I am Stupid and so are You

January 13, 2012

Originally published in Boulder Weekly

August 2008

Recently, it occurred to me that I don’t really know anything. Not that I don’t really know anything about the mating habits of the hairy-nosed wombats of Australia or that I don’t really know anything about neutering housecats; I don’t really know anything about anything. It’s not that I’m necessarily stupid (duh) or that I’m misinformed (double duh); I just don’t retain any factual information. For instance, I can talk about the cultural significance of Little House on the Prairie and Hot Pockets for hours on end, but I couldn’t tell you the first thing about how a microwave works. (I assume there is a gaggle of tiny dragons inside that funny box that gently breathe fire on my chicken noodle soup when I push the magic buttons.) I can deconstruct and manipulate the semantic/philosophical world around me like a motherfucker, but I don’t know a damn thing about how that world operates.

And there is really no excuse for my ignorance. Interestingly enough, I am living in a sea of information. At no point in human history has there been more data on more topics in a more accessible format than at this very moment. I have books, television, radio, newspapers, magazines, the Internet, cell phones, BlackBerries, iPods, my next door neighbor who constantly feels the need to tell me about all her personal health problems (stop showing me your bunions, Rita!)…

Two hundred years ago if I wanted to know when the upcoming vernal equinox was going to happen, I would have to get on my donkey, ride down to my local alchemist, and watch as he examines a closet filled with astronomical equipment. Two months later, I would have an answer. Right now, all I have to do is type the funny little words in Google and three seconds later… Voila! (The next vernal equinox occurs on March 20, 2009, at approximately 11:44 a.m., in case you’re wondering.)

Ironically, the ready accessibility of such raw facts seems to be one of the main impediments to my ability to obtain and retain knowledge. The volume of information that’s available to me is overwhelming, and since I can access the data at any time, I don’t feel the need to learn it.

Is this a problem? Yes and no. No, it’s not a problem, because this is how our entire society is set up. Everyone in America operates within this system (and, actually, you could probably argue that everyone in the world operates within this system, although I’d have to look that up on Wikipedia). In fact, this is an essential part of our cultural make-up. Since we can’t all be Albert Einstein or Stephen Hawking, we must rely on others to be “experts” in a particular field. Our normal lives have become so complicated that we can’t possibly understand even the most simplistic daily operations that we perform. Instead of learning how a carburetor works, we simply take our SUV to the nearest mechanic. If a raccoon falls in the toilet, we just call the plumber and the veterinarian.

On the other hand, yes, this is a huge problem. American society has become a giant, corporate entity and every employee is stuck in their own specialized department. Theoretically, this makes everything more efficient, but in the reality, it means that we are raising a generation of intellectual lemmings. Since we don’t know how anything actually works, we rely completely on other people to define the world around us. This is probably why the public is always so paranoid about the media feeding it biased information. Since we don’t do any research on our own, it seems like a conspiracy when something like 9/11 happens. What? People hate us in the Middle East? Why wasn’t I informed? It must have been a media cover up.

The concept of American individualism started to die as soon as Henry Ford perfected the assembly line. Everyone performs a small, specific operation in order to manufacture a product. At the end of the day, the factory workers don’t actually know how to change a tire; however, through their collective efforts, they have built a car. That’s how we manufacture ignorance in a capitalistic society.

What’s the answer to this dilemma? I would tell you to start educating yourself, create a cranial dam to hold back the flood of intellectual apathy, fight the system. But then again, what the hell do I know?

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