Is there a new geek anti-intellectualism?

This essay can be read in my 2020 book, Essays on Free Knowledge. Perhaps ironically, it is no longer free.

UPDATE: I’ve posted a very long set of replies.

UPDATE 2: I’ve decided to reply below as well–very belatedly…




, ,


Please do dive in (politely). I want your reactions!

306 responses to “Is there a new geek anti-intellectualism?”

  1. Jonathan Martin


    1. The most common joke-response to the essay. Nice one!

      1. M. Olson

        RE: your posted essay.

        Thumbs up. That’s about as bad as it gets. Somebody climbs into a number box and damns to hell anything he can’t get in there with him. Where does that lead, supposing it’s the wave of the future? Maybe there’s some use in looking at it that way, by its outplay.

        Ninety thousand generations of homo sap have come and gone–or pick a number–and none of them walked around with little pieces of electronic junk hanging from their heads at all times–just us. We’re in the midst of a major evolutionary shift, happening instantaneously too. Now it’s ubiquitous and de rigueur. Everybody’s put in front of one from their earliest years, and the mindset of it is taken on insensibly. That’s the source of that anti-intellectual-ism you seak of: the loss of individuality that comes with it. Our cultural heritage depends on that article, and can’t be preserved without it. Lose that and we lose everything.
        Where will it lead? I’m in an electronic store and the guy says, “All this stuff here’ll be obsolete in five years.” “Yeah?” And I’m thinking, OK, so how many five-years will pass before all that junk’ll be inside their heads, I wonder. And what’s to prevent? Be much better that way, actually, in terms of efficiency and ability. Then we could be like those fighter pilots who have the weapons system rigged to their eye movements; so that all they have to do is look at something a certain way and it fires. Wouldn’t that be something? We’d be god-like then, right?
        Is it all about prowess? Would we be willing to sell everything we are for that? What’s to prevent? Then you’ll be somewhere and somebody’ll be somewhere else going beep-beep-beep-beep beep-beep-beep and you’ll go off and do something and you won’t know why. So what would your prowess amount to then, that you were somebody’s tool? That there are no limits that stuff is the point, no con-straints. Anything like that has to come from the outside, from some larger conception and belief in the value of our common humanity. That’s why it can’t be the end-all and be-all of everything, and why the traditional university experience can’t be forgone. Where are those values sourced but there, that we can’t live without them?
        OK, there’s a lot of muck there, granted. But where would it lead if we let go of it? To that looming dehumani-
        zation I described? Let’s go a little further down that path and see what happens. That’s the ultimate argument of a position, right? And it’s defense.

        So I’m reading this essay by I think it was a pale-ontologist–how he could know, though, exobiology not having been invented you, I couldn’t say–but passing that–sez that the arrangement of our senses is an Earther signature, that any being with a similar design is from here. OK, maybe it’s goof-head, but let’s go with it. Could be true. What then? So let’s put that together with something else, viz. All the depictions f the grays I’ve seen show that same signature arrangement–minimalized and, as it would seem, atrophied, but still recognizable. Which means, assuming that, that and that, that they’re from here. Not extraterrestrials at all; nor their craft space-ships exactly, but time-ships. They’re us, say ten million years down the line. It’s what we become. No?
        Look at it this way: if at any time in the future, assuming we survive to it, time travel becomes possible, they’ll show up here. That they’re a dying race is obvious; they sacrificed their existentials to their technology, not realizing until it was too late that it was a trap. And so they return, like those ancient belles in Pope’s lines, who “haunt the places where their honor died.” This is where the mistake was made. We went that way and our fate was on iron rails. Our striving and suffering, our hopes and aspirations through all the millennia of time lead to this: a race of vampire cattle-rustlers. Sneer at if you can–but what’s to prevent?

        The insectivization of the race goes on apace. More like grasshoppers than people they are, those beings we will become. Outside a hard bony shell of technology, and inside a little white much: is that what you want?

        A little fiction action, right? Focuses thought.

  2. sh0ck

    You are confusing anti-intelectualism with truth. College is a waste of time and going there has no bearing on you being intelectual or not. I sense you are old and dont understand the new world as it is, or are young and dont understand the world as it is. either way… you are wrong.

    1. jp

      @ sh0ck Misspelling “intellectual” belies your argument, if one could call it that.

      1. turkeyfish

        Not only is the spelling a problem, but so is the thinking.

        The anti-intellectualism in the remark you are responding to stems from a form of technological self-righteousness that has creeped into our culture, where if somehow you say something on the internet or over some sort of “smart” device that somehow more true or meaningful than if it is deduced or stated via some other more traditional mechanism.

