Departments

Weakmindedness Part Three

VII

Intelligence has never been in fashion. It has been news for a century that individual intelligence is becoming obsolete and the future belongs to procedures, teams, and institutions. This is a future that is always just about to arrive. The lesson is not that intelligence has always appeared to be on the verge of becoming obsolete (although it has); the lesson is that something in society hates intelligence and wants it to be obsolete – needs to believe that it is becoming obsolete.

Obviously in a commercial society we are always worth more for what we can own (or for being owned) than for what we can do. And it is true, regarding the advantages of teamwork over intelligence, that all the inputs into the economy from outside it involve teams and companies. An industrial army keeps the wells flowing, the mines bearing, the fields fruiting. Naturally the institutions that handle these inputs expect to deal with teams and institutions – an affinity that propagates throughout society.

Society, remember, is not a human invention, but a pattern in nature, a pattern we share with bees and ants and mole rats. It has its own logic, its own dynamics, and its own tendency – a tendency which is always toward the intelligence-free ground state of the hive or colony. For society as such intelligence is an irritant, something to be encapsulated and expelled, like a splinter in the thumb, or cicatrized in place, like a piece of shrapnel.

The greater the intelligence, the more likely it is to destroy its own advantage. Be born with exceptional strength and the best thing you can do with it is to use it yourself. Be born with exceptional intelligence and the best thing you can do with it is to turn it on itself – to figure out how the exceptional part of your intelligence works so you can teach it to others. We all think a little like Einstein now, because we have the maxims he wrought out, the examples he related.

Of course human beings are not ants or bees or mole rats and society cannot turn them into drones. People scheme. This is natural: intelligence atrophies when unused. It is as uncomfortable to be flabby in mind as in body. Nor would society want us to be; the software of society needs human speech to run on. Society does not want or need human beings to speak well, but it does need them to speak well enough.

To perfect this balance, we have the job, which stands in relation to the mind as exercise does to the body: it keeps you from becoming flabby, without fitting you for any particular use. Not that jobs are inherently useless; only that, given a minimal denomination of employment (say 9–5), real work is always padded with makework to fill it out fungibly.

Society’s capacity to encapsulate intelligence is limitless but slow to respond. A sudden jump in the efficiency of all workers opens a gap, leaves intelligence idle – this has been called a cognitive surplus. In the last two decades we have seen one open up; remarkable things emerged from it – the web, the blogosphere, Wikipedia (more later) – and I think we have begun to see it close, soaked up into streaming video and social networking.

The central role which magazines have resumed in online intellectual life is a sign of intellectual decay. Witness the return of the article, the lowest form of writing, opening with an anecdote and closing with a cop-out. Watch the hopeless imitators of the intellectual thugs of undead ideologies playing intellectual. Could this be all that it comes to? All our work, all our hope? The same sad cycle of toothless posturing vs. splenetic emission, only this time on screens instead of paper, and with Star Wars references? Well, we had our chance; now we will see what came of it.

VIII

I began by comparing strength and intelligence and should justify it. This is difficult because silly ideas pass about both. Witlings think smart people quote cube roots the same way weaklings think strong people are musclebound. Smart people do not obsess over mental math, knowledge of trivia, and the size of their IQs; strong people do not obsess over diet, dead lifts, and the size of their biceps.

The parallel stereotypes are collateral results of the same error: if an ability is not economically rewarding, people pretend it does not exist. To account for records of its existence, some such stereotype will be foisted as its modern descendant.

Strength has not ceased to exist; it is even still useful. All the marvelous mechanical contrivances of modern life are lubricated with human sweat. Strength is necessary, but not advantageous. Everywhere, for free, strength is making civilized life possible; but there is nothing strength can do for free that cannot be done without strength for money. The best that strength can do is keep you from failing; you cannot distinguish yourself with it in any but recreational uses. No one earns a profit or a promotion for being strong.

Likewise by intelligence becoming obsolete I do not mean its disappearance, but its insignificance. The intellectual machinery that makes life faster and more brilliant will always need lubrication; but that work will be invisible, underground, and unrewarded. And being taken for granted, it will cease to be believed in.

Of course it is difficult to prove strength in physical teamwork; when working with someone weaker than yourself, you must moderate your own strength to avoid hurting the other person. Say confuse for hurt and the same applies to intellectual teamwork. If teamwork is expected, if the idea of intelligence is undermined with untestable reductive explanations (“Anyone could do that if they spent ten years learning it” – will you take ten years to find out?) – then intelligence will no longer be thought of, let alone believed in.

For now, intellectual work is still valorized. The gospel of productivity offers to make it accessible to everyone, by debunking its romance, by making it as tractable as “cranking widgets.” Somehow intellectual work reduced to cranking widgets comes across more like intellectual work and less like cranking widgets. But this is to be expected.

Twentieth century industry enjoyed the prestige of muscularity, virility, and futurity for decades while it chained generations of children, abused generations of women, and poisoned, wore out, and discarded generations of men. Likewise intellectual work may be expected to enjoy the prestige of thoughtfulness long after thinking has been lost from it.

