Geek anti-intellectualism: replies

My essay on “geek anti-intellectualism” hit a nerve.  I get the sense that a lot of geeks are acting–quite unusually for them–defensively, because I’ve presented them with a sobering truth about themselves that they hadn’t realized.  Consequently they’ve been unusually thoughtful and polite.  This is quite new and startling to me–I mean, there’s something about this discussion that I can’t remember ever seeing before.  Anyway, it must have seemed relevant, because it was posted live on Slashdot within minutes of my submitting it–something I’d never seen before–and proceeded to rack up 916 comments, as of this writing, which is quite a few for Slashdot.  It was also well discussed on Metafilter, on Twitter, and here on this blog (where I’ve had over 160 comments so far).  What struck me about these discussions was the unusually earnest attempts, in most cases, to come to grips with some of the issues I raised.  Of course, there has been some of the usual slagging from the haters, and a fair number of not-very-bright responses, but an unusually high proportion of signal, some of it quite insightful.  Reminds me of some old college seminars, maybe.

First, let me concede that I left a lot unsaid.  Of course, what I left unsaid ended up being said, sometimes ad nauseam, in the comments, and a few points I found to be quite enlightening.  On the other hand, I find a lot of geeks thinking that they understand aspects of higher education that they really don’t.  I’m not sure I can set them right, but I’ll try to make a few points anyway.

I am going to do what I’ve always done, since the 1990s, when something I’ve written elicited a much greater response than I could possibly deal with: make a numbered laundry list of replies.

1. How dare you accuse all geeks of being anti-intellectual? I didn’t; RTFA.  I know there are lots of very intellectual geeks and that geekdom is diverse in various ways.  I’m talking about social trends, which are always a little messy; but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to discuss.

2. There’s a difference between being anti-intellectual and being anti-academic. Maybe the most common response was that geeks don’t dislike knowledge or the intellect, they dislike intellectuals with their academic institutions and practices.  First, let me state my geek credentials.  I’ve spent a lot of time online since the mid-90s.  I started many websites, actually learned some programming, and managed a few software projects.  You’ll notice that I’m not in academe now.  I have repeatedly (four times) left academe and later returned.

I agree that academia has become way too politicized.  Too many academics think it’s OK to preach their ideology to their students, and their tendency to organize conferences and journals around tendentious ideological themes is not just annoying, it is indeed unscholarly.  Moreover, speaking as a skeptically-inclined philosopher, I think that some academics have an annoying tendency to promote their views with unwarranted confidence, and also to pretend to speak authoritatively on subjects outside of their training.  Also, in many fields, the economics of academic advancement and publishing has created a tendency to focus on relatively unimportant minutiae, to the detriment of broader insight and scholarly wisdom.  Also, I completely agree that college work has been watered down (but more on that in the next point).

Having admitted all that, I’m still not backing down; I knew all that when I was writing my essay.  Please review the five points I made.  None of them is at odds with this critique of academe.  Just because some experts can be annoyingly overconfident, it doesn’t follow that they do not deserve various roles in society articulating what is known about their areas of expertise.  If you deny that, then you are devaluing the knowledge they actually have; that’s an anti-intellectual attitude.  If you want to know what the state of the research is in a field, you ask a researcher.  So even if your dislike of academics is justified in part, it does not follow that their word on their expertise is worth the same as everyone else’s.  Besides, most of my points had little to do with academics per se: I also had points about books in general, classics in particular, and memorization and learning.

3. Just because you think college is now a bad deal, economically speaking, it doesn’t follow that you’re anti-intellectual. Well, duh.  I didn’t really take up the question whether the present cost of college justifies not going, and I’m not going to get into that, because I don’t really think it’s relevant.  Let’s suppose you’re right, and that for some people, the long-term cost of college loans, combined with the fact that they won’t get much benefit from their college education, means that they’re justified not going.  My complaint is not about people who don’t go to college, my complaint is about people who say that college is “a waste of time” if you do go and are committed.  Maybe, for people who don’t study much and who don’t let themselves benefit, it is a waste of time.  But that’s their fault, not the fault of college.  I taught at Ohio State, which is not nearly as demanding as the college I attended myself (Reed), and I saw many students drifting through, not doing the reading, not coming to class, rarely practicing their writing skills.  I also saw people who always did the reading, always came to class, participated regularly, and were obviously benefiting from their encounter with great writing and great ideas.  Moreover, how college affects you isn’t “the luck of the draw.”  It depends on your commitment and curiosity.  This is why some partiers drop out and come back to college after five or ten years, and then they do great and finally enjoy themselves in class.

Finally, may I say again (I said it first in the 1990s, and also a few days ago), it is possible to get a degree by examination from programs like Excelsior College?  This way, you bypass the expense of college and pick all your instructors for a fraction of the cost.  This entails that you can get intellectually trained, as well as earn a real college degree, without going into debt.  This would be my advice to the clever ex-homeschoolers who claim that it is college that is, somehow, anti-intellectual.  Put up or shut up, home scholars: if you really are committed to the life of the mind, as you say, and you’ve already got experience directing your own studies, why not get a degree through independent study with academic tutors, and then take tests (and portfolio evaluations) to prove your knowledge and get the credential?

4. The people you’re describing are not true geeks; they are the digerati, or “hipsters,” or leftist academics who were already anti-intellectual and then started doing geek stuff. Uh, no.  I mean, you’re probably right that some anti-intellectual thinkers who weren’t geeks have started talking about the Internet a lot, and they have a big web presence, so now they might appear to be part of geekdom.  But they aren’t really, by any reasonably stringent definition of “geek.”  Besides, if you look at my article, you’ll see that that’s what I said (such people fall into the category of “digerati”).  My point is that claims (1)-(5) started circulating online among geeks, and they are, each of them, commonly spouted by lots of geeks.  Take them in turn.  (1) Anti-expert animus is a well-known feature of the geek thought-world.  Wikipedia became somewhat anti-expert because of the dominance of geeks in the project.  (2) Of course, the geeks at Project Gutenberg love books, but all too often I see comments online that books went out in the 20th century, and good riddance.  One of the leading idols of the geeks, Clay Shirky, essentially declared books to be a dying medium, to be replaced with something more collaborative.  (3) It is obvious just from the comments here on this blog, and elsewhere, that some geeks find the classics (that means philosophy, history, novels, epics, poetry, drama, religious texts, etc.)  to be a waste of time.  They don’t have the first clue about what they’re talking about.  (4) The first time I saw the idea discussed much that Internet resources mean we no longer have to memorize (and hence learn) as many facts was among Wikipedians in 2002 or so (when it was totally dominated by geeks, even more than it is now).  (5) The whole college-is-a-waste-of-time thing is a not uncommon geek conceit.  It’s not surprising in the least that a founder of Paypal.com would spout it.  It’s easy for computer geeks to say, because they can get well-paying jobs without degrees.  In many other fields, that’s (still) not true.

5. But I’m an intellectual, and I know that learning facts is indeed passe.  The things to be learned are “relationships” or “analysis” or “critical thinking.” Oh?  Then I claim that you are espousing an anti-intellectual sentiment, whether you know it or not.  I’m not saying you’re opposed to all things intellectual, I’m saying that that opinion is, to be perfectly accurate, a key feature of anti-intellectualism.  Look, this is very simple.  If you have learned something, then you can, at the very least, recall it.  In other words, you must have memorized it, somehow.  This doesn’t necessarily mean you must have used flashcards to jam it into your recalcitrant brain by force, so to speak.  Memorization doesn’t have to be by rote.  But even if you do a project, if you haven’t come to remember some fact as a result, then you don’t know it.  Thus I say that to be opposed to the memorization of facts is to be opposed to the learning, and knowing, of those facts.  To advocate against all memorization is to advocate for ignorance.  For more on this, please see my EDUCAUSE Review essay “Individual Knowledge in the Internet Age.”

I know that this is an old and common sentiment among education theorists–which is a shame.  Indeed, the educationists who say that it is not necessary to memorize the multiplication table are implying that it is OK for kids to be ignorant of those math facts.  (No, it’s not OK.  They should know them.)  Anyway, it might have started with misguided educators, but it is becoming far too common among geeks too.

6. The Internet is changing, that’s all.  Most people are anti-intellectual, and they’re getting online. No doubt about it, the Internet has changed greatly in the last five to ten years.  And it might well be the case that the average netizen is more anti-intellectual than in the past, in the very weak sense that more stupid people and uneducated people are getting online.  This might have been clever to say, if my point had been, “Folks online seem to be getting anti-intellectual.”  But that isn’t at all what I said or meant.  If you will review the evidence I marshalled, you’ll see that the people I’m talking about are not the great unwashed masses.  I’m talking about geeks and the digerati who presume to speak about geeky things.  And their influence, as I said, has been growing.

7. Americans are anti-intellectual.  Geek anti-intellectualism is just a reflection of that. Think about what you’re saying here; it doesn’t make much sense.  I claim that geeks are increasingly anti-intellectual, or increasingly giving voice to anti-intellectual sentiments.  This is a trend, which many people are discussing now because they recognize it as well.  American anti-intellectualism, a well-known phenomenon, goes back to colonial days, and was rooted in our distance from the erstwhile European sources of intellectual life as well as the physical difficulty of frontier life.  The pattern of anti-intellectualism I discern is a relatively recent phenomenon, which has grown up especially with the rise of the Internet.

