04 March 2007

Sunday Brunch


For a while now I've been scoffing at our communications revolution by repeating the observation that nothing that's happened recently matches the opening of the Atlantic cable, when getting an answer from London to a question sent from New York went from two weeks to one hour. Now, I'm starting to wonder whether computers and communications (two categories quickly becoming one) are working a qualitative change on human society. One possible effect is that technology is making lawyers of us all. Law schools famously teach students to "think like lawyers," which means the ability to recognize issues in a set of facts and to know where to look for the answers. In an ever more complex world, where the scope of expertise is becoming constantly deeper but constantly narrower, power belongs to those who can tease relevant data out of chaos.

Who does this empower? Young, affluent English speaking white men, mostly. Wikipedia already worries about this bias (they think it's a bad thing). Google, on the other hand, is a tool explicitly meant to reinforce the dominant hierarchy. So, is this a revolution or a counter-revolution? Will technology change the human condition? Is cheap access to the filtered sum of human knowledge a good thing? What talents does such a society reward?


Duck said...

This is a big topic. Just a few thoughts up front: what happens after age 49? I'm 49 now. Do 50 year old white males cease being connected to the information zeitgeist? Do they drop out? Should I be getting sized for lime green golf pants?

I'm also a bit surprised that women aren't more represented in the infoscenti. Is this mostly a competitive male thing?

I've been thinking about a topic for a post along these lines. How much information search is related to male bloggers wanting to win an argument? I've learned quite a few things over the past 2+ years of blogging due primarily to finding support for points I wanted to make on my blog. Often the information I gathered wouldn't support the point, so I gave up on it. For males blogging certainly seems to be a competitive activity. Could the internet give males the learning edge over women that has been lost through traditional education in the last 20 years?

Susan's Husband said...

It's just a knock on effect of globalization and the End of History. Once the larger framework of societal organization is set, the rewards go to the New Class, the ones who can perform the useful symbolic analysis to create information from data. The Internet simply magnifies this trend. I don't worry about it because the dominance of Euro-white males is an historical accident, it's not fundamental. The problem for other cultures is that their adherents will have to sacrifice part of those cultures to fully reap the benefits. Europeans and in particular the Anglosphere did that centuries ago, that's why they're winning today.

The Diamond Age explores this issue in an interesting way.

David said...

AOG: Diamond Age is very interesting, and the argument that Victorian England was the most productive human cultural scheme is one that would, I think, promote interesting reactions among the Secretians. After Cryptonomicon, however, I hesitate reading it in unison.

Harry Eagar said...

We're talkin' a pretty thin stratum of the body politic here.

I have always been somewhat bemused by the common remark about how the priests/astrologers/kings used their recondite knowledge to impose on the masses.

That, I think, was because I came from a family where everybody had recondite knowledge and trying to impose invited a vigorous slapdown.

Then I read Richard Feinberg's "Polynesian Seafaring and Navigation: Ocean Travel in Anutan Culture and Society." Anuta is an island of about 200 people, isolated from any other people by hundreds of miles of ocean. You might think that everybody there would know something of navigation, but in fact only two men, the chief and the priest, do.

After that revelation, it became apparent to me how helpless the ignorant really are. Helpless and resentful and likely to strike out when given a chance.

David said...

Harry: The eternal question. Are we in the vanguard of society, or in a blind alley. I've been thinking about this recently in connection with the Ann Coulter kurfluffle, which is roiling the blogosphere but no one else has heard of.

erp said...

Duck, maybe women are infoscenti (great word!) in things about which you are uninformed and uninterested. Perhaps it's even the very same reason that few women join you and your virtual cohort here.

A word to the wise: Only wear lime green golf pants if you are a really, really good golfer.

Ann Coulter is roiling the blogosphere!
Good. You go girl.

Anonymous said...


Don't despair. I'm 60 and didn't get connected to the "information zeitgeist' until 3-4 years ago. A computer was something my secretary used. Now I have all kinds of fun keeping up with the "infoscenti".


Harry Eagar said...

I'd say vanguard, up to a point.
Remember the '60s: Next time you need a cop, call a hippie.

As long as we can do for them what they cannot do for themselves, even if they get on top they'll keep a few of us around to fix the plumbing.

The 1938 Wells' film "The Shape of Things To Come" makes the point in a fashion that is very funny now: the controlling technology is a biplane.

For a 21st c. view, Taner Edis, "An Illusion of Harmony" is a good starting point. I'm only half through it, but it's an investigation (by a secular Turkish American physicist) of the attempt of Islam to come to terms with science.

It looks as if his conclusion is going to be, can't be done without taming the religion. Hmmmm. Where have I heard that before?

Oroborous said...

The ignorant masses, for the most part, CHOOSE that ignorance.

In modern America, virtually everyone has more leisure time than time dedicated to paid work. If some of that time were devoted to autodidactism, then we should all be experts in something, and/or have a very broad but shallow understanding of almost everything.

Yet almost nobody knows anything beyond what is necessary for survival, at work and in greater society. For instance, the American Academy for the Advancement of Science reckons that only 28% of Americans are "scientifically literate", by which they mean that when people see a headline about DNA, they know what DNA is, and what purpose it serves in biology, or that people know that the Moon is a body like the Earth, and is far away, but not as far as Mars, and that it has practically no atmosphere, and that gravity is lower there.

We're a nation of dummies because we'd rather watch sitcoms and sporting events, and we're also at the cutting edge of almost every field of medical and scientific inquiry, so most of the rest of the world is, like, hopeless.

Duck said...

Did I coin a new term? Cool! Better get the copyright papers started.

erp my golf game is atrocious, so I will definitely invest in lessons before I dream about the lime green pants.

JD, it's good to know there's hope after 50.

Hey Skipper said...


Do 50 year old white males cease being connected to the information zeitgeist?

I don't think we can conclude that ...

What was the question again?

Harry Eagar said...

Lileks this ayem has something cogent about this. Down toward the bottom, but the whole thing is a must-read.

Oro's remark can be spun the other way, as Will Rogers did: We are all of us ignorant, only about different things.

The harm does not (usually) come in not knowing but in acting as if you did know. If the PerezHilton crowd would stick to PerezHilton, they would be negligible, and I think they mostly do and are.

It is when people begin operating with modern techniques but 7th or 19th century views of the world that trouble startds.

I speak of Islam generally and of Reaganism particularly, notably the actions reported in George Crile, "Charlie Wilson's War."

joe shropshire said...

Well, the notions that there is some sort of manifest destiny for bookworms, or that the well-read are especially qualified to be navigators for human affairs, are 19th century ideas if ever there were. Seems to me the 20th century blew those ideas up for good, by trying them.

Harry Eagar said...

Last night I found Martin Gardner's essay "The Internet" (reprinted in "Did Adam and Eve Have Navels?") which asked this question back in 1999 and referred back to Wells' "World Brain," which was published in 1938.

Gardner did not have an answer.