gatekeepers – intellectuals, academics, scientists, and editors, publishers, record companies, studios – are summarily and rudely dispensed with. Crowdsourcing (user-generated content, aggregated for commercial ends by online providers) replaces single authorship.

A confluence of trends conspired to bring about these ominous developments:

1. An increasingly narcissistic culture that encourages self-absorption, haughtiness, defiance of authority, a sense of entitlement to special treatment and omniscience, incommensurate with actual achievements. Narcissistic and vain Internet users feel that they are superior and reject all claims to expertise by trained professionals. 2. The emergence of technologies that remove all barriers to entry and allow equal rights and powers to all users, regardless of their qualifications, knowledge, or skills: wikis (the most egregious manifestation of which is the Wikipedia), search engines (Google), blogging (that is rapidly supplanting professionally-written media), and mobiles (cell) phones equipped with cameras for ersatz documentation and photojournalism. Disintermediation rendered redundant all brokers, intermediaries, and gatekeepers of knowledge and quality of content.3. A series of species-threatening debacles by scientists and experts who collaborated with the darkest, vilest, and most evil regimes humanity has ever produced. This sell-out compromised their moral authority and standing. The common folk began not only to question their ethical credentials and claim to intellectual leadership, but also to paranoidally suspect their motives and actions, supervise, and restrict them. Spates of scandals by scientists who falsified lab reports and intellectuals who plagiarized earlier works did nothing to improve the image of academe and its denizens.

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