8. Conservatives never were the anti-intellectuals; it was always the liberal lefties! Glenn Reynolds linked my post, and so some conservatives grumbled about my line, “Once upon a time, anti-intellectualism was said to be the mark of knuckle-dragging conservatives, and especially American Protestants.  Remarkably, that seems to be changing.”  Well, I hate to wade into politics here.  I used the passive voice deliberately, because I did not want to endorse the claim that anti-intellectualism is the mark of “knuckle-dragging conservatives” (I don’t endorse this phrase, either).  All I meant to say is that this is one of liberals’ favorite things to say about American fundamentalists.  I was about to, but did not, go on to say that actually, among the home schooling crowd, liberals and libertarians tend to go in for “unschooling,” which is relatively (and not necessarily) hostile to traditional academics, and it is conservatives who go in for  uber-academic Latin-and-logic “classical education.”  I didn’t say that, because I knew it would be distracting to my point.  So I’m kind of sorry I made the remark about conservatives, because it too was distracting to my point.  Suffice it to say that there are plenty of knuckle-draggers, so to speak, everywhere.

9. Are you crazy?  Geeks are smart, and you’re calling geeks stupid by calling them anti-intellectual. You didn’t know that “anti-intellectual” does not mean “stupid,” apparently.  There are plenty of anti-intellectual geeks who are crazy smart.  They aren’t stupid in the least.  You also must distinguish between having anti-intellectual attitudes or views, which is what I was talking about, and having anti-intellectual practices. There are plenty of intellectuals in academia who are anti-intellectual.  (There are Jewish anti-Semites, too.)  Just think of any progressive education professor who inveighs against most academic work in K-12 schools, describes academic work that involves a little memorization and practice as “drill and kill,” wants the world to institute unschooling and the project method en masse, has nothing but the purest P.C. contempt for the Western canon, advocates for vocational education for all but those who are truly, personally enthusiastic about academics, wants academic education to be as collaborative as possible rather than requiring students to read books, which are “irrelevant” to the fast-changing daily lives of students, and channeling Foucault rails against the hegemony of scientists and other experts.  Well, such a person I would describe as an anti-intellectual intellectual.  The person might well write perfectly-crafted articles with scholarly apparatus, read classics in her field, and so forth.  It’s just that her opinions are unfortunately hostile to students getting knowledge (in my opinion).

10. But the liberal arts are a waste of time.  Studying Chaucer?  Philosophy?  History?  The vague opinionizing is pointless and facts can be looked up. If you believe this way, then I have to point out that virtually any really educated person will disagree with you.  Once you have received a liberal education, your mind expands.  You might not understand how, or why it’s important, but it does.  That’s why people devote their lives to this stuff, even when it doesn’t pay much, as it usually doesn’t.  If you haven’t studied philosophy, you can’t begin to understand the universe and our place in it–I don’t care how much theoretical physics you’ve studied.  There are aspects of reality that can be grasped only by critically examining the content of our concepts.  Similarly, if you haven’t read much literature and especially if you are young, then you are very probably a complete babe in the woods when it comes to the understanding of human nature and the human condition; that’s why people read literature, not so that they can sniff disdainfully at others over their lattes.

11. What you call “anti-intellectual” is really “anti-authority.”  You’re merely defending the prerogatives of snooty intellectuals whose authority is on the wane. This is one of the most common and often snarkiest replies I’ve run across.  But it’s also a very interesting point.  Still, on analysis, I’m going to call it flimsy at best.  I’m going to spend quite a bit of space on this one.  Feel free to skip to down to the end (“In Sum” before “Conclusion”).

Let’s distinguish between being opposed to knowledge in its various forms, on the one hand, and being opposed to the prerogatives of intellectuals, on the other.  I claim that the path many geeks are headed down really has them opposed to theoretical and factual knowledge per se. I think the evidence I offered supported this reasonably well, but let me try to make it a little more explicit.

Consider point (1), about experts.  (“Experts do not deserve any special role in declaring what is known.”)  That certainly looks like it is about the prerogatives of experts.  If for example on Wikipedia I encountered people saying, for example, “Experts need to prove this to us, not just assert their authoritah,” that would be fair enough.  That’s not anti-intellectual at all.  But going farther to say, “You merely have access to resources, you don’t understand this any better than I do” and “You’re not welcome here” is to fail to admit that through their study and experience, the experts have something more to contribute than the average Joe.  If you can’t bring yourself to admit that–and I submit that the stripe of geek I’m describing can’t–then your attitude is anti-intellectual.  (Some people are refreshingly honest about just this.)  Then what you’re saying is that specialized study and experience do not lead to anything valuable, and are a waste of time.  But they lead to knowledge, which is valuable, and not a waste of time.

Point (2) (that books per se are outmoded) also, admittedly, has a little to do with intellectual authority–but only a little.  One of the reasons that some geeks, and others, are welcoming the demise of books is that they resent a single person set up as an authority by a publisher.  They say that publishing can and should be more like a conversation, and in a conversation, there shouldn’t be one “authority,” but rather a meeting of equal minds.  So perhaps those who are pleased to attack the medium of books couch their views as an attack on authority.  Perhaps.  But when I defend books, I really don’t care about authority so much.  Of course, when thinking adults read books, they don’t read them it in order to receive the truth from on high.  They are interested (in argumentative books, to take just one kind) in a viewpoint being fully and intelligently canvassed.  As some of the geeks commenting do not realize, and as some people don’t realize until they get to graduate school, it frequently requires a book–or several books–to fully articulate a case for some relatively narrow question.  Scholars should be praised, not faulted, for being so committed to the truth that they are willing to write, and read, discussions that are that long.  The fact that publishers have to pick authors who are capable of mounting excellent arguments at such length doesn’t mean that their readers are supposed simply to accept whatever they are told.  At bottom, then, to oppose books as such is to be opposed to the only way extended verbal arguments (and narratives and exposition) can be propagated.  An indeterminately large collaboration can’t develop a huge, integrated, complex theory, write a great novel, or develop a unified, compelling narrative about some element of our experience.  If you want to call yourself intellectual, you’ve got to support the creation of such works by individual people.

Point (3), about the classics, has almost nothing to do with the prerogatives of authority.  The shape of the Western Canon, if you will, does not rest on anybody’s authority, but instead on the habits of educators (school and university) as an entire class.  You’re not rebelling against anybody’s authority when you rebel against classics; you are, if anything, rebelling against the ideas the classics contain, or against the labor of reading something that is demanding to read.  In any case, anybody who comes down squarely against reading the classics is, to that extent, decidedly anti-intellectual.  Face it.

Point (4), which has us memorizing as little as possible and using the Internet as a memory prosthesis as much as possible, has absolutely nothing to do with authority.  If you’re opposed to memorizing something, you’re opposed to learning and knowing it.  That’s quite anti-intellectual.

Point (5) concerns college, and on this many people said, in effect, “I oppose the stupidity of an overpriced, mediocre, unnecessary product that rests on the alleged authority of college professors.”  Then it looks like you’re criticizing the authority of professors, and so you think I’m defending that.  Well, to be sure, if college professors had no significant knowledge, which (as I think) gives their views some intellectual authority, then there would be no point in paying money to study with them.  But I can defend the advisability of systematic college-level study (I choose these words carefully) without making any controversial claims about the authority of college professors.  I do not, for example, have to assume that college professors must always be believed, that they are infallible, that we should not be skeptical of most of what they say (especially in the humanities and social sciences).  After all, most professors expect their students to be skeptical and not to take what they say uncritically; and only a very dull student will do that, anyway.  If you didn’t know that, it’s probably because you haven’t been to college.  So, no.  I am not merely defending the authority of college professors.  I am personally quite critical of most scholarship I encounter.

In sum, I know that libertarian geeks (I’d count myself as one, actually) love to rail against the prerogatives of authority.  You’d like to justify your anti-intellectual attitudes (and sometimes, behavior) as fighting against The Man.  Maybe that is why you have your attitudes, maybe not.  In any case, that doesn’t stop said attitudes from being anti-intellectual, and your issues don’t mean that I am especially concerned to defend the prerogatives of authority.  I am not.

Conclusion

I think I’ve hit most of the high points.

One thing I didn’t discuss in my original essay was why geeks have become so anti-intellectual, especially with the rise of the Internet.  Here is my take on that.  Most geeks are very smart, predominantly male, and capable of making an excellent livelihood from the sweat of their minds.  Consequently, as a class, they’re more arrogant than most, and they naturally have a strong independent streak.  Moreover, geeks pride themselves on finding the most efficient (“laziest”) way to solve any problem, even if it is a little sloppy.  When it comes to getting qualified for work, many will naturally dismiss the necessity of college if they feel they can, because they hate feeling put-upon by educators who can’t even write two lines of code.  And the whole idea of memorizing stuff, well, it seems more and more unnecessarily effortful when web searching often uncovers answers just as well (they very misguidedly think).  What about books, and classics in particular?  Well, geek anti-intellectual attitudes here are easily explained as a combination of laziness and arrogance.  The Iliad takes a lot of effort, and the payoff is quite abstract; instead, they could read a manual or write code or engineer some project, and do a lot more of what they recognize as “learning.”  The advent of new social media and the decline of the popularity of books are developments that only confirm their attitude.  It doesn’t hurt that geek is suddenly chic, which surely only inflates geek arrogance.  If they admit to themselves that there is something to philosophy, history, or anything else that takes time, hard study, and reflection to learn, but which does not produce code or gadgetry, then they would feel a little deflated.  This doesn’t sit well with their pride, of course.  They’re smart, they think, and so how could they be opposed to any worthwhile knowledge?

So it shouldn’t be surprising that some (only some) geeks turn out to be anti-intellectual.  This is no doubt why many people said, in response to my essay, “This is just what I’ve been thinking.”

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About the author

Larry Sanger had written 130 articles for Larry Sanger Blog

I call myself an "Internet Knowledge Organizer." I started Wikipedia.org, Citizendium.org, and WatchKnowLearn.org, and ReadingBear.org. I write about education and the Internet from a broadly philosophical point of view.

