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Monday, 3 March 2014

The rise and rise of stupidity

As the world becomes more and more complex, we are presumably obliged to become more intelligent in order to cope. Otherwise, relative to a general increase in social, political and economic complexity, we might expect to see a corresponding rise in stupidity.

Oh dear!

Intelligence is supposedly dictated by genes and upbringing – good old nature and nurture. We can’t yet improve on nature, so how does nurture respond to steadily increasing complexity?

I think the simple answer is that it doesn’t. Intelligence is a social construct and when social complexity increases, the bar is raised. As the bar is raised, we understand less and less about our own society. In relative terms we become less intelligent - less able to devise rational responses to complex situations.

To my mind this is why modern politicians seem so stupid. Increasing complexity has raised the bar beyond their capabilities. Their best bet is to look after number one as the complexity of political and economic problems takes viable solutions beyond their intellectual reach.

To some extent this is offset by more accessible sources of information, but checking sources and comparing narratives still takes time and many can't because there is already an official narrative. Political leaders and senior bureaucrats for example.

They must rely on official sources and official narratives plus the opinions of their pals and paymasters. They don’t have the time to check any of it, so the bar rises and leaves them floundering. Misinformation, irrelevance and outright lies are their inevitable coping strategies. 

Reducing complexity is a much better coping strategy, but complexity creates powerful vested interests leading to even more complexity as its beneficiaries line their nests. So what can we do about a rising tide of complexity?

Not much. It is possible to glean insights from those people who find ways to describe aspects of complex situations without pretending to have all the answers. Insights can be found anywhere, from the Simpsons to a philosophical analysis and they do give some relief from endless streams of futile narrative.

Apart from a few genuine insights, it is still possible to locate good sources of information. Another way to cope with that rising bar is a sceptical and even cynical personal philosophy. Yet how many of us have one of those?

And tomorrow the bar rises again.

4 comments:

Sam Vega said...

I agree with most of this, but I'm not sure about this bit:

"Intelligence is a social construct and when social complexity increases, the bar is raised. As the bar is raised, we understand less and less about our own society. In relative terms we become less intelligent - less able to devise rational responses to complex situations."

If intelligence were a social construct, then it wouldn't have an unvarying relationship to another phenomenon such as complexity. This would be to make intelligence an absolute: in this case, the ability to understand or deal with complexity. I think it probably is socially constructed, but there are pressures to define us all as "intelligent" (i.e. we are all kept happy, by being flattered and being awarded a once-worthless coconut).

A K Haart said...

Sam - I don't think intelligence has an unvarying relation to complexity, but our ability to construct it socially is degraded by complexity.

However, the degradation is itself complex and "intelligence" may not even be the best term to use as it tends to oversimplify the issue.

Roger said...

Mmm, I doubt humans have got more intelligent, at least in the last 10,000 years. There are more of us now and society has got more complex, we can now afford mathematicians rather than have them shackled to a plough. Ancient Rome probably had plenty of SPADs but not too many television crew.

All this worked well so long as the empire expanded and Rome was kept going by stealing other people's stuff and indeed other people. Roll forward to the European empires, all worked on the same basis except for the Germans who insisted on arguing among themselves and missed out. But in the end nicking stuff on a national scale came to an end.

Which is why why our politicians look pretty feeble, they keep the old structure in new circumstances where one country is worth no more than another. John Bull is obviously worth no more than Jimmy Chang and both can see it. The modern day Trimalchios buy the politicians, just as they did in Rome and the politicians keep the bread and circuses going - for now. Now about those Visigoths....

A K Haart said...

Roger - and as nicking stuff on a national scale no longer works we have taxes, banks and politics to nick stuff locally - but increasingly on an international scale.