Digital Democracy & American Anti-Intellectualism, Part II

Last week I wrote a post about some of the challenges we face in a digital age where expertise and authority seem to be under constant attack, but I’d like to follow that up here by exploring this issue from a slightly different angle.

What I see as the crux of our current challenge is this: how can we ensure that the digital democratization of human knowledge does not become mired in the same anti-intellectualism that has for so long been a hallmark of our American democracy?

I know what some of you are thinking. How can I say that America is anti-intellectual?  Isn’t it true that we are home to many of the greatest universities in the world, schools that continue to draw the best and brightest from around the globe for graduate studies?

Yes, that may be true, but looking at our culture as a whole, the anti-intellectualist attitude that pervades our country is undeniable. Consider how casually and caustically our politicians and pundits dismiss “experts” and “authorities” when such learned wisdom (or book-learnin’) disagrees with their own cherished personal opinions. Witness how during last fall’s debates before the elections, senatorial candidate Elizabeth Warren’s opponent called her “Professor Warren” as a put-down. True, Professor-cum-Senator Warren still won in Massachusetts but that state prides itself on the prestige surrounding its academic institutions.

By contrast, there are plenty of regions in our country where Warren’s academic credentials would more surely have done her irreparable political damage. Throughout most of the country, American anti-intellecualism is a hard fact. And it’s one I’d guess more than a few of us eggheads had thumped into us in grade school.

This isn’t a new observation. From the 1940’s to the 60’s, historian Richard Hofstadter explored these ideas in his works of social theory and political culture. The most important of Hofstadter’s studies may be Anti-intellectualism in American Life (1964), one of two separate books for which he won the Pulitzer Prize. While Hofstadter saw American anti-intellectualism as part and parcel of our national heritage of utilitarianism rather than a necessary by-product of democracy, he did see anti-intellectualism as stemming at least in part from the democratization of knowledge. Not that he opposed broad access to university education.  Rather, Hofstadter saw universities as the necessary “intellectual and spiritual balance wheel” of civilized society, though he recognized an ongoing tension between the ideals of open access to university education and the highest levels of intellectual excellence.

Of course, important as his work remains, Hofstadter wrote before the dawning of our own digital age. He didn’t grapple with the new challenges presented by an online world where (for better or worse) communication is instantaneous, everything is available all the time, and everyone not only has a voice but has the ability to speak in a polyphony of voices masked in anonymity.

Still, we must be willing to admit that things may not be as dire as all that. As Adam Gopnik has pointed out in the New Yorker (“The Information: How the Internet Gets Inside Us,” Feb. 14, 2011), the World Wide Web is sort of like the palantir, the seeing stone used by wizards in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. It tends to serve as a magnifying glass for everything we view through it.

As such, it’s no surprise that many have viewed the dawn of the Digital Age as signaling the end of everything that made the modern civilized world great. Indeed, for years now, academics and public intellectuals have lamented the way our digital media has seemed to dumb down our discourse, but there are signs of hope.

In his 2009 article “Public Intellectuals 2.1” (Society 46:49-54), Daniel W. Drezner takes a brighter view of the prospects for a new intellectual renaissance in the Digital Age, predicting that blogging and the various other forms online writing can in fact serve to reverse the cultural trend of seeing academics and intellectuals as remote and unimportant to our public life. Drezner argues that “the growth of the blogosphere breaks down—or at least lowers—the barriers erected by a professional academy” and can “provide a vetting mechanism through which public intellectuals can receive feedback and therefore fulfill their roles more effectively”  (50).

Some views are not so optimistic, but it’s true that are great online resources for serious scholarly work and there are even smart people who are thinking amazing thoughts and writing about them online.

But let’s see what a vigorous online discussion can look like. I anxiously look forward to hearing what others have to say about the issues I’ve raised here.

This piece is cross-posted at the Marylhurst University blog:  https://blog.marylhurst.edu/blog/2013/03/26/digital-democracy-american-anti-intellectualism-part-ii/ 

Drowning in Digital Democracy, Part I

It’s become commonplace, and maybe even a little passé, to describe our own ongoing digital revolution as analogous the advent of Gutenberg’s printing press in the 15th century.  Indeed, some points of comparison do continue to seem remarkably apt.  For example, the role of printed documents in spreading new ideas during the Reformation looks a lot like activists using Facebook and Twitter to share news and schedule protests during the Arab Spring.  Both show how technology can be a powerful force for democratization.  (Apologies if I’m stepping on any toes by seeming to valorize the Reformation as a positively democratic movement on the blog of a Catholic university, but you know what I mean.)