50 Responses to "Geek anti-intellectualism: replies"
  1. Reply Thulium June 9, 2011 02:42 am

    “‘You merely have access to resources, you don’t understand this any better than I do’ and ‘You’re not welcome here’ is to fail to admit that through their study and experience, the experts have something more to contribute than the average Joe.”

    You are not referring to average Joes, you’re referring to average geeks. A self-styled anti-academic geek would tend to bristle at the appeal to authority, not because of an anti-intellectual attitude, but because of an intellectual disagreement with someone that a geek would view as a peer.

    However, one thing I’ve noticed about myself and every geek I’ve ever met is that we all have intellectual areas we find distasteful–I suppose you can call this “anti-intellectualism” but that seems both too broad and yet too narrow. I didn’t realize until I was an adult that I–like many (or all?) geeks–have Attention Deficit Disorder. ADHD can inspire creativity and intelligence that are hallmarks of geekhood, but a cognitive dysfunction is nothing if not anti-intellectual. (Perhaps the phenomenon you’ve described is simply an ADHD epidemic?) We all have our strengths and weaknesses, and the rare twit who seems to be good at everything hardly deserves the honorific of “geek”.

  2. Reply glenatron June 9, 2011 08:34 am

    I wonder whether some of those who rail against these academic practices are aware that information becomes useful not when you have access to facts, but when you know enough facts to build up an in-depth picture with them, which as yet we have never managed to teach a computer to do.

    In fact it seems to me that there is a difference between information and knowledge that seems to be missed out perhaps because the people making these criticisms have never performed any rigorous analysis of how their own knowledge or expertise differs from a set of data points. Many geeks, though very quick to refer to the Dunning-Kruger effect are lamentably subject to it with regard to matters of a philosophical nature.

  3. Reply André Roberge June 9, 2011 11:18 am

    While I do agree with most of what you wrote, I must strongly object to the following:

    If you haven’t studied philosophy, you can’t begin to understand the universe and our place in it–I don’t care how much theoretical physics you’ve studied.

    I do find such a statement very dismissive of experts in the study of the Universe (aka cosmology) which requires deep knowledge of theoretical physics. By making the above statement, you are guilty yourself of what you accuse “anti-intellectual geeks” of doing.

    I would counter by saying: if you have not studied advanced theoretical physics, if you are not aware of all the known facts about the Universe (including having a deep understanding of the physical laws that describe it) and of their limitations, then you can’t pretend to understand the Universe and our place in it, regardless of how much philosophy you have studied.

  4. Reply whatever June 9, 2011 12:10 pm

    What is a professor ? Merely a middle man to direct knowledge.

    In what cases of education has the professor been obliterated by the internet ? music, philosophy, literature, film making, programming, painting, electronics to some extent, sex education and many crafts which the acdemics have forgotten.

    Maths, physics and other hard disciplines which need a lab bigger than a computer require a university.

  5. Reply Andrew June 9, 2011 12:15 pm

    I can see a lot of myself in the depiction(s) of the “young geek” in this post and the one it’s based on. I’ve found myself unable to actually read a book cover-to-cover, despite my large collection of eBooks, and my desire to have the knowledge within them. I find myself wishing there were a way to download the data to the brain a la The Matrix, sans the digital slavery and whatnot, because being able to access the massive glut of information on the internet with a simple phrase search makes me feel as though time spent memorizing things can be better used doing something else.

    When internet access is cut off, I feel both liberated and a strong sense of dread. I have to hope that I don’t encounter a problem that I’d usually rely on the internet to help me solve, and the fear of that encounter can lead to panic. At the same time, the inability to check email, news, social media, or Youtube for a time actually allows me to focus on the task at hand.

    I used to say jokingly “I can’t imagine having to do research without the internet!”. The levity in that statement has almost evaporated entirely, and thinking about that frightens me to no end.

  6. Reply Jasmine Grey June 9, 2011 12:31 pm

    Thanks, Larry, for your thoughtful articles.

    It may very well be that high levels of education and expertise are not required to create a popular web site, but many other fields that our society depends on are far more demanding and less forgiving of ignorance. For example, how many people would really want their doctor in the E.R. to be a self-taught amateur who needs to consult the web for what the proper treatment for a heart attack is? How many people would want to travel over a bridge that was built by people who didn’t have degrees and experience in engineering? Or be defended in court by a lawyer who didn’t have a deep knowledge of case law in his area of expertise? Or fly in an airplane that was being flown by a pilot who would have to look up emergency procedures on the web? Or for that matter, an airplane whose avionics software was written by someone who had never cracked open a book on the design of real-time concurrent systems?

  7. Reply Michael Chui June 9, 2011 12:46 pm

    Because I’m a geek who’s deeply interested in education (and, I might add, who fiercely believes that technology is the wrong direction to seek better), I was rather hurt by the inclusion of Sir Ken Robinson in your original article. Perhaps I don’t understand Robinson’s ideas properly, but my sense has been that Robinson and those he represents (including myself) have no problem with children learning facts or hard knowledge. The issue is that education is largely still being conducted today with an authoritarian edict, when that’s no longer effective or desirable: being creative, having critical thinking, focusing on relationships, etc., etc. are all a better grounding for learning facts than being obedient, having excellent memorization and regurgitative abilities. Thus, by focusing on this grounding and using facts as a means to learn creativity or critical thinking, rather than their end, we get what we most want: educated adults capable of finding the facts they personally need.

  8. Reply Alex June 9, 2011 13:50 pm

    While I would say that history, literature and philosophy certainly help us to gain a better abstract understanding of the world around us, without a technical context the skills gained become next to worthless. The circle jerk that is modern philosophy is absolutely worthless in my eyes, since it generally deals with the intangible and ultimately irrelevant. As time goes on and the level of abstraction between our physical reality and the philosopher’s model of that reality continually shrinks, I believe philosophy and its derivatives will be less and less relevant to affording a complete understanding of the world. At the end of the day, the “human condition” is merely a distant and obscure view of the physical (unless you’re a dualist, in which case, fuck you).

    • Reply glenatron June 14, 2011 07:01 am

      It saddens me that so many people have so little understanding of philosophy that they believe it to be no more than a family of intangible irrelevancies. Sure there are ridiculous pseuds around who think they are talking about philosophy, but can we really dispense with epistemology? Morality? Logic? The rigorous thinking that is required by serious discussion of these questions?

      In the last year or so I have heard several radio pieces lead by scientists of various types convinced that their hard, solid, empirical science can take the place of philosophy in some ( or all ) regions. Whenever they are placed beside a philosopher in a discussion it becomes very clear that they are absolutely out of their depth when it comes to rigorous thinking and have, in general, no idea what philosophy even is.

      Experimental results: Science
      The Scientific Method: Philosophy

  9. Reply Squozzer June 9, 2011 13:54 pm

    After reading yesterday’s article, I found myself in camps #2, 3, and 9. But I think my reaction was against the conditioning to which I’ve been subjected all of my life — that college is good, college is Mother, college is Father.

    Growing up in the 70s, “intellectual” was crypto-speak for “Marxist”, and “anti-intellectual” was the counter-code for “philistine” (you used my favorite term — knuckle-dragger — in your previous article.)

    And I got the impression through your last paragraph in yesterday’s point #1 that you were conflating anti-college with anti-intellectualism. Maybe that was my conditioning kicking in again, or maybe a wish that I had known exactly what I needed to know to do what I wanted to do instead of learning a bunch of stuff and having to shelve most of it.

    And I think some of it was the Battle of Hastings example you used — I don’t think knowing 1066 (or October 14) is nearly as important as knowing the results of William’s victory — such as the massive French influence on the English langauge.

    We’re probably in no danger of becoming the hapless cops in “Demolition Man” — who needed a machine to tell them how to apprehend a criminal — we will still learn things, and desire to learn them, but we shouldn’t be afraid to re-evaluate what we need to learn and how we learn it.

  10. Reply eric June 9, 2011 15:49 pm

    Have you heard of the “No true Scotsman” fallacy?

    From Wikipedia: The term was advanced by philosopher Antony Flew in his 1975 book Thinking About Thinking: Do I sincerely want to be right?. ‘Imagine Hamish McDonald, a Scotsman, sitting down with his Glasgow Morning Herald and seeing an article about how the “Brighton Sex Maniac Strikes Again.” Hamish is shocked and declares that “No Scotsman would do such a thing.” The next day he sits down to read his Glasgow Morning Herald again and this time finds an article about an Aberdeen man whose brutal actions make the Brighton sex maniac seem almost gentlemanly. This fact shows that Hamish was wrong in his opinion but is he going to admit this? Not likely. This time he says, “No true Scotsman would do such a thing.”‘

    Take a look at your response to the claim (#10) that the liberal arts are a waste of time: If you believe this way, then I have to point out that virtually any *really* educated person will disagree with you.” You seem to be saying that no *true* intellectual would agree with this claim.

    Does being an intellectual absolutely require respect for the liberal arts? I disagree. It is true that a vast majority of people I would consider intellectuals would agree that the liberal arts have an important place, but that doesn’t mean that ALL of them feel this way. In particular, I have met several academics (full tenured professors) in the sciences and mathematics which have disparaged the value of liberal arts and humanities. I think it would be a stretch to call these men (they have all been men) uneducated or anti-intellectual, even if you disagree with them. If however, you would say that yes, despite their contribution to scientific knowledge, their lack of appreciation for the humanities makes these gentlemen anti-intellectual, I would ask whether when you say that geeks are “opposed to knowledge”, what you really mean is that they do not value the humanities. This is a vastly different claim than the one you are making.

