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What do these three men – three of the world’s greatest thinkers – have in common? Science? Economics? Politics? Their impact on culture and society? Their foresight or insight? Their importance to the development of modern thought? Their continued relevance today? The depth and breadth of their wisdom? The quality of their writing?
Yes, they are or have all those things, but the answer is simpler: they are among the least read authors that people attempt to speak knowingly about. All three of these authors are frequently demonized or misquoted by people who have never read their works, nor do they intend to do so, lest actual knowledge prove their preconceived ideas about them wrong.
Yet here we are in a world of complex, challenging politics at all levels where the sage advice of Machiavelli is most needed. A world where pseudoscience is spreading like a virus, and there is a rising tide of vocal anti-vaccination idiots and creationists; where the keen observations of Darwin can help us understand the scientific facts of biology. A world where the gap between the rich 1% and the rest of us grows obscenely wider every day and Marx’s insight into capitalism and wealth would surely give us some guidance on stemming this trend.
I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of people I know, or whom I have some reasonable acquaintance, who have demonstrably read Machiavelli’s shortest work: The Prince. The number I personally know who have read The Discourses? None. Art of War? History of Florence? None. Yet many people, even those I know, confidently say that Machiavelli wrote “the end justifies the means” (he didn’t) and have called politicians “Machiavellian.”
The number of people I personally know who have read Origin of Species – arguably the single most important scientific work in the last two centuries – none. Descent of Man? Voyage of the Beagle? None. Yet some people confidently scoff at the notion of species evolving, and dismiss his ideas as “mere theory.”
Ditto with Marx’s Capital. Even my left-wing friends, with whom I hung out in the 70s and 80s, struggled to get past the first couple of chapters. Most had read The Communist Manifesto, to be sure, but I haven’t met anyone in the last three decades who can say he or she has (or can remember it beyond its opening line). Yet many people talk knowingly about Marxism and Communism.
And I’m not talking about the crazies, the conspiracy theorists, the barely literate bloggers, Fox ‘News’ or the venom-spewing wingnuts like Ann Coulter. I’m concerned about people we meet every day; friends, coworkers, family. People who should know about what’s happening in the news, understand the connections and consequences and the big ideas behind the events.
People who should be able to use their words correctly and not resort to bumper-sticker ideologies as substitutes for actual understanding. So instead of conversations and discussions about big ideas based on knowledge, we trade angry epithets, accusations and insults.
Were we wiser, we would heed Wittgenstein’s words when he wrote, “What we cannot speak about, we must pass over in silence.” Sadly, in our modern age we equate empowerment with entitlement and we shoot off our mouths wherever and whenever possible, regardless of our actual knowledge of the subject.
So it is with Marx, Darwin and Machiavelli. Just go online to any social media or forum and read what is said about them, what ideas are wrongly ascribed to them, what responses their names generate.
Of course, to recognize the errors, you first have to have read these authors. Therein lies the problem.
Okay, I admit that none of them are the easiest read. But that’s no excuse to pretend to know what you’re talking about. Sure, it’s hard to tackle the 1,000-plus pages of Origin of Species or Capital when anything more wordy than a hockey sweater makes your eyes glaze over. But unless you read them, how can you decide if they were right or wrong?
Look, even with a brain the size of Stephen Hawking, these can be a tough slog. But that is what should make you want to read them: the challenge. To prove to yourself you can scale that particular intellectual mountain. Nothing good, nothing worthwhile is easy. Sure, you need to work at it, struggle a bit, but the result is knowledge, understanding and a new intellectual horizon opened up.
Yes, there are people who have read some, even all of them, of course – I suspect they are mainly academics or autodidacts like myself who still think learning is important to personal growth. But the majority have not.
And don’t get me started on other authors whose works have altered the face of our cultures and history but may also have a dwindling audience today. Plato. Aristotle. Voltaire. Montaigne. Paine. Smith. Locke. Shakespeare. The list is long.
Culturally, it seems we are drifting away from embracing the big ideas, from broad learning and understanding, and increasing focused on the transient: entertainment, glitter, trivia, pseudo-news and conspiracies. We form our opinions based on incomplete reductions; epithets and mis-attributed quotations, tweets and shared Facebook photos, rather than research, reading and study.
How did that come about? How did we become a culture of willingly ignorant people easily gulled by trinkets? Technology.
Too many people get their “knowledge” from the internet – usually in tiny, easily-digested bites, often accompanied by pictures of kittens or angels. Millions of pages of false information, pseudoscience, superstitious claptrap, conspiracies, uninformed twaddle and anti-intellectual opinion sloppily passed off as ‘fact’ dominate the Web. Some people champion such online services over libraries and books, even locally.
Sure, there is serious, reputable, factual content online. There is civil debate, reasoned inquiry and even wisdom. But it’s a snowflake in a blizzard compared with the claptrap and the ideological sinkholes. Just look at the number of serious posts shared on your FB feed compared with the number of posts about ‘psychics,’ angels, homeopathy, UFOs, conspiracies, pseudo-health and pseudoscience, dangerously uninformed anti-GMO rants and anti-vaccination rants, fad diets, celebrity gossip, people’s meals and pets, jackass videos, religion…
Our attention spans have fallen steadily over the past few decades, and a 2011 story indicated it had plummeted from 12 seconds in 2000 to a mere five with the onset of social media (click the infographic on the right – it says 12 minutes but the actual value is seconds).*
Five seconds is barely long enough for most people to read a headline, let alone an editorial or a longer piece in a national newspaper or magazine. A single chapter in a book will take minutes, maybe hours. That buzzing sound is your brain’s attention-gnat impatient to get moving.