However, critics like Adam Gopnik in his New Yorker piece “The Information: How the Internet Gets Inside Us” (Feb. 14, 2011) have been quick to point out that overly enthusiastic interpretations of such revolutionary possibilities not only tend to confuse correlation with causation – that is, did the printing press give rise to the Reformation and the Enlightenment, or did it just help spread the word?  The truth probably rests somewhere in between cause and coincidence, but we should be careful not to ignore the distinction.

Similarly, technology’s vocal cheerleaders seem all too ready to ignore the potential negative aspects of such improved communication technologies – like the inconvenient historical fact that totalitarian regimes have typically printed far more works of propaganda than they’ve destroyed in book burnings.  Dictators figured out quickly that it’s far easier to drown out the voices of opposition than silence them.  Pervasive misinformation can do far more damage than tearing down handbills.

Now, I’m not suggesting that our globalized digital community is a totalitarian regime.  At least on the surface it feels like just the opposite, though Jaron Lanier expresses some dire warnings about what he calls “cybernetic totalism” in his “One-Half of a Manifesto.”  I’ll plan to address Lanier’s thoughts more fully in a future post.  For now, it’s enough to observe that in this brave new world of online culture we’ve adapted to communication being instantaneous, everything being available all the time, and everyone having a voice.  Well, in such an environment, succumbing to the endless seas of unmediated information (and misinformation), the rule of the mob begins to feel like a real possibility.

We’re drowning in digital democracy.

Forgive me if I sound less than perfectly egalitarian here, but when everyone not only has a voice but has the ability to speak in a polyphony of voices masked in anonymity, we’re no longer looking at a lively exchange of ideas.  We’re looking at the well-known horrors of mob rule, and it doesn’t make the stakes any lower or the threats any less real that it’s happening online.

Even in the best of scenarios, when everyone has a voice the quality of the conversation can plummet very quickly.  I’m not talking about those annoying people who use their social media to tell everyone from Boise to Bangladesh that they’re making a batch of chocolate chip cookies.  Those folks are easy enough to avoid and to ignore.

No, my concern is that too many of our students and friends and journalists and politicians and, hell, all of us are relying on Wikipedia and Google.  Not only are we trusting crowd-sourced encyclopedias written by people who may have little or no education or expertise (and some of whom are hoaxers or pranksters), but we’re relying on logarithmically-driven and advertisement-enhanced search engines to provide most (or all) of our information, without pausing to question or to ascertain the authority of what we’re reading.

Not only that, but because of such ready access to information we’re hearing people who are smart enough to know better trumpeting the end of all cultural and social authority.  “The expert is dead,” such digerati claim.  And indeed throughout much of our irreverent, anything-goes society, many people do seem to be acting as if at last the king is dead.

But is it really true that we no longer have any need for cultural, political, and intellectual authority?

No, in fact just the opposite is true.  Greater freedom brings with it greater responsibility.  We now need experts in every field to exert their authority more powerfully than ever.  Reason must lead.  Functional democracies (even digital ones) still need organization and leaders.  Otherwise we’re left with the chaos of a shouting match.

Having a voice is not the same as knowing how to participate a conversation.  Access to information is not the same thing as knowing how to use it.  We didn’t close up schools because every home had a set of encyclopedias.  We didn’t tear down universities because people had access to public libraries.

All those online sources might be fine places to start looking for information, but we need to be constantly vigilant about verifying what we’re accepting as valid and credible.  We also need to get better about documenting and providing links to our sources (as you’ll notice I’m trying to do in these posts).

And finally, we need to make sure we remain very clear about the vital differences between having ready access to information and gaining an education.  Now more than ever, our students need us to teach them how to read, how to research, how to analyze information, and how to participate responsibly in this emerging digital democracy.

Of course, if the Digital Revolution truly lives up to its name, its effects will be further reaching and less predictable than any of us can imagine.  That’s the problem with revolutions – they change everything.

This piece is cross-posted on the Marylhurst University blog: https://blog.marylhurst.edu/blog/2013/03/19/drowning-in-digital-democracy-part-i/