    When was the last time you found a geek who was disparaging knowledge of science or mathematics? Geeks tend to value science and technology along with anyone who has scientific knowledge and/or technical skill. Value of technical knowledge is so valued by geeks that we go so far as to tightly integrate it into our humor. Take, for example, XKCD,the classic geek comic strip. Most of the jokes there that would be lost on anyone without knowledge of science and computers. Geeks wear their technical knowledge like a badge of honor, so your claim that there is a trend of increasing disrespect for knowledge among geeks seems very puzzling to me.

    Would you at least agree that geeks value proficiency with technology, in particular programming? You even include the claim that “The paragon of success is a popular website or well-used software”. I hope we’re on the same page (no pun intended) here. Well, if you’re going to build a website you need to know a few things. You need to know what a web browser is. You need to know how to code CSS and HTML. If it’s anything other than a static page — and no major, successful sites are static these days — you’re going to need to know a real programming language, whether it’s ruby, python, php, perl or something more esoteric. A good working knowledge of server administration and the http protocol help too. When I say that a prospective web programmer needs to “know” these things, I mean “know” in the sense that you refer to knowledge — not dead words on a page, but a living vibrant understanding of what’s going on — ideas and understanding in someone’s mind. If you need to go to Wikipedia to look up what a web browser is, or what HTML tags are, you’re not going to be building a successful website any time soon. As you would expect, the geeks I know value this sort of knowledge very highly and often go so far as to criticize others who don’t know even the basics. That doesn’t seem like an over-arching opposition to knowledge.

    I suspect that what you are really trying to say is that a large and increasing number of geeks do not value the same types of liberal arts knowledge which you value. This is likely true, and I would agree with that claim.

    I do realize that I am opening myself up to a “No True Scotsman” fallacy of my own, should you claim that person X is a geek and they are indeed disparaging technical knowledge along with the humanities, leaving me with the choice to back down or claim that X is no *true* geek. You would have a point. Like 99% of arguments, this one largely boils down to definitions. How do you want to define an intellectual, and how do you define a geek? Is a geek anyone who contributes to Slashdot or Wikipedia? Anyone on the internet? Anyone who seems geeky to you? If you write further on the topic, maybe you should start by offering some more specific definitions.

    Finally, I will readily concede that it is POSSIBLE that I’m wrong and you’re right. Maybe there IS a trend here that I’m not seeing, where geeks are becoming hostile to scientific and technical knowledge as well as that found in the humanities. However, you have presented no data. You have merely commented on a trend you personally observe. If you want to call Slashdot and Wikipedia contributors geeks, there’s a lot of publicly available data out there in the edits and in the comments. You could scrape some of this data and check how many times certain anti-intellectual phrases (just pick a reasonable set) cropped up in the last year relative to 3-5 years ago. Be sure to normalize by total comment/edit volume. You have your hypotheses, now go do an EXPERIMENT. Geeks, at least the variety I am familiar with, are convinced by data, a subset of knowledge. I suggest you go find some if you want to prove your critics wrong.

  11. Reply beccaf22 June 9, 2011 15:55 pm

    I just want to throw this idea out there…

    It is possible that what you are seeing and classifying as an increase in anti-intellectualism is in fact the outgrowth of the post-modern movement (hopefully the END of post-modernism ;))

    My understanding is that post-modernism sorta argues that there are NO facts or knowledge per se, and that any one person’s version of the “truth” is equally accurate and acceptable as any other person’s verson of “truth”.

    Post modernism gave us some good and important ideas, it is really interesting to understand what people are thinking in the context of the political and cultural atmosphere they are part of, but just because the political and cultural atmosphere can effect the interpretation of “truth” does not mean that there is no such thing as “truth” or “fact” or “knowledge”

    I think that we are just seeing the inevitable consequences of the post-modernist belief that there are not any real truths or facts to be known…

    BTW, I think this is why the news sucks so badly these days, they present each “side” of a story without regard to the fact that one “side” may be factual and the other fantasy…

    Anyway, my 2 cents… Thanks

  12. Reply Hugh S. Myers June 9, 2011 16:02 pm

    I apply a simple test—Who is Edgar Lee Masters?, Rupert Brooke? Tintoretto? Hardy? George Mallory? William Morris? I’ll even throw in one most geeks get even if they haven’t read—Edward Tufte. Not a long list, but good enough to give me a clue as to where someone stands… Note that this is not liberal or conservative, neither one side of the campus or the other, these are in fact people that you could easily become familiar with at any reasonable library or bookstore. It would require you to wander ‘beyond the fields we know’ (quick, who said that?), i.e. set aside the books on Scala and Lisp etc. and go look around, it is never too late to expand horizons.

  13. Reply nelson June 10, 2011 02:00 am

    “I started many websites, actually learned some programming, and managed a few software projects.”

    How can you speak with authority about the programming industry if you only have “learned some programming?” I understand these articles are not squarely aimed at programmers – but whether or not you intended to, you have just projected a very ignorant stereotype onto one of the largest and most important industries in the world.

    If we humans lived forever, I would challenge you to immerse yourself in the programming culture for a decade or two before making posts like these. I’m not talking about script kiddies or designers who are forced to learn to program out of necessity – I’m talking about real world application development in real companies working on real projects.

    After a few years of 40-80 hour weeks of software development, you will quickly realize that many of the “anti-intellectual” aspects that you have defined here are, in fact, pro-productivity. We, as developers, are constantly building ways to make our lives easier and easier, and we have made an art out of learning things as quickly as possible. Not “study a textbook for a week and take a test” learning – that’s close to worthless. I’m talking about being able to quickly find, assimilate, and creatively apply knowledge on almost a day to day basis. In fact, I’d say that is the single most important skill that a programmer can develop.

    Our “ignorance” is in fact efficiency. We don’t have the luxury to study books to the point of memorization – instead we must identify, categorize, and archive knowledge so that we can use it when it’s needed. Most importantly, however, we constantly have to take very diverse kinds of knowledge and weld them together in ways that the original authors and scientists involved never dreamed of. That is the aspect of creativity.

    And this is how we put food on the table every night.

  14. Reply frank lowey June 10, 2011 21:06 pm

    Wow. Interesting. Taking all the responses to these various posts and synthesising them, as best as possible, into a carefully considered position would be a very valuable, time-consuming, intellectualist thing to do. I wish someone would take the trouble to do that. But that task probably would require a single, or very few, people to do that because of the desirability of a coherent organisation. On the other hand, the richness and breadth of the issues raised here in the crowdsourced commentary, would probably have taken a long time to have been able to be developed by a few lone thinkers on their own.

  15. Reply Rodolphe June 11, 2011 07:26 am

    I feel like (without being techno-dteterministic), information technology has affinities with anti-elitism. IT is very efficient in quantitative analysis – unlike humans. Most popular online rankings and searches are based on quantitative methods: the more links, the more friends, the more hits, the more utterances, the better ranked. One factor that explains the popularity of these hierarchies is the fact that they do not require trust.
    However, the current wish for other types of hierarchies to make sense of the information flow through experts (quora, curation) shows the limits of quant methods. And for such new hierarchies, the added value of IT (and of geeks) is very limited.

  16. Reply Asbjørn Andersen June 11, 2011 10:19 am

    While I believe there is great value in challenging ones intellect through a college education, studying with professors/experts in a field and also reading long and complex indulgences into a particular matter, I also believe that there can be great value in not doing so.

    The established elite (vs. the anti-intellectual)

    “I do not, for example, have to assume that college professors must always be believed, that they are infallible, that we should not be skeptical of most of what they say.” is very comforting for me to read.

    One particular problem with experts is that they tend to orbit their own paradigms. Facing a very complex “solution” to a problem they might lack the levity to break free from their paradigms gravitational pull and question the prerequisites of their “solution”.

    In such cases (which is all established knowledge always) perhaps only an anti-intellectual, overly-confident smart-ass possess the nihilistic boldness to tear down the established and break free of the paradigm.

    The programmer (and the google-edison approach)

    A previous comment talks about how a programmer has to work.

    “I’m talking about being able to quickly find, assimilate, and creatively apply knowledge on almost a day to day basis.”

    Being a coffee-to-software converter myself I tend to agree. Efficiency ftw! I think the trend you register might be this work-method dripping into popular culture with the g33k chic gang. However, it is not a very scientific method (and one that has been proven faulty in the past – though in a very different context) and is probably by many wrongly being applied to sciences or knowledge in general. Which is of course folly.

    A conclusion

    I don’t think we have anything fear from this. The established elite needs a good slap in the face once in a while. And the if the google-edison approach is being applied where it does no good it will soon enough be out on the streets again.

  17. Reply GPC June 11, 2011 11:47 am

    Nelson,

    I think you probably missed the point. No one is saying that everyone needs to learn everything. What is a concern is very successful people telling everyone else that they don’t need knowledge and a college degree. Maybe you don’t need to memorize a lot of information in your field. But there are many fields where this is important.

    Having access to large amounts of knowledge isn’t enough. You need to have a base of knowledge to make sense of the information you are finding. Finding, assimilating and creatively using information requires an existing base of knowledge that helps you make sense of what you are finding. We expect doctors, construction workers and pilots to memorize what they need to know. They can’t simply look things up as they go. It would be incredibly inefficient and extremely dangerous.

    I read all the time where people say that rote learning and memorization are meaningless. Real learning involves problem solving, critical thinking and creativity. But this is ridiculous. Problem solving, critical thinking and creativity require knowledge. Can you solve a problem without a base of knowledge the problem relates to? Can you think critically about things you know nothing about? Can you creatively apply knowledge you don’t have?

    There is definitely an arrogance in the highly educated and economically successful telling everyone else you don’t need what we have. Don’t bother learning or knowing anything. Don’t bother with college. Just Google whatever you need to know. All the information is out there for the taking. The point they miss is that the average American reads only at at 7th to 8th grade level. Half of Americans are considered to be functionally illiterate. Too many lack the ability to make sense of the information they are finding. Forget putting it to any real use.