IX

I cannot get away with referencing the idea of cognitive surplus without engaging it. Or more directly: “What about Wikipedia?”

Do consider Wikipedia. But first, forget what you have read about Wikipedia: it is all lies. No one who opines about it understands it. It is almost certain that if you have not participated in it, you not only do not understand it, but are deluded about it.

I should disclose my participation in Wikipedia. I have written two obscure articles and heavily rewritten another. Beside that, my contributions have been limited to weeding vandalism, polishing grammar and expression (the bad to the acceptable; improving the adequate to the excellent would be rude), and filling in gaping omissions – though I do less and less of any of these, partly because there is less and less need, partly because I rarely look up things I already know. I do have the Wikimedia franchise.

I love Wikipedia, esteem it as the best service of the net, and consider it, in the long run, the most important and consequential cultural development of the twenty-first century – much more so than, say, social networking or Google. (Though I acknowledge that the Google-Wikipedia relationship is symbiotic.)

Wikipedia is not collaborative. Collaboration, of course, happens on Wikipedia. I mentioned an article I revised, an article about a place: a few days after the revision a native of the country concerned corrected my misspellings, substituted the native alphabet for my transcriptions, and added details only someone who had been there could know. Wikipedia relies on collaboration; but it is not inherently collaborative. It is often almost perfectly competitive, where free time is money. From the history tab of a hypothetical controversial article click over to the discussion and you will encounter the most bitter discussions the Internet has seen outside of Usenet – worse, sometimes, because Wikipedians, since their contact with each other is largely limited to their controversies, have no contiguous way to make nice or make up. There is a jungle three tabs behind the white sans-serif façades of Wikipedia.

Wikipedia is not spontaneous. The typical Wikipedia article is not a lovely crystal of accretive collaboration. It is a Frankenstein’s monster of copy stitched together from a dozen donors, a literary teratoma. Wikipedia as a whole is a ravenous black hole that sucks up endless amounts of copy: the out-of-copyright public domain; the direct to public domain; and the unpublishable. Wikipedia is not just the last encyclopedia; it is the Eschaton of all encyclopedias, the strange attractor drawing them on to the end of their history. Wikipedia is the hundred-hearted shambling biomass to which every encyclopedia ever printed unwittingly willed its organs. Whole articles from Chamber’s Cyclopæedia – the very first encyclopedia – turn up inside it completely undigested. As soon as it was born it ate its parent, the Nupedia, and went about seeking whom it might devour. Its greatest conquest was the celebrated 11th edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica – the last great summary deposition of proud imperial European civilization before it passed final judgment on itself. (As the article “Artillery” states: “Massed guns with modern shrapnel would, if allowed to play freely upon the attack, infallibly stop, and probably annihilate, the troops making it.”)

If you had heard of Wikipedia but not seen it you might surmise that the kind of people who would edit it would have a technical and contemporary bias, and that trivia would predominate: there exists a band that no one has ever heard; there exists a town in Scotland where nothing has ever happened. And you would be right. But the massive scholarship of the 1911 encyclopedia perfectly counterbalances that bias. The credibility of the Wikipedia as a universal reference was invisibly secured by this massive treasure, excavated as surely and strangely as Schliemann excavated the gold of Troy. Whole articles from the 1911 edition live in Wikipedia, and even where the revision of obsolete information and prejudiced opinion has replaced most of the article, whole paragraphs and sentences remain intact. If while reading an article in Wikipedia you feel at a sudden chill in the air, shiver with a thrill of dry irony or scholarly detachment, feel a thin rope of syntax winding itself around your brain – the ghosts of 1911 are speaking.

(The Britannica itself dispensed with this material during its reinvention in 1974.)

The second source is material that is directly released into the public domain: press releases, government documents, think tank reports. A business has two vital functions: to do something and to let people know what it is doing. The latter provides great opportunities to Wikipedia, which is always looking for new things people might want to know about. Wikipedia has a magpie eye; press releases are very shiny.

(Wikipedia also picks up shiny stuff where it shouldn’t – it’s always distasteful to click through a reference link and find that the text of the reference, a private website, evidently not in the public domain, has simply been copied – but then again Wikipedia saves some valuable information this way that would otherwise be lost to link rot.)

Beside the brook of business runs the massive river of text thrown off by the military-industrial-governmental complex, large amounts of which (in the US) are explicitly in the public domain, other parts of which are too evidently of public interest to be neglected. Wikipedia soaks this stuff up like a Nevada golf course.

The third source is sophisticated yet unpublishable material. If you have ever been dismayed at the thought of how much intellectual energy goes into a school report, written to be read once by someone who learns nothing from it, know that Wikipedia is there to catch all these efforts. (Or was, before it began to inform them.) I suspect that the preponderance of original articles on Wikipedia were actually executed as assignments or requirements of teachers or employers. Wikipedia strains the plankton from the sea of busywork like the baleen of a whale.

What is Wikipedia? Wikipedia is a sublimely efficient method of avoiding redundant effort. Wikipedia is write once, remember forever. Wikipedia is make do and mend. Wikipedia is reuse and recycle.