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February 21, 2012

The Internet (Anti-) Intellectual

The rise of the internet anti-intellectual.

My problem is really not with Jarvis, but the fact that these “books that should have remained a tweet”, as Morozov states, have dominated the conversation about what the rise of new and social media means. I do not care that these fun little books exist, but that they are dominating the public conversation.

Perhaps the fault lies with the more rigorous intellectuals, both in and outside academia, who have made themselves largely absent from the public conversation about new technologies? Where is the Marshall McLuhan of social media? Why is it that Jeff Jarvis is setting the public conversation on publicity, Andrew Keen on amateurism, Tapscott and Williams on prosumption, Siva Vaidhyanathan on the impact of Google on society or Chris Anderson on abundance economies and “free”? To be clear, I think it is good that these folks hit on important topics in a catchy way. But they cannot be the whole picture, nor should they even be at the center. None of them provide a rigorous historical or theoretical treatment of their topics.

This is something that’s been bugging me for awhile, mainly because I’ll be in meetings where people cite certain authors (often poorly) as a way to push forward bad ideas. The problem is these authors are writing business books about cultural questions (that are mostly sold in airports, because if you’ve got four hours to kill, you may as well learn about the state of our society, right?). Often these books don’t seem to require much more effort to write than they do to read. Like anything, there are exceptions, but they are few and far between, and ultimately we’ve created a library of books that give stupid (well, maybe not stupid, but definitely lazy) people fodder to continue making stupid decisions.

I like the question “Where is the Marshall McLuhan of social media?” a lot. Frankly, there aren’t many people who have said more relevant things than McLuhan or Harold Innis did about the web, and those guys have been dead for 32 and 60 (FUCKING 60!) years respectively. I’m by no means an academic — I stopped at an undergrad degree in English lit — but I’m smart enough to know that if a book is really easy for me to get, it probably isn’t worth getting, so I struggle through my heavily marked-up copies of The Gutenberg Galaxy and The Bias of Communication and I get my much-smarter-than-I-am wife to explain bits of them to me, then I read them again.

The discussion about anti-intellectualism has been building and evolving over several years with the rise of “experts” in things that don’t require a whole lot of expertise, who are for some reason treated with a degree of reverence. Critical thinking still exists and there are a lot of smart people still saying a lot of smart things, but they aren’t the ones usually being quoted in the business meetings I’ve been in for the last 12 years. (This is also related to recent articles ripping apart “tried and true” brainstorming techniques, which are also mainly still used in business.)

I once worked for a company that literally gave out copies of From Good to Great to senior management and (briefly) tried to make it their own organizational mantra. It was silly, which I think they finally figured out. This is one of those areas where we can be better. I think we all need to stop buying easy books and reading easy blogs and seeing people discuss easy topics in easy ways at conferences, especially if we’re just going to walk away thinking we’re somehow smarter for it.