    Exposing schoolchildren and college students to a wide range of knowledge and challenging reading would probably go a long way in resolving this literacy crisis. Everything you can learn is based on what you have previously learned. The brain uses pre-existing knowledge to make sense of new knowledge. We should expect students to know and learn more, so they can learn more. Because the reality is most will need knowledge to be successful in whatever they choose to do.

  18. Reply Max E. June 12, 2011 09:00 am

    I hate the term “e-book.” To me, a book is a physical object made of dead trees. When I tell people I think books are obsolete, I don’t mean that we no longer have a use for long-form, cohesive works written by a single authority. I just think hypertext (with embedded multimedia where appropriate, click-able citations, the option for light-on-black color-schemes, etc.) is a much-better format than flat text. Literature and scholarship will outlive books.

  19. Reply Ben June 12, 2011 19:58 pm

    Perhaps you need to define what you mean by “geek”. Common usage (at least in geek circles) is a love of and obsession with knowledge. This is as opposed to nerds, who are obsession with a particular topic.

    I don’t think it’s possible for a geek to be anti-intellectual, unless you are using different definitions of “geek” or “intellectual”.

    While it’s true that geeks value people who “do”, that’s only part of the culture. I read much more broadly than I need to to get stuff done; in fact most of my reading has no practical application. That’s true of most of the self-identifying geeks that I know.

    I’d suggest that you have a misconception of what a geek is, which confuses your point about anti-intellectualism in the tech sector (which I think *is* real).

  20. Reply standingwave June 13, 2011 18:45 pm

    How is the internet any more a prosthesis than paper books are?

  21. Reply Phil June 14, 2011 02:15 am

    I think devaluing specialists is a defensive trait of some generalists (competent in many, but specialist of none) arising from insecurities about one’s worth in society. This has probably been fuelled by arrogant specialists (aka Elitists) who devalue the role of generalists. The reality is the world needs both specialists and generalists and everyone in between.

    Intellect however is another scale. Some specialists are more intellectual than others, similarly with generalists. Again I would suggest that anti-intellectualism is a defensive trait arising from insecurities about one’s worth in society. Again, I would say this has been fuelled by those more intellectually capable not appreciating the role of those less-intellectual. There is a tonne of non-intellectual work that is very important to society that intellectuals would struggle to perform day in and day out.

    Diversity is where the true power of ‘wisdom of the crowds’ originates from. To get that diversity you need specialists, generalists and the gamut in between… and the more the merrier.

  22. Reply Anonymous June 14, 2011 19:23 pm

    We are indeed anti-intellectual. We are pragmatists in the traditional Jamesian sense, even though most of us don’t speak philosophy well enough to identify ourselves as such. I’ll present no counter-arguments to that. I’ll instead attack your contention (at least in the original article) that this is a problem.

    It’s not. We’ve just become more strategic about the way we accumulate knowledge. Because of our unnatural overexposure to so much information at a very early age, we grew up developing techniques to decide what’s worth knowing. This is an issue that no other generation had to deal with growing up, at least not in such a large scale. The most diplomatic of us will admit that there is indeed value in the fields you say we don’t appreciate, but you always have to ask the question: is there *enough* value? Even if there is, how can we know? We never learned how to align our goals with our search for knowledge. We were taught techniques for finding credible sources, but not how to find useful sources, or even how to transform seemingly arcane sources into relevant material for our development. We need to make trade-offs if we are to use our limited time on this planet efficiently. Not appearing to be intellectual enough for you is a small cost to pay.

  23. Reply Joe Clay June 20, 2011 23:16 pm

    Let me first note that I firmly believe that reading classics, listening to experts, and intellectualism as a whole are very important. I decry the simple fact that it has become more important to know how to find something than to actually know something. However, I like that the internet allows me to gain knowledge far more easily. The difference between me and others is that I make it a point to commit those things to memory–to actually learn. I don’t allow Google to be my brain.

    That said, I agree on some level with the anti-intellectuals about college. The institution is absolutely necessary but it’s not necessary for EVERYONE to go. The recent–since the 80s at least–mantra that everyone should go to college is simply wrong. And giving scholarship money to kids that don’t want to do it, is a waste. Give money to those who would actually enjoy going.

    College SHOULDN’T be for everyone. Not everyone wants or needs to go to college. Most students aren’t going for themselves. They are going to appease others–family, society, their peers, etc. The United States should adopt a more European view on how education should run. Europe is far more focused on figuring out who would excel in college and who would excel in trade programs.

    This would raise the overall quality of higher education. Students would be there because they actually want to be there. Students that don’t really want to be there lower the education for those who want to be there. In my experience, at least half of the people at my university did not belong there and didn’t want to be there. They slept in, missed class, interrupted the class by arriving late, asked questions that had been addressed, and just didn’t pay attention or express a desire to LEARN–which is the raison d’être for higher education.

    Realize I’m not being elitist. I wish that everyone who WANTED to go to college could. The thing is, those people usually find a way. The problem is when people who don’t want to go, and who would benefit and excel in a trade school program, go into college and perform poorly. Some people are brilliant theoretical physicists, and some people are automotive geniuses, the latter won’t excel in college but they’ll kill it in a trade school. Do what YOU like. If you can get there without college, do it. You’ll save time, money, and ultimately you’ll be happier doing and succeeding at what you love.

    As far as time for books and reading goes, that is solely a problem with capitalism. Computers were supposed to make our lives easier, and give us more leisure time. Instead they allow us to increase productivity within the same time frame. As a result, we are expected to do more than we used to in the same amount of time. Obviously the economy also plays a role in the amount of time people must dedicate to work rather than learning.

  24. Reply Ric Locke June 29, 2011 07:50 am

    It’s quite true that anti-intellectualism is on the rise; as a non-classically-educated person I feel it increasingly. It is a healthy and indeed necessary direction for our society to take.

    The reason is: the intellectuals are In Charge, and are making a muck-up of it. Wherever you go these days, the people running things are overwhelmingly those who have a deep and sometimes broad education in one or more fields related to the classics, but have never in their lives done anything that would increase the nutrition available to any child anywhere by so much as one Calorie except by taking it away from someone else, and if you showed ‘em a shovel they’d call it an implement and sneer at the slope-browed dumbbunny holding it. It doesn’t help that most of it is at least vaguely Marxist, but that simply amplifies the trend rather than causing it.

    The result is your making a thinly-disguised version of the argument offered by oligarchs and nobilities the world ’round and since time immemorial: We’re in charge because we’re simply better, and the rest of you should get busy hewing wood and drawing water, tugging your forelocks when we pass in respect for our Enlightenment and near-divine guidance.

    Anti-intellectualism arises out of the conflation of authority with power. The word “authority” is derived from education and research — the one you should listen to is the one who “wrote the book” on the subject. When you have a whole class of people who assert their ability to run things on the basis of education and research, but who continually make cock-ups on a scale that would be unimaginable if it were not before our eyes, that class has no authority whatever. Power it has, and that in abundance, but people who continually make a hash of things have no authority.

    Whatever society succeeds ours in the Darwinian selection process, be it a true successor of ours or some replacement, will very likely regard the appointment of a University professor or philosophy-trained individual to a position of power with the same high regard we now give to placing an acknowledged sociopath in charge of a police force.

    Regards,
    Ric

    • Reply Larry Sanger June 29, 2011 13:09 pm

      So, you look forward to a society in which empowering philosophers is regarded as on a par with making sociopaths police officers. You know, the Killing Fields were filled up by monsters who were animated by thoughts uncomfortably similar to yours.

      Perhaps you could stand to be trained to make crucial distinctions rather better–like the distinction between the ideologies of intellectuals, on the one hand, and intellectuals, on the other. Or like the distinction between intellectuals (the people) and the pursuit of knowledge (the activity).

      As William F. Buckley used to say, he’d rather be governed by the first fifty names in the Boston phone book than the faculty of Harvard. I’m sure both you and I would agree with him on that. But, unlike you and like me, Buckley was an intellectual, and would be appalled at your glib response.

      • Reply Ric Locke June 30, 2011 07:25 am

        I’m being glib, even arch, yes. Given the respective track records the comparison isn’t terribly inapt, and the sociopath doesn’t have elaborate and apparently sane justifications for his depredations, supported by his colleagues.

        As the “natural” bits of what was once Natural Philosophy peeled off one by one into their own free-standing fields, Philosophy was left to stand alone as the only known pursuit that announces itself able to reach absolute conclusions based on no input data whatever. Since that is patently impossible it becomes a matter of not acknowledging the input data, which is the underlying behavior-set of the hunter-gatherer-scavenger tribe, the way human society involved. Individuals vary enormously, but the resultant vector can only point Left, and the set of rules derived derived from it can only reduce the society to preindustrialism, at least until it is taken over by the stronger-minded.

        The military defines a difference between “line” (able to make decisions regarding operations) and “staff” (advisors to the line, without significant decision-making capacity). Philosophy can be and often is an enormously valuable staff function. Putting it in the chain of command can only result in disaster.

        Regards,
        Ric

        • Reply Larry Sanger June 30, 2011 10:20 am

          As I often told my intro philosophy students, philosophy does not depend on experiments, but it does depend on observation of the broad features of reality and human experience. Philosophers have believed some mighty weird things. Others, like Thomas Reid, G.E. Moore, me, and a lot of analytical philosophers, want philosophy to be squared with “common sense.” But even the philosophers with uncommonsensical views are capable of clarifying ideas and arguments as few others are able.

          Putting philosophers without further training or experience on the line would be a mistake, generally speaking. I’d grant you that.

