Tuesday, 24 March 2015

A gathering of imbeciles

The ease of modern communication is often seen as a good thing, socially, politically and economically. But what if there is a dark side to it?

One attraction of reading early writers in any field is often their unassuming nature. They write as they see, before the academic barnacles had a chance to encrust and obscure the original structure. In modern terms that structure may be somewhat lacking of course, but that doesn’t always matter.

One such is Gustave Le Bon. Politically incorrect and not the most profound writer, but some of what he wrote is worth a second thought. For example, he believed that a crowd wipes out the intellectual faculties of its members. Not a new idea even then and many others have expressed similar views, but take this quote as an example.

The substitution of the unconscious action of crowds for the conscious activity of individuals is one of the principal characteristics of the present age.

This very fact that crowds possess in common ordinary qualities explains why they can never accomplish acts demanding a high degree of intelligence. The decisions affecting matters of general interest come to by an assembly of men of distinction, but specialists in different walks of life, are not sensibly superior to the decisions that would be adopted by a gathering of imbeciles.
Gustave Le Bon - The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (1895)

This is more than cynical rhetoric. Le Bon is saying that crowds or assemblies have their own psychology which is not the sum of component individuals. It is something else, something sentimental, conservative, easily swayed by images and not intelligent in the sense that an individual is intelligent.

Okay, one could pile on the caveats and exceptions to this, but in the modern world when crowds become assemblies and when assemblies can be virtual assemblies on the web, then what if Le Bon was right? How much intellectual resource is the internet liable to suck out of our collective heads?

An implication of Le Bon’s point, whatever its limitations, is that many kinds of association constitute an intellectual loss for its members. By adopting a group belief, we don’t put our intellect on hold, we lose it wherever the belief system holds sway. Our critical faculties disappear like smoke on a windy day.

To know the art of impressing the imagination of crowds is to know at the same time the art of governing them.
Gustave Le Bon - The Crowd: A study of the popular mind

The internet as the ultimate virtual assembly may damage or even destroy our collective critical faculties. The web may become a conservative, sentimental and unintelligent virtual crowd.