Intellectual curiosity is a frustrating affliction. As anybody who has become stymied by overexposure to the outputs of the news-information-entertainment cycle, recently perfected in the Internet age, can attest, curiosity's primary downfall is in addiction. With seemingly everything passing as knowledge nearly immediately available, information quickly becomes black tar for the average "life-long learner."
Consider, for instance, the cognition required to internalize the data contained in a newspaper: The big-city, cosmopolitan daily demands minimal context for its stories and only the most basic literacy for the user to "understand" them. As a consequence of the format, it must consistently renew a superficial understanding of transient events for the benefit of all casual or occasional consumers of the product. Above all, it wishes to secure a recurring interest from these consumers. Dramatization -- the hocking of apocalyptic memes -- turns out to be the magic bullet for efficiently fulfilling all of these requirements.
The newspaper reader -- second-tier thought-parroter and dramatizer -- also has these resources at the ready for his benefit. A crowd of newspaper readers can triumphantly inform us that we're all going to die from pandemic illness (or we'll be rendered sterile by the vaccine); that the country is nose-diving into socialist hell, threatening our very freedom (or that capitalist elites are hell-bent on devaluing our currency and seizing our ill-earned assets); or that trenchant racism is the root of all our existing problems (or that immigrants are, or affirmative action). Take your pick; like sugar-sweetened candy, it is the starkness of these memes and not their nutritive truth that works in favor of their perpetuation.
Thus, more than merely entertaining, these micro-apocalyptic tales are a perfect mechanism of control for those with meager long-range vision or understanding of history -- the "thin" intelligentsia, the noise-makers; the vast majority of self-styled "life-long learners." Knowing and being able to passionately discuss these disconnected thoughts, notions and sound bites, something that demands only entry-level mental faculties, is then the emergent reality; social life, and other spheres of life by extension, become dominated by it as a result. Those riding the top of the bell curve find themselves fixed in a game in which they have the power to move the goalposts by virtue of mere mass participation; it is a cacophonous and confused one, where memes careen wildly like bullets through a coliseum, making it impossible for all but the steeliest or dumbest to survive the chaos unscathed.
In such an environment, it becomes tempting to simply grab a gun and start firing with the rest. Read the popular pundits, peruse the important magazines, listen to news and opinion radio and the podcasts; share everything you know with everybody you meet to brandish your social worth. Don the wardrobe and the countenance of the informed; this is the Information Age, after all, and anything less than total participation will leave one a target of ridicule or resentment by the crowd.
The latter fact, in particular, will tend to bruise one's ability to navigate currents necessary for day-to-day movement and survival, polluted as they may appear. But why does that matter? Why cater to the trivial, dull-witted and pedantic at all? It matters for the same reason any petty life challenge matters: To live order and purpose through entropy is not only necessary but desirable, whether that entropy be merely informational or existential in nature. This is a matter of reaching beyond passive survival to active dominion within one's station.
In the present case: although love of "learning" seems like it should be a rare condition, it only becomes useful when tempered by an even rarer constitution that requires, inwardly, no capitulation to Free Information's costly attendant demands. It is only after the fog of youthful and confused idealism is lifted -- a nihilist clearing of the all the clouded thinking dominated by social means utilized as ends -- that such errors can be spotted and kept in the crosshairs. For the vast majority this will never be possible; what remains for them instead is passive resonance, which means a merging with the pleasant noise blanketing their thoughts and reminding them they are not alone.
In contrast, much belongs to those in whom such long-range vision is a natural trait and who, upon recognizing its truth, constantly hone their skill with it -- a true investment in learning to which all other types are completely subservient. Without this effort, all the "intelligence" and "knowledge" in the world is destined to obscurity in the earthly din of the noise-dwellers, meme-repeaters and dramatizers.
November 12, 2009