  25. Reply nathan jurgenson July 1, 2011 14:16 pm

    i posted this same comment on the main article, but in the shameless hopes Larry Sanger might see my thoughts on this, I’ll post this comment here, too.

    i wrote a full critique of Sanger’s essay here: http://thesocietypages.org/cyborgology/2011/07/01/larry-sanger-on-geek-anti-intellectualism-a-kind-of-critique/

    i mostly agree with Sanger, but feel that taking another look at Hofstadter’s book (which he does cite) would improve the conceptualization. Sanger is convincing on the populist/anti-intellectual stuff, but misses the full scope of what anti-intellectualism means.

    further, Hofstadter makes an essential distinction between intelligence and intellect, and Sanger conflates the two. Sanger’s critique of the geeks on memorization shows them to be anti-intelligence, not anti-intellectual.

    that’s just a summary, see the link above for the full argument.

  26. Reply Gregor Samsa July 12, 2011 08:22 am

    Very powerful trolling. We troll apprentices have a lot to learn from this series of topics.

  27. Reply David L October 17, 2011 19:51 pm

    An excellent rebuttal! Although I agree with your overall premise that the overriding geek culture is anti-intellectual, I disagree with some of the nuances of the argument.

    For example, there is the warrant that intellectualism is measured by knowledge. While I agree that raw knowledge is an important facet of intellectualism, the ability to analyze this knowledge and deduct new ideas from it is perhaps more important. Consider the intellectuals of ancient times – Poltegras (who was originally a porter!) or Socrates. Although we can safely say they had a pretty expansive store of knowledge in their minds, they are more known for their impressive logical deductive abilities and their philosophical discourse. In fact, every intellectual in history is remembered not by his or her ability to recall facts but rather their _contributions_ to the wealth of human knowledge and ideas.

    I can already see the angry geek now – “Just look at the internet! There’s a TON of new content on the web everyday!” The problem is a) it is generally not thought provoking and b) it generally isn’t actually new, but rather a product of meme-based hive-mind. To everyone disagreeing with this, I provide the following citations: http://www.4chan.org and http://www.reddit.com. In fact, it’s often a complaint on these boards that there is no longer any “OC”, or original content. Sounds like a confession to me.

    Anyway, you do bring up some fantastic points and it’s a great article overall! It does provide perfect segway to an assessment on what an intellectual is in a modern context… care to share some thoughts?

  28. Reply sassycheekz;) October 18, 2011 18:01 pm

    It is undeniable that you are correct when talking about reliance on computer technology. We use technology as our reserve memory. A perfect microcosm of this problem is seen with cell phones. Instead of remembering the numbers; we have them stored onto our phones. The problem arises when our phones either die or are brake (and anyone can vouch that this happens more often than it should). We lose all of those numbers and often rely further (New phone; need your numbers). Now what would happen to the human race if this happened on a larger scale with, say, ALL DIGITAL TECHNOLOGY! We would lose a great deal of progress in most all fields by using technology as our memory. And as we start to rely more and more on technology; the loss becomes greater.
    That being said, I am not sure if putting this idea out there by attacking the geeks is the best way to get your point across. You seem no nullify your claims by stating that geeks would contradict claims 1-5 “regularly”. If that is true, than what is the battle for? Most geeks love technology, so I can see why you target them amongst all the other factions of internet users. But the reason that you distain technology ultimately seems to revolve around that “What if?” Question. We use the internet regularly (and we can thank you partially for that Mr. Wikipedia), and it does not seem like that is likely to change anytime soon. So why cannot the internet live in harmony with books? The “easy way” of getting something done is always around in life; yet the proper way to do something is always there as well. Are you afraid no one is going to have an interest in books? I don’t think that will be an issue seeing how long books have been around for.
    You also seem to believe that Intellectualism is academic knowledge alone. Therefore, an intellectual in your eyes can only become so by being classically trained. If that is the case, then only areas that allow for formal study can foster the hopes for your intellectuals. Inversely, there can be no intellectuals in non-study areas. Do you believe that for example, the Beatles, not being classically trained, are not influential and intellectuals in their field? I appears that there may be exceptions to your rule.

  29. Reply Sally B. October 18, 2011 20:07 pm

    Who would have thought geeks were anti-intellectuals? Out of all the different groups of people, I did not expect geeks and intellectuals to be at the opposite end of the spectrum. However, by reading your article and this rebuttal, I could understand the rise of the new anti-intellectualism and agree with you for the most part.
    It is very clear that anti-intellectuals greatly espouse the application of the knowledge or the method of learning by experience, and disregard the importance of books, the classics, and the actual gaining of the knowledge, especially because of the convenience of the Internet and search engines such as Google. As you stated in your article, we lack “conceptual understanding” and yet we apply the knowledge without retaining the knowledge in our head. Moreover, it is startling to see how we became so dependent on the advance of technology that we have come to ignore the value of acquiring the knowledge, and thus, the anti-intellectualism arises.
    I could not agree with you more when you defended the role of college and its significance. Because anti-intellectuals are obsessed with saving their precious time, they do not see the purpose of attending such institution. However, I ask to them, how would they know if they probably have not been to college and experienced the college life? Just as you remarked in this rebuttal, college is a place where we can challenge and develop ourselves and expand our knowledge, not where we waste our money and time to pursue “unnecessary product” or to concede to the authorities who, according to the anti-intellectuals, do not teach practical knowledge or skills, which are apparently the only components that matter to become successful.
    Although I support your idea of increasing visibility of anti-intellectualism within the geek culture, I disagree with few of your assumptions because they seem to limit the scope of the issue. For example, it seems to me that your main definition of intellectualism is academic knowledge and that memorization plays a huge role in learning. Nevertheless, more and more people nowadays, promote creativity and going beyond the facts. Therefore, “critical thinking” and “analysis” must not be disregarded and labeled as “anti-intellectualism” since they have become essential factors for our development of minds.
    Lastly, I would like to mention how you did not identify all geeks as anti-intellectuals since after all, there are only few of them.

  30. Reply Anton P October 18, 2011 20:20 pm

    A great read indeed! I have never given this issue much though – mainly due to a lack of belief in the existence of people who would actually promote the abolition of books.
    Assuming that the world really is on its way to denouncing books and memorization I must say you hit the nail on the head.
    The simplicity of the process by which people now gain access to information leads many to believe that they now have no need for memorization. When they need to find out something, anything really, they always have the option of quickly looking it up. What most fail to see is that knowledge, as you said, entails reading and memorizing something for later use.
    The folly of overlooking this small fact will only become apparent when those who so vigorously proclaimed the redundancy of books realize they cannot hold a decent conversation on anything they have no immediate knowledge of. When it comes time to talk you won’t be able to pull out your iPhone and start googling for supporting arguments and definitions. The other party will not only grow bored but also dissatisfied with any makeshift, sloppy thoughts you managed to present in the time you had to meditate on what you’ve just absorbed from the net.
    There is a vast qualitative difference between knowledge obtained twelve seconds ago and knowledge which you’ve spent years analyzing and improving.

  31. Reply SGB October 18, 2011 20:27 pm

    I have to agree with your argument that learning must involve memorization. From my experience, the “project-based learning” method is really pushed for in schools and colleges these days along with the claim that people learn better by doing. Learning by doing is only a portion of the actual learning though. Projects can help for remembering the step-by-step process, but you won’t get anywhere if you don’t memorize the facts you need to complete each step. Projects and memorization are very complementary in this way, and I fear that there has been a shift away from a balanced approach to learning.

    I think there is definitely a connection between this anti-intellectualism you are describing and the way internet culture encourages us to process and apply information. We computer geeks are used to seeing immediate and predictable results from applying knowledge. For example, we write code and we can see the immediate result of doing so, i.e., a working program. Reading classic novels, however, does not have an immediate, tangible application. Doing so can expand one’s ways of thinking and provide a pool of ideas to draw from, but it is not nearly as easy to tell that this is happening. It makes sense that so many people abandon this type of knowledge in favor of more “practical” knowledge.

    I agree with many of your ideas overall, and I appreciate that you didn’t mince words when getting them across. The trend toward anti-intellectualism is alarming. But the most important question is: What, if anything, can we do about it?

  32. Reply Sung Kim October 18, 2011 20:30 pm

    Hi Larry, I disagree with your idea that there is a new geek anti-intellectualism. I don’t believe that knowledge should be democratically determined. You claim that books are outmoded because a single person decides what is true, but that person is an expert and a reliable source of information on the topic of the book. Expert critiques are also in place to determine the quality of the information in the book to help guide the public. Also, you claim that we don’t have to go to an expensive college to succeed; we just need to be a bright and creative geek that can succeed like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. Perhaps college is overpriced, but without a college degree, which employers base my qualifications on, I would have a harder time finding a job. You cannot try to appeal to people the thought of not attending college when becoming the next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates is one in a million. Finally, I disagree on the claim that there is a new anti-intellectualism because there is a lot of data being accumulated but little memorization. You claim that knowledge is what someone has memorized and that text is what is stored in database. I disagree; I believe that database is a tool that aids in utilizing knowledge. I don’t believe that we are faced with an anti-intellectualism crisis.