        Its not really so much anti-intellectual is it is simply having lower brain centers shunt off additional neuronal activity by the prosencephalon. Consequently, especially given our politics, which are reinforcing this, the art of the put down has come be more valued than actual thinking, logic, and reasoning. So many now think that if you are just dogmatic and forceful enough, this will somehow actually substitute for actual thinking. This is a quite common misconception among the anti-global warming and anti-evolution , whether they have gone to college or not.

        However, when all is said and done, it comes down to a phrase often used by the late John Wooden “Its what you learn after you know it all that counts”.

        1. Dan

          Sure, as an artist, I didn’t have to go to college to learn art history, design theory or how to use 3D software to become an artist. I didn’t have to take world history, United States history, psychology, biology, or English to become an artist. But the knowledge I’ve accumulated through practice and self-teaching pales in comparison to what I have been taught by knowledgeable people in class, and my work has improved exponentially because of it. I’ve also made many friends in school who will continue to be lifelong friends as well as having learned to function in world outside of my mother’s basement.

        2. Well, obviously, making you a better artist is not necessarily the point of college. Part of the anti-intellectual mindset is to assume that the only purpose of gaining knowledge is to improve one’s employability.

        3. David Bandel

          If you’re referring to global warming as a man-caused phenomenon, then I think you have your analogy skewed.

          What you’re talking about only really applies to anti-evolution, pro-global warming mindsets.

          The point is to ignore knowledge and accept all appeals to authority to come to ones own, horribly misinformed, unqualified, heavily reinforced opinion.

    2. DrDork

      College is a waste of time if you only go there to take some easy liberal art classes and spend the rest of the time drunk or high. College as an institution based around learning and intellectual exploration is not a waste at all; the waste is from students who go to college for the wrong reasons, and from schools whose educational standards are so pathetically lax as to make the experience meaningless.

      People who argue that we don’t need to /know/ or /learn/ much of anything because we can simply access the facts via some external source (Google, Wikipedia, etc) are missing the point: if you go down that line, you lose your frame of reference and your ability to assimilate ideas and concepts. Take away learning, take away independent knowledge, and all those articles just become a collection of inaccessible and meaningless words.

      As to anyone who thinking that the masses somehow know better than the experts, let us think back on all the things that have been “common knowledge” and yet were (and are) completely wrong–it’s a very, very long list.

      1. Seguin

        I’m sure we could also write down a very long list of when “intellectuals” were proven wrong by the facts.

        The problem with these discussions is that it’s based on a fundamental conceit: that intellectuals per se are necessarily intelligent, which is not true. Self-designated intellectuals are a hodge-podge of people, most with some form of certification from a place of higher education, whose only real claim to the title is that they hold what previously self-designated intellectuals consider to be the correct opinions, and hold them in a way that flatters the already extant group.

        In a sense, this anxiety about “Intellectualism” is more about tribalism than anything else. Knowledge and truth are objective things to be found by any means necessary, not only by membership to the aforementioned group – to tie it in with my opening statement, “intellectualism” and intelligence don’t correlate very highly.

        1. jw

          Agreed. The fact that higher education has become less rigorous has only accelerated the decline of credentialed authority.

        2. @Seguin: “self-designated intellectuals”? Honestly, have you ever heard anybody refer to himself as an intellectual?

          Your opinionizing here only concerns your stereotype of intellectuals, according to which intellectuals are people with degrees who gain pride by repeating the dogmas of their fields, and who associate with others in their field “tribally.”

          This is, of course, a silly caricature, but…whatever helps you sleep at night…

      2. Travis

        I think one point that also needs to be made is that if we rely entirely on the knowledge currently accumulated and available on Wikipedia and the like we are no longer fostering the advancement of knowledge. I feel the real danger in some of the anti-intellectuals is complacency and an acceptance of the stance that we know now everything that we could possibly need to know, which is obviously preposterous. Treating Wikipedia as the final arbiter of all human knowledge or even assuming that you can find anything you could need on google is dangerous and just wrong. Seeing a mathematical equation without knowing the components or how they work together or even where they came from can very easily lead to fundamentally incorrect applications if they can be used at all.

        1. Dan

          This is exactly it. This is where the real problem lies. It is simply not possible to rely on the information being in a database, without someone having the knowledge to actually use it correctly. I can personally attest, that in the Engineering field, having a number of equations listed on the internet does not do anyone any good. A significant amount of time needs to be spent with these equations, to learn how to apply them to real life problems, and to know when to apply them. This kind of application is extremely difficult without the guidance of a good instructor, and peers (as you would find in a college or university). As an engineer, even with the assistance of peers and instructors, the subject matter is still thoroughly daunting.