In his 2013 book From “Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence,” Daniel Goleman quotes Nobel-prize-winning economist Herbert Simon:
Writing about the coming information-rich world, he warned that what information consumes is “the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”
Brian Katulis wrote in the Wall Street Journal about our inability to sustain emotional and intellectual responses to what we read online:
On social media, people join in outrage over kidnapped schoolgirls, beheaded journalists, and murdered cartoonists. For brief moments, we express solidarity. And then we move on. The tools that connect us to these events also serve to distract us–and further shorten our collective attention span.
Has our collective attention span fallen even less since the study? I think so, although finding backing studies has proven elusive. But anecdotally, I see it daily.
As you gain more friends and followers on social media, as you subscribe to more feeds and tweets, the content begins to move faster and faster, accelerating beyond the limits of human comprehension. In a mere 10 minute period, almost 100 new tweets appeared on my Twitter feed as I wrote this. Twenty new items appeared on my FB wall, plus 19 new comments to older pieces were tagged.
Who can keep up with this stream? We can barely skim the surface, to look for highlights, not dive deep. And we get easily pulled away from the serious content by shiny trash – someone’s wardrobe failure, salacious photos of celebrity backsides, gossip about breakups and pets. It’s more fun, easier to read about UFOs and wacky 9/11 notions than about what’s happening in Syria, about Africa’s problems, about child labour, sexual slavery, missing aboriginal women… but boy we enjoy the stuff about the Oscars last night!
Roy MacGregor in the Globe and Mail this week, wrote a stunning piece about 20-30-year-olds who are unplugging themselves from media to avoid any news or other serious content. They’re not disconnecting from streaming video, from social media, entertainment, pornography or downloading pirate movies: they’re disconnecting from the harsh reality that demands their attention – from anything that requires an attention span longer than the average gnat’s.
MacGregor quotes Christopher Dornan, supervisor of graduate studies at Carleton University’s school of journalism, who said:
“It’s becoming all the more common,” Prof. Dornan believes. “Smart, educated folks in their late 20s or early 30s who are so unplugged from the legacy media they have never heard of a story that consumed the airwaves and newspaper front pages.”
He also quotes Tim Falconer, a journalism instructor at Toronto’s Ryerson University, who adds:
“They often know a great deal about ‘entertainment news,’” says Mr. Falconer. “They’ll know all about Bill Cosby – but whether you can really call that ‘news’ or not I don’t know.”
Yes, sexual assault is news. It’s a problem we must confront and resolve. But they know about it because it involves a celebrity and they associate the problem with celebrity status; a world outside their own, not with daily life. The name caught their attention – the numerous stories about sexual assault and rape in the media that involve non-celebrities don’t interest them, if they even see them at all.
It’s not so much the ‘bread-and-circuses’ of the Romans that distract us; it’s more like beads and circuses, without the substance of bread to nurture us. Or make it smart phones and iPads; Twitter and Facebook. We’re easily distracted by glitter and glitz, baubles and the salacious. The content we get online is often like salty potato chips: easy to eat, but far from nutritious, and easily forgotten once consumed.
The abbreviated content of Twitter (especially) and FB streams reduce content down to short, digestible bursts, but they also are shaping our brains; we are adopting our neural wiring to a diet of brevity, not depth. Without that depth we cannot comprehend. Without comprehension, we cannot properly debate the issues and ideas below the surface. But we don’t have the attention span to dive from the tweet into the deeper content and immerse ourselves to fully understand what the hell is going on.
Instead, what we develop are opinions – often little more than knee-jerk reactions – based on drive-by acquaintance with snippets of content, not well-thought-out positions based on fact or logic. It’s like Smarties: you can consume them by the handful, by the boxful, but you still don’t have a meal in you when you’re done.
If we are going to have any meaningful conversation in our culture, and especially online, about what is happening in the world around us, if we are going to make sense of the world and not simply cocoon ourselves in an ideology of ignorance, we have to lift ourselves out of these intellectual shallows. Embrace the big ideas, shut off the screen and open the books.
Our future depends on it.
* See Statistic Brain for a related set of numbers. It highlights a 2008 study that found the average attention span had fallen to 8 seconds. According to research, the average attention span of a goldfish is 9 seconds.
The Guardian reported in 2012 on another study that suggests similar reductions in attention spans: “…32% of consumers will start abandoning slow sites between one and five seconds. Bounce rate can be improved by up to 30% with the reduction of page size and resulting speed improvements. A one second delay in page load time can result in 11% fewer page views, 16% decreased customer satisfaction and 7% lost conversions.”
A 2012 Pew Research study of teachers also found “…Overwhelming majorities of these teachers also agree with the assertions that “today’s digital technologies are creating an easily distracted generation with short attention spans” (87%)…”
A 2012 survey in the UK found “..the attention spans of children are getting shorter. The survey polled 410 English teachers and 2000 parents of children aged between two and 11. The survey showed that 91 per cent of teachers believe children’s attention spans are becoming shorter as they opt for screen-based activities over conventional reading.”
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