  33. Reply Cindy Z October 19, 2011 00:08 am

    Through “Is there a new geek anti-intellectualism?” and “Geek anti-intellectualism: replies”, there is evidence provided for the idea that the increasingly visible geek community is either consciously or unconsciously fostering an anti-intellectual mentality, propagated through their advocacy against books, higher education, and the fundamental aspects associated with academia. Predominantly referred to as the ‘digerati’, this subset of geeks disregard the importance of liberal arts and memorization in correlation to learning, advocating a system based largely on the idea that everyone is equally intelligent and therefore has equal authority on all topics of knowledge. This unwavering belief that all views should be equally valued despite credentials, schooling, or prior experience is essentially the driving force behind this anti-intellectual movement.
    While the existence of an anti-intellectual movement present-day is indeed questionable, the likelihood of a future movement is rather high. If society continues upon a path driven toward technical fields, the demand for experts in the liberal arts will deplete further. Overtime, this dearth will result in complete removal of humanities as a requirement for students. The origins of this lack of respect for humanities stems from the fact that books such as “The Illiad takes a lot of effort, and the payoff is quite abstract” (5). Furthermore, the occupation as a humanities expert offers limited financial rewards as “people devote their lives to this stuff even when it doesn’t pay much” (4), leading those with only monetary ambitions to pursue technical fields. Ultimately, the end result of such a heavily technical society will be an anti-intellectual mentality away from liberal arts in which students no longer bother to read entire texts, believing their opinions to be as good as, if not better, than those of their educators.
    Moreover, this sense of equality in collaborations and discussions on topics such as history or literature, that is fairly open to interpretation, leads to a movement away from the humanities. Due to these unwarranted beliefs, students move toward technical fields that offer more concrete and practical skills that prove worth. In comparison, the humanities offers only subjective claims that can be easily disputed or supported based on an individual’s experiences and opinions. Thus, geeks often contest the importance of memorization and reading long texts, dismissing the act as unnecessary in the face of technological advances. However, the act of memorizing and reading is not solely for the retention of information, but rather the concepts and ideas that are inspired by books or general knowledge: a sentiment lost on these ‘geeks’.
    In the end, the amalgamation of all the beliefs held by geeks lead them to a path of anti-intellectualism. Though, if carefully corrected, this anti-intellectual movement can be avoided.

  34. Reply Sean Park October 19, 2011 00:23 am

    Let me begin by saying that I respect your willingness to respond to the oft mindless responses to your piece, It takes a real dedication to the content to defend it against those who misinterpret it and see it as they want to.

    With that out of the way, I must say that I have a slight issue with this rebuttal segment. The prompts you chose to respond to seem awfully cherry-picked. By that I mean that they all appear to be either easy to explain away, or almost unrealistically extreme. One example of note is the prompt that goes along the lines of “But I’m an intellectual, and I know that learning facts is indeed passé”. I find it very hard to believe that this is a good representation of even a small part of your response pool. I doubt that too many people, especially intellectuals, would actually boast that they are intellectuals, given the hugely presumptuous nature of doing so. Furthermore, the more inflammatory responses, particularly those insinuating your insanity in implicating that some geeks are anti-intellectual, seem unrealistic simply based on the more literate and level headed audience that would read your piece.

    Despite your suspect methodology in choosing messages to respond to, I must say that I agreed with your arguments. Your attempts to dissipate the false generalizations that people accused your piece of having were very well warranted, and your acknowledgement of various factors such as the changing state of the internet was good to see.

    In short, your arguments were good, if a bit convenient.

  35. Reply Felicia Alfieri October 19, 2011 01:35 am

    As society becomes more and more obsessed with technology every day, geeks are being thrown into the spotlight far more frequently than in the past. Larry Sanger makes a lot of large claims about the geeks of today’s world, and while some of them may be accurate, he does not provide enough solid information to support his overall argument that these geeks, newly visible to the public eye, are anti-intellectuals.
    Sanger fears that dependence on technology will make society more stupid, and he urges his readers to practice focusing. However, he provides no details as a basis for why this fear of his is rational or noteworthy. He simply says, “but of course it is a bad thing, and it is in our control,” without any explanation or call for action that could correct the issue.
    By providing a succinct list of characteristics of a geek, Sanger clarifies his point to an extent, but he fails to elaborate on some of the important notes. For example, Sanger claims that geeks have no respect for experts and he says, “Knowledge is now democratically determined, as it should be,” without actually fully describing why this happens or what it entails. This could potentially be a true and relevant point to his argument, but he fails to provide the necessary evidence to validate it.
    Even in his rebuttal (which ends up longer than the original article due to so many questionable claims), Sanger groups geeks together and labels them as lazy and arrogant. He, once again, does not provide any evidence for these claims except for maybe his own personal experience, which certainly cannot apply to the geek community as a whole.
    While Sanger does make some clear arguments, like that intellectualism must come through education, memorization is important to learning, and decreasing attention spans are a cause for concern, he does not provide any particularly strong support for his claims. All in all, it could be a read-worthy article if it did not come off as so scattered, biased and foundationally weak.

  36. Reply Arthur Pendragon October 19, 2011 07:09 am

    Akin to any decently-educated individual, I can appreciate any well-written argument, whether or not I personally agree with the ideas. However, I find these two articles about geek anti-intellectualism, especially the original one, to be flawed in the proof of your various claims. The original article kicks off with a section devoted to delineating your evidence, but upon careful inspection, it becomes apparent that “the evidence” provided is heavily biased. You take the extreme liberty of hyperbolically accusing the large, nearly undefinable mass of geeks on the Internet. This hasty generalization aside, your evidence almost all falls into one of two categories. The first category is when you use your own, previously written works as evidence, which ostensibly will contain your bias. The second main type of evidence you provide is that of the intellectual side of the conflict. Moreover, the point I wish to make here is that you scarcely provide any evidence from the “geek” side of the argument. After listing several links to your articles and multiple opinionated quotes on the side of intellectualism, you hurriedly drop in one paragraph of evidence from actual geeks. However, the evidence in that paragraph solely comes from two dogmatic outliers; consequently, it seems to be a stretch to extend their specific opinions to such a large group of individuals. Ultimately, this weighted bias against the “geeks” you target makes it hard for me to accept your argument. Perhaps I seem a little biased as well, but it seems to be an incredible jump of logic to generalize the entire set of “Internet geeks and digerati” as anti-intellectuals.

  37. Reply Kerry S October 19, 2011 08:02 am

    In your original essay, you claims that “geeks” oppose intellectualism and essentially see no value in it. Unfortunately, you fail to quantify intellectualism and clearly define who he is talking about. You seems to define an intellectual only as one who has attained a level of higher education, or who has “devoted their life to knowledge”(1), while the “geeks” are the ones who, for example, skip college to create an internet company, and that these people oppose higher education. I, however, see an intellectual who can understand society as a whole and use this knowledge to incite positive change. If you take this definition, you can see how geeks actually have become the modern intellectual, and how internet and technology visionaries such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg use and have used their skills in order to revolutionize our communication and interaction with others. I argue that these people are the ones affecting our world and enacting positive change, many times in a more effective manner than the academic intellectuals of old. Even your idea of an intellectual as simply a college educated person fails to accurately reflect the situation. Many of these wildly successful entrepreneurs, like Gates and Zuckerberg, give large quantities of their wealth to promoting and improving formal education. (http://www.gatesfoundation.org/united-states/Pages/program-overview.aspx and http://mashable.com/2010/12/09/mark-zuckerberg/). You argues against these changes in education, disagreeing with Sir Ken Robinson suggestion that “K-12 education needs a sea change away from ‘boring’ academics and toward collaborative methods that foster ‘creativity’”(2). You goes on to claim that we are heading in the direction of “widespread lack of analytical tools and conceptual understanding”(4). I don’t see how teaching children simple memorization and recitation of facts will in any way improve their analytical tools and conceptual understanding. Modern wealthy “geeks” are donating their money to help improve creativity and thinking skills in our next generations. If you were that prosperous, would you donate that money to something you’re against?

    • Reply Alex October 19, 2011 23:33 pm

      Bill Gates the “new intellectual?” He’s a poster child for Sanger’s argument. This is the guy whose favorite insult is to say that someone “isn’t technical.” A wonderful example of the fallacy that someone is intelligent if and only if they can write a computer program.

  38. Reply Kevin Hughes October 19, 2011 10:05 am

    The argument of “is there a new geek anti-intellectual” is one that will fire up some. Especially those who feel they are geeks and are offended of being called anti-intellectual. This is not what you are going for. You simply just say that the trend is changing, not the bold statement that all geeks are anti-intellectual and against institutions of classical learning. This is not what he is arguing at all, he just specifies that the trend of geeks is overall turning into geeks being against classic learning. This has definitely showed itself of the past years on the internet. Geeks nowadays have the thought that if they have one great idea that no college or university is necessary to succeed. If they get it out there and people like it, they will succeed in their career. People like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates have proven this in their careers and geeks are aspiring to be like this. They almost want to “stick it” to the general thought that college is necessary. If they make billions of dollars they feel they have won. I also believe totally in the claim that people are drifting away from the idea of written literature. They feel it is dumb to waste time reading an entire book when they could easily Google it and be done. I personally feel that this is a disgusting trend. It is a horrible thought to that Googling the fact and knowing it for five minutes is better than reading a book and really learning about the subject. It is terrible that as technology advances, people feel less and less inclined to read a book and spend the time learning. This is not the way that people should learn. We need to learn from past literature and advance our knowledge of the past as opposed to focusing on only the future. Specifically the future of technology. I agree that geeks are changing in society these days and it is a trend that needs to be changed. Do not get offended if you are a geek. Accept it and then try to change the connotation of it.

  39. Reply Gabriela P October 19, 2011 10:39 am

    After reading “Is there a new geek anti-intellectualism,” I could only imagine the immense amount of defensive replies from geeks you would get. Evidently, that did occur – as you predicted in the initial article, asking the geeks if they “find [their] views misrepresented,” as the statements you made were quite hyperbolic and “provocative.” Like you, I agree that many geeks may be in denial of the anti-intellectualism they perpetuate by having “tl;dr” attitudes.
    As a self-proclaimed geek, I admit to having said tl;dr attitude.