          From an Engineer’s point of view, who has graduated with good grades from a reputable engineering school (who has lived through the hell I call an engineering curriculum), I can personally say that I do not want a high school student to assume that they know-how to build a bridge or design a circuit because they found a few equations on the internet.

          Good and safe design requires a good background in theoretical knowledge, applied appropriately and practically to a problem. It also requires the knowledge of good practices, which only come from people who have been in the field for years and have experience, hence (most) professors. Granted, I’ve had some pretty bad professors, but the ones that are good can pass on knowledge that you won’t find a textbook or on the internet.

          In the fields of science and engineering, we simply cannot rely on some Joe Schmoe with an internet connection to solve the world’s problems.

      3. @DrDork, you say, “College is a waste of time if you only go there to take some easy liberal art [sic] classes… College as an institution based around learning and intellectual exploration is not a waste at all.”

        I guess there are some easy liberal arts classes, but most of my students complained that philosophy was too hard. And if you think that subjects like philosophy, history, or classic literature are not the paragons of “learning and intellectual exploration,” then really you are only demonstrating your failure to learn much about those subjects.

    3. Justin

      Shock, you are actually the one who is apparently confused. Even if one were to agree with you and disagree with Sanger, calling an opinion ‘truth’ is as anti-intellectual as you can get.
      Also, even if you hate the idea of college and never bothered learning how to spell, you should investigate this fancy new tool called ‘spell-check’.

      Now, to the point. The idea that college is a waste of time is the ultimate in unassailable stupidity. That anti-intellectual position misses the link between decrying the herd behavior of the often maligned ‘sheep’ of popular culture and being too blind to recognize that behavior in one’s self. You don’t want to be one of the drones that goes to college and learns about things. So you learn nothing more than what you must have to survive.

      I would worry for the fate of society after all of the new anti-intellectual herd inadvertently erases any hope we have of redemption, but I honestly don’t think that any of you will have the common sense to ever recognize your loss.

      The image of a fiddle being played while Rome burns occurs to me…but you probably won’t get the reference.

    4. I never went to college, but I wouldn’t call it a waste of time. People who can’t learn to spell or use apostrophes correctly certainly need it.

    5. @shock I, like others, couldn’t make any sense of your comment. One of the things that education generally, and a liberal arts college in particular, will do for you is to make you better capable of writing in a way that others can parse. There are some excellent communicators who didn’t go to college, but generally, if you choose the right college and study hard, you’ll get a lot better.

      1. Dudesowin

        Couldn’t make any sense? Sure are a lot of replies to one post that supposedly made no sense! Maybe you are just dumb then? How about a little less ad hominem. Anti intellectuals keep large social contacts and often have gang ties with fraternities. They usually flunk out of college and get a fake degree or anything with sufficient rank such as bachelors, masters. Doesn’t matter at all what field you practice long as you did “hard” work. Intelligence is all about making things easy and speeding up tasks yet anti intellectualism is all about validation against that. But those whom buy into college have to support it else they are stuck with an immeasurable debt in their life that they don’t know what to deal with if they are not better for what they have done.

    6. Arc

      For many college can be extremely important. In America our secondary schools very often do not try to or encourage students to “think outside the box.” At universities, especially in the American Liberal Arts schools, this is often the main point – to learn how to think analytically and critically. Many people, myself included, needed the classes and extra-curriculars in college to begin to really think critically about the world. Learning should not be about how much money one can make form it. We need citizens that think critically – it is an extremely important aspect to creating and sustaining a fair and just society.

    7. Jerry Mander

      What do you know grand-dad? Young people

      You get the picture…I’m going to go one further and say that the car mechanics of yesterday are the ‘geeks’ of today.

      Yeah, that’s right! I’m fighting fire with fire. I’m an elitist snob and I don’t care.

  3. raymond

    Supposedly, you wrote this article try to get your idea to the other side. But if you realize people on Internet don’t read long text, then putting your main point in the middle of your article will actually make those people you are trying talk to stop reading it.

    1. morgan warstler

      smartest comment here.

      1. And yet I did get through to a lot of people. Over 60,000 page views of this essay in a week, over 100 comments…

        I admit I took a chance, though. In the first 24 hours after the essay was released, it got virtually no response at all.

  4. moe

    This is less “geek” than “hipster”. Geeks have always and will always be about knowledge. Hipsters seem to like trying to steal the (un)coolness of geeks without putting forth any effort. I believe hipsters are a passing fad just like their horrible tastes in clothing. Hopefully when they are gone it won’t be cool to be uninformed any longer.

