Never before have so many people understood so little about so much.James Burke, in Connections [wikipedia.org] episode 1 “The Trigger Effect”
James Burke said that in 1979, a year after I was born, in his TV show Connections. As a kid watching reruns of Connections I doubt I understood what he meant. That as society advances people come to use and depend more and more on technology that requires specialized knowledge to understand. We are surrounded by technology that our lives depend on, but few of us understand very much of it at all. Think about all the technology you use every day do you understand it? Even the basics; electricity? The turbines that generate it and the grid that delivers it to you can charge your phone, or laptop, to read this? Forget about the phone or laptop themselves with literally hundreds of components that are each a technical marvel —touch screens, accelerometers, radios for bluetooth, cellular and wifi, and the processor, even the battery. And don’t forget the tens or hundreds of thousands of lines of computer code that make all those physical bits work together so you can look at cat memes on the internet. What about the technology required to grow food on far off farms to feed more than half of the world that lives in cities today? The trains, planes and automobiles that deliver it in an edible state? The list goes on. How many of us could really survive an apocalypse?
The complexity of the world has increased in what feels like an exponential rate over the 40-plus years since Connections was made. Each of us has been reduced from a cog in vast machine to a single tooth on a very small cog in a massive world spanning machine. When I was a kids cars were complex machines but I could learn enough about how they worked, as mechanical things, to understand them. I was far from a gear head but I could even do basic maintenance and little repair. I could change the oil or clean the spark plugs because I could understand what was going on under the hood and apply that knowledge with my hands. Today, the principles haven’t changed (as long as we are talking about internal combustion engines, ignoring hybrid and electric cars for now…) but cars are computers and they require specialized equipment to even diagnose many problems. My car throws an error if you replace the battery without the manufacturer provided software to tell the car what you did. As the world gets more and more advanced we all see less and less of the overall machine and it can be overwhelming. More and more we are surrounded by black boxes we don’t understand. It reminds me of another quote:
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.Arthur C. Clarke, in Profiles of the Future
Everything around us is magic today, the technology behind you seeing these words on your mobile phone requires armies of people to design, build and manage. You can’t even name or imagine all the people and tasks along the way much less how it works, unless it’s your job to design it or build it or manage it, or to study it. And that would make you what we call an expert. But these days people don’t seem to believe they need to listen to experts about the things they don’t know.
Even the most venerated experts, the canonical example of an expert: doctors, aren’t safe from the disrespect for expertise today. There are many issues with the practice of medicine [ted.com] but when I’m sick I still want an expert to take a look, to diagnose and to treat me. I want someone who trained for years to understand how the human body works, continues to keep up with advances and is certified to apply that knowledge. The human body is magic to me, because I don’t have the knowledge. How is it that people can think a random talking head on the Internet knows better than almost all the trained doctors and medical researchers in the world? People are drinking bleach! Or worse making their autistic kids drink Clorox like Kool Aid in Jonestown.
Do you remember, before the Internet, that it was thought that the cause of collective stupidity was the lack of access to information? Yea… It wasn’t that.Anonymous meme
I can’t find a source to cite for that, I’ve seen different versions of the theme on the internet many times over the past few years, it seems appropriate. But we did know, or some people knew, that the idea, in the early days of the Internet, that access to information would make everyone smarter, was bullshit. We were warned:
There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”Isaac Asimov, “A Cult of Ignorance”, Newsweek (21 January 1980) (more about it on Open Culture [openculture.net])
This thread of anti-intellectualism is the direct parent of the disrespect, and hostility, towards “experts” on display today. And there does seem to be something fundamental about it as it affects people on both sides of the political spectrum, liberal anti-vaxxers and conservative anti-maskers alike, rich hollywood stars and struggling middle class workers, and don’t get me started on flat-earthers. Ignorance, individualism and the internet are a potent brew.
I don’t know where to go from here, I don’t know how it can be fixed but I suspect it will take many experts…