    For my history class, we read a graphic adaptation of the 9/11 Report. The original report is more than 400 pages long – pages of pure text. The graphic adaptation, on the other hand, is only a couple hundred pages of long – pages filled with comic book depictions of the people and events of 9/11, along with captions extracted from the original report. The graphic novel was tenfold times easier to digest, because it required less mental effort. The point I contest, however, is whether this makes me an anti-intellectual. I still thirst for knowledge – I just want it in a more concise, digestible form. Is it really attention span or the ability to wade through long, muddy passages of text that constitutes an intellectual?

    I think by pointing out the main claims of the received you received, and consequently and successfully tearing them down, you demonstrate the strengths of your original argument. I particularly like the explanation of the difference between databases (whether in a library or on the internet) containing *text* and human minds containing *knowledge*. I originally disagreed with your claim that memorization is necessary, but seeing the dichotomy between ‘text’ and ‘knowledge’ now makes it clear that knowing straight facts is a necessary component of knowledge. It does not negate the necessity to *understand* subject matter, but rather renders it possible in the first place.

    This second blog post will hopefully clarify some points for people who doubted your argument (as it did for me), and take some of the anti-intellectual geeks on the Internet out of their denial.

  40. Reply Rhiannon October 19, 2011 11:10 am

    Both the original essay and the reply make strong arguments for the fact that a geek anti-intellectualism is on the rise, but are most convincing when taken together. The first article, while it provided many facts and drew on several sources to base the claim on, lacked the balance brought about by the reply’s refutation of various arguments to the contrary. Largely, the first article only provided support for the idea that a geek anti-intellectual trend was on the rise, and neglected to acknowledge or refute other opinions on the subject. This was perhaps due to the fact that a blog post is not an essay or lecture; there wasn’t an expectation that they should have been. But taking the first article, and this reply, together, the evidence given to support the claim in the first, coupled with the refutation of the opposition (as well as the clearing up of some ambiguous terms in the first article) not only clearly articulates the idea that there is a new geek anti-intellectualism but fully supports it. In pointing out the recent trend in the hostility of the digital elite towards classical knowledge and learning in general (noting the dismissal of books, college learning, and expert opinion), and the push towards collaborative databases and shared resources to replace them, showing the support that some high profile geeks Peter Thiel have for these trends, while reiterating that it is only the trend (and not the individual geeks) that is anti-intellectual, the combination of the two essays, I believe, very convincingly portrays and supports the idea that the current geek trend is towards anti-intellectualism.

  41. Reply georgieoftheskihill October 19, 2011 12:00 pm

    I’d like to start out with a simple question: What is an intellectual?

    This is essay and its predecessor, “Is There a New Geek Anti-Intellectualism?”, base their arguments on your definition of an intellectual. Let me define what you seem to think an intellectual is:
    1. They are experts in some field and are generally a part of academia.
    2. They value classical knowledge, in general as much as or more than technical (“geeky”) knowledge.

    In counterpoint is the geek:
    1. They are “average Joes”; they don’t necessarily have any special training, and what training they do have is in more technical fields such as programming.
    2. They disvalue classical knowledge.

    I don’t think that the intellectual is as simple as you present him or her to be, however. When you look at “classical” intellectuals – such as Descartes, Kant, Locke, Rosseau, or Hobbes – their defining feature is not that they are experts in some field or are part of academia or value classical knowledge. Indeed, I would argue that they valued new knowledge just as much as classical knowledge – their defining feature was how they contributed to our understanding of the world, not how much they knew about what came before. They caused social change and radically changed how society viewed itself; now, it is the geeks carrying out that role.

    The point of an intellectual is not the type of knowledge they are advocating, it is what they do with it; and this, I think, is where your argument falls flat. You seem to be arguing against social change – that what was once relevant, such as the classics, should stay just as relevant as our society moves forward. The way our education system works should stay the same, instead of changing to fit new parameters. Why should someone memorize exactly when the Battle of Hastings occurred? Isn’t it more important to know that it happened, and what effects it had, why it is relevant, than it is to know the exact date, since we CAN look up the smaller details? I am sure that you would say this view is anti-intellectual, but I would argue that your view that things should stay the same is just as much, if not more, anti-intellectual.

    Of course, some of your points are about people who are actively opposed to intellectualism as opposed to simply not valuing it as much. Again, I say to you, why does opposing classical ideas of learning and knowledge also oppose intellectualism? Although I agree that actively opposing some knowledge is detrimental, an intellectual need not always support the “correct” knowledge or have the “right” viewpoints – they must merely act as an agent of social change.

    My point is, of course, that you must define an intellectual for your arguments to have merit. Otherwise, you are arguing about some ideal which anyone can take and twist to suit their own purposes.

    So I leave you with a new question: Is the definition of an intellectual in our society changing, or is it the people that we view as intellectuals who are changing?

  42. Reply Kevin Huang October 19, 2011 12:28 pm

    Hey Larry,
    Although you offended many geeks with your argument that geeks are anti-intellectuals I do not think your argument is not plausible. The key factor in your argument that geeks represent anti-intellectualism is how a person defines intellectualism. You seem to define intellectualism as reading long novels and books from a long a time ago, a time when intellectualism was available in popular culture. You argue nowadays people are too lazy and cannot comprehend reading these writings. I would agree with this argument. Society does not admire these pieces of writing as people did in the past. What do you expect though? Those books were written many many years ago. Times have changed. We are interested in new things now. I say who cares about those books. How does reading that crap make the world a better place now. If we are less intellectual now because of this so be it.
    You also argue that reading that stuff “expands your mind. You might not understand how, or why it’s important, but it does. That’s why people devote their lives to this stuff, even when it doesn’t pay much, as it usually doesn’t.” What are you even proving here? So reading that stuff is pointless most of the time, but sometimes it will “expand your mind”. Also, what reasoning do you have? Should we just trust that you understand life better because you read some of those books.
    This whole argument is pointless in my opinion. All you are saying is that we do not value reading and memorizing long stuff that has nothing to do with our lives. This is what makes us anti-intellectual. When something needs to be memorized, like a formula, to get good grades, then people memorize it. If a football player needs to memorize plays to succeed he memorizes it. If that makes us anti-intellectual, it is fine with me. All the information I need is online and I can look it up with a couple clicks. Times have changed and quite frankly, we have made it easier to gain knowledge.

  43. Reply downtownhero October 26, 2011 19:39 pm

    Whoa what a lot to take in here! Well I’d like to start by saying that I agree with the arguments made in this article. The evolvement of technology in modern society has caused learners to become, for a lack of a better word, lazy. Most people nowadays turn to the web rather than books as there main source for information. By doing so they turn away from the ideas of “classic learning”, in my own words I’d like to call it proper learning. I fear that we as a society have forgotten the basics to learning. Being spoon fed knowledge from Google or Wikipedia is not the proper way to learn. Society’s dependence on such search engines enforces the notion that we no longer have to acquire and understand knowledge ourselves but instead can just get the answers to our questions with a few clicks of a mouse. This idea is total ludicrous. I could not agree with you more when you stress the importance of memorization in the process of acquiring knowledge. The mark of proper learning is the ability to retain information by having a clear understanding of the subject matter.
    The geek culture however seems to denote this idea. Geeks make it easier for people to acquire knowledge by continuing to make additions to the web and uploading more content of information everyday. With that said it is plausible to conceive that geeks have fostered an anti-intellectual mentality and have disregarded the importance of books. I have not thought much on this topic until after reading your article, but I can now see how geeks can be labeled responsible for society’s depreciation of books and classic novels–which do not, as the internet does, make it easy to digest knowledge and give away answers, but instead allows for people to expand their thought process and find answers for themselves. Edward Said once said, “The intellectual’s goal is to advance human thought and knowledge”–but by making the web more and more convenient geeks in fact stifle the advancement of human thought and thus, prevent the intellectual goal from being achieved.

  44. Reply Chip Chippington December 26, 2011 18:44 pm

    great follow-up post to your original, excellent essay. i think your conclusion here aptly sums it up: those who disdain another’s hard-earned knowledge are too proud to admit there’s knowledge beyond their own experiences. sad, but true. keep fighting the good fight, larry!

  45. Reply Patrick July 24, 2012 21:29 pm

    One thing that seems conspicuously absent in this set of replies, and in the original article.

    You lament the degree to which the ability of electronic devices to serve as a repository for knowledge displaces the memorization of that knowledge. This is undoubtedly true. But it is merely the continuation, albeit at an even more astounding rate, of a process that began with the development of writing. In non-literate cultures people memorize not just more than we digital denizens, but more than the people of the age of the book.

    Your piece contrasts books (digital or print) as extended pieces of communication versus websites as repositories of knowledge. But the bound book as a physical format has seen countless examples of volumes designed as repositories for information. If my father forgot the spelling of a word when he was in college, he was not out of luck, he could rely on the mental prosthesis of the dictionary. One of the earliest uses of writing discovered is the keeping of accounts, and thus the use of writing to substitute for memory.

    Indeed my own experience of advanced learning is that while content is important, the most knowledgable are very happy to augment their mental capacities with various forms of external storage. This extends to things that they have not read until they had reason to as well. Even the smallest totally non-digital library contains more information than any person could memorize. Even within a singular field of inquiry, no one knows as much as the sum total of information available. Knowing how to search out and evaluate sources on your field of inquiry is of vast importance, and has been for centuries.

    I also suspect that while digital culture undervalues the idea of “book-length” texts, that the 19th and 20th centuries overvalued it. Not that book-size fiction, or non-fiction is a bad thing, but that the realities of producing bound books lead to many stories and arguments that would have been best served by smaller sizes padded out to the size of a book. At least in theory one benefit of the digital age is the opportunity to be very flexible about length.

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