After all, if we’d been getting smarter these last 15-plus years, you’d expect that humanity might have formed new and deeper insights into the nature of existence, and used those insights to update our collective goals: world peace, eliminating hunger, and flying taxis driven by cats wearing little chauffeur’s caps. But not only haven’t we gotten wiser and developed new collective goals, we haven’t even gotten any cleverer and moved closer to achieving the same old ones we’ve always pined for. There’s still the endless butchery of war and the terminal ache of starvation.
Of course, none of it’s a surprise. There are at least two obvious reasons why the existence of a cheap, and even free storehouse of knowledge, the likes of which could not have even been imagined by most people a generation ago, has done little to make us all a whole helluva a lot smarter.
For starters, people can be lazy and superficial. Whether you prefer a Marxist interpretation, an existential one, or something equally incisive but less Eurocentric, the conclusion is the same: Lots of people are largely obsessed with chasing pleasure and shirking meaningful work. They’d rather read about celebrity gossip than learn about mechanical engineering or medicine. They’d rather indulge a neurosis or compulsion than work towards the common betterment. And they’d rather watch funny cat videos than try to figure out how those ghastly little beasts can better serve us.
This is why when you plop an unfathomably rich multi-media warehouse of knowledge in front of them, they’ll mostly use it to wile away the hours on Facebook and Twitter. In much the same way that if you give them an actual book, and eliminate the social stigma that says books are sacred, instead of reading it they might be inclined to rip out the pages and make paper airplanes. The creative ones might set them on fire before pitching them out the window, in a quest to create a modern, aerial Viking funeral.
We had a traveling academic friend spend a weekend with us last month in between conferences, and one of the attempts we made to camouflage our boring home life was to take her to visit Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello. Afterward, somewhere in the course of the conversation reflecting on his accomplishments, character and legacy, one of us joked about the likelihood of him being suicidally depressed were he to come back and witness the spectacle of millions of people having instant access to the sort of education and information that took him a lifetime to accumulate, yet not being interested in the slightest. ‘Course, it’s obviously debatable just how far Jefferson’s Enlightenment idealism actually extended; he clearly had no problem believing that some classes of people were exempt from that “all men created equal” jazz. Maybe he would take it all in stride, who knows.
Point is, pace a fine fellow like David Cain, being human isn’t something you really “get better” at. “Being human” encompasses everything between Genghis and Gandhi, not just the parts that appeal to highly specific modern cultural mores. Even in “civilized” nations, during episodes of sport —something that supposedly distinguishes us in its complexity from the mere animals — the most horrific barbarism doesn’t need much encouragement to rear its atavistic head. Should educated Western suburbanites miraculously manage to herd the entirety of humanity into thinking, behaving and believing in accordance with their values, humanity en masse would not then level up and unlock all sorts of fantastical knowledge and abilities. You hear a lot of condescending scorn about the various opiata populi, but the opium of the intellectuals, the pleasant, colorful haze between them and the rictus grin on the face of existence, is the belief that human existence is for something, aimed at this or that telos, and the idea that true humanity could be achieved if only humans would stop being so, well, human, is just as much a delusion as anything the great unwashed have ever come up with.