Sanger recently posted a provocative piece where he argues that geeks suffer from anti-intellectualism. His stance is that democratic sites such asÂ Wikipedia (which he co-founded) are founded on anti-intellectualism. He sums up this techno anti-intellectualism using five beliefs:
- Experts do not deserve any special role in declaring what is known.
- Books are an outmoded medium because they involve a single person speaking from authority.
- The classics, being books, are also outmoded.
- The digitization of information means that we don’t have to memorize nearly as much.
- You don’t have to go to college, which is overpriced and so reserved to the elite anyway.
- In the Google era, we do not need formal experts as much as we used to. Back in the days, if you wanted to learn about combinatorics, you took a class in college. In fact, you probably had to take a class to even know what combinatorics was! The other alternative was to read the papers and the books on the topic, which were only accessibly from a college library. These days, you can get in touch with hundreds of passionate fans of combinatorics on Math Overflow where you can ask and answer questions, and even build a reputation. You can read, for free, the Electronic journal of combinatorics. The same is true of just about every topic.
- The dominance of the long form (e.g., books) was a by-product of our technology. If you are going to print and distribute a piece of work, it needs to have a certain volume for the operation to be financially viable. If you sell a 300-pages philosophy book for $50 and make a profit, you cannot easily sell a 3-page philosophical document for $0.50 and still make a profit because you have fixed fees and because few people can be bothered to drive to a bookstore to buy 3 pages. Moreover, books need to be self-contained, you cannot use hyperlinks to refer the reader to background knowledge. That is not to say that long documents are a thing of the past (e.g., the Harry Potter novels), but electronic media is more flexible.
- I conjecture that the classics have never been so popular. I constantly refer back to the classics through Project Gutenberg or ebooksgratuits.com. I constantly read about bloggers who cite the classics. I talk with a lot of people who reread classics on their kindle or iPad.
- Memorization is shallow learning, we learn by applying ideas. Anyone can memorize the three axioms of Newton. Denis G. Rancourt famously showed that his fourth-year Physics students did not understand these three axioms. Memorization gives you the illusion of knowledge. It is a dangerous illusion.
- You can succeed without college, and a college degree is not success. It used to be that a college degree, any college degree, meant that you were a success. Anyone who holds on to this belief is in for a rude awakening.
Further reading: Fear of Illegibility by Rader is another take on Sander’s essay.