    1. turkeyfish

      The critical issue is whether the women will think that. If they continue to be fooled by uneducated but highly opinionated “hipsters” then that behavior will flourish. Women make the choice that drives sexual selection.

      What concerns me is just how few women there are who care about topological spaces. I feel as if I’m standing in the wrong place.

      1. An Anonymous Coward

        Interesting and appropriate application of sexism.

      2. Sara

        I’m a geek, an intellectual, and a mathematics educator who believes strongly in inquiry/project based learning. When properly applied, inquiry based learning DOES NOT move away from teaching facts, rather it moves away from the memorization of individual, disconnected fact and toward the construction and understanding of knowledge deeply rooted in conceptual context and intellectual rigor.

        ps: I’m also a woman who wrote a dissertation on the S & L space problems (kinds of topological spaces)

        1. @Sara, I think there’s too much emphasis on project based learning in schools today. I was subjected to endless amounts of it in the 70s and 80s in school, and found it incredibly boring, and I didn’t learn much at all. But maybe it all depends on the project and teacher…

          The only other comment I had for you is that one cannot learn how facts “interconnect” and what “context” they have if one does not learn the facts in the first place. Besides, the information about how facts interrelated and the background information we call “context” are also, obviously, facts.

          Generally speaking, teaching my little boy a lot of history lately, I’m finding that virtually everything we’re learning now can be described as “background” (for later learning). But the same can be said for much of K-12 and even college education. What are often dismissed as “meaningless facts,” such as important historical dates like 1066, actually become in other contexts essential “background information.”

  5. Matt

    You didn’t link to the proper TL:DR link >_>

    1. Thanks, fixed that.

  6. rlg

    America has always been more of a feeling culture than a thinking culture. I think most of the anti intellectual points you bring up are people rationalizing their own world view. Thinkers still read books, look for proof, and master knowledge, but they will always be a minority in an action-centric culture like America. It’s ironic because most of our contribution to history is intellectual, from our constitution to our innovations like the light bulb, car, and other technology. Anyways, nice article. Keep it up.

    1. If rlg believes the car was invented in the US, this would be some anecdotal evidence that anti-intellectualism is on the rise.

      1. mark

        …or the light bulb, really. I think the light bulb is a nice, simple example of why knowing things is important. The kind of person addressed in the article thinks that knowledge can be separated into discrete, simple facts, like “Thomas Edison invented the light bulb”. Certainly no American came up with the concept itself. To understand the history of its development requires you to first know many other things, and to do that, you have to read.

      2. Liz

        Perhaps he’s referring to Ford’s assembly line, which brought the cost of cars down enough to be affordable…

    2. Duckduck123

      I agree that anti-intellectualism has always been an underlying trend in the United States. Richard Hofstadter wrote a book entitled appropriately enough, “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.” It was written in the 1960s and largely focuses on McCarthyism, but still, many of the passages could have been written about today’s society. Very frightening indeed!

      1. Erin McJ

        (came here via twitter)
        I was going to reference the same book, which I highly recommend — it’s one of my favorites.

        The book itself brought me to understand a parallel that might interest Mr. Sanger — one of the roots of anti-intellectualism in America is the Protestant reformation and its idea of a priesthood of all believers. If everybody is allowed to be an expert, the experts are no longer untouchable. It isn’t about knowledge, exactly, so much as social power.

        1. Maybe you all didn’t realize that I linked to the book in my essay…

    3. @rlg I’m not aware that my points are specifically applicable to Americans. I’ve seen a lot of the sentiments I describe as anti-intellectual among European geeks, too. My post is about geek anti-intellectualism, not anti-intellectualism in general.

  7. AzSandRat

    I think you are mistaking the awakening of a new type of intellectualism with the banishment of intellectualism in general. When you look at many of our most successful people, you find that they do not have a degree. I have come to believe that the greatest innovations are a result of people who are able to work outside of the establishment of modern academics. To much of the modern educational system teaches what cannot be done, rather than seeking to explore ways of going beyond the barriers which stand in our way.

    1. henchan

      I agree with the comment made by @AzSandRat below.

      Similar arguments were made for hundreds of years over use of the vernacular. The new schools seemed to neglect much of the knowledge that had previously been assembled in Classical languages. It may appear to some observers that the rot has again set in. But actually, we are in the midst of progress of the one step back and two steps forward variety. Both sides should now try to show understanding and respect because ultimately it won’t be either/or but both. The new communication patterns will become overwhelmingly dominant, just as they have finished assimilating the best of what passed for knowledge under the old paradigm. Including those tldr classic books mentioned in this article.
      Punks, it eventually turned out, were not so different from the hippies. Yet they had to first assert their anti-establishment credentials – the crasser the better.

    2. Is the university degree a mandatory condition of being intellectual? Personally, I don’t think so. I would like to believe that this subject was brought through not by the geek anti-intellectualism, but deterioration of educational system that fail to teach critical thinking. BTW it is already proliferated into business as important decisions are made with support of dubious information generated by black-box models. We seem to confuse our beliefs with knowledge in business, politics and science.

      1. @piplzchoice asks “Is the university degree a mandatory condition of being intellectual? Personally, I don’t think so.”

        Neither do I. There are plenty of degreed people who haven’t got an intellectual bone in their body, so to speak. And I know a few very intellectual people who never finished college.

        And your point is?

    3. @AzSandRat says “I think you are mistaking the awakening of a new type of intellectualism with the banishment of intellectualism in general.”

      What is this “new type of intellectualism,” then? In your comment you seem to assume that if someone is successful, and makes a “great innovation,” then he is an intellectual. Why think that? And anyway, if you’ll look at the minds behind many of the more successful Internet sites, you’ll find that many of them were, in fact, well educated.

    4. Don’t forget about class

      How many of these successful drop-outs and never-wents came from privileged backgrounds? It’s easier to be “successful” without a college degree when one starts out with financial support and a strong social network.

      1. GPC

        They typically are from privileged backgrounds, so they most likely received a solid education at the K – 12 level and in the home. This simply isn’t true for the vast majority of high school graduates. College gives students a chance to learn many things that they never learned properly or at all in their K – 12 schooling.

    5. NWM

      “When you look at many of our most successful people, you find that they do not have a degree.”

      This is simply not not the case. For one, “successful people” is not well defined. Are you simply referring to people whose net worth has a ‘B’ in it? Have a ‘C’ at the front of their title at some company? Even when using the vague definition of “known as successful”, it is false. It seems to be the case only because it is noteworthy when an exceptionally successful person does _not_ have a degree. This is called the spotlight fallacy. (Either that or blatant cherry-picking)

  8. Reulberg

    I am a geek, and I am anti-intellectual…
    I respect and value deep knowledge of any topic, with extra respect for knowledge that things can be done with, whether that is craft a piece of prose that succinctly expresses a particular view point, builds a new engine, or proves NP=P.
    I have no respect for intellectualism itself, as having knowledge without doing something is a colossal waste of time(of both the student and of the teacher).

    Intellectuals seem to be misers of information, taking great pleasure in having something that the are unwilling to share or use.

    TL:DR version: gas without a car isn’t as useful, car with no gas not very use either. Car full of gas in garage, wasteful. Go somewhere, do something.

    1. We ought to force those miserly intellectuals to disseminate their knowledge — say, by teaching students at universities, publishing and reviewing books and articles, and starting web-based encyclopaedias that anyone can edit.

      1. Russell Snow

        Who the hell are you to force anybody to do anything. The misers worked hard to acquire their knowledge, why do you get to decide what they do with it?

  9. Michael Block

    Your point may have some merit, but being so verbose and redundant makes it hard for any anti-intellectual to be won to the cause. The fact is that most people, not just geeks, are anti-intellectual. This is not a recent thing. So it seems difficult to understand the real crisis here. The distribution of knowledge through the internet, search and collaborative tools increases the scope of knowledge for intellectuals and non-intellectuals alike. This has been happening since Gutenberg. The more things change, the more they stay the same….

    1. I get the sense that “verbose” in the mouths of some means “contains words I don’t know.” Sorry, I don’t really like dumbing down my writing. I do that sometimes, but not very often. I do–I hope–choose my words because they are the best words for conveying my precise meaning.

      Anyway, I don’t believe my main intended audience was geeks. If I had addressed myself to geeks directly, I would have used a different approach altogether, I’m sure.

  10. Darren

    To many people think they are intelligent just because they have a degree. Half the professors I had in university couldn’t think their way out of a wet paper bag and some of them had doctorates. I was very discouraged by instructors that wouldn’t discuss new ideas on the subject because it wasn’t part of the curriculum or it challenged the status quo.

    Learning is all about challenging existing knowledge and being creative. In grade 7 my science project was titled “can light be trapped?” I got to visit the local university and use gear from the optics lab which was cool for a kid. I latter was told that it was impossible only to find out many years later it had been accomplished. That experience put me off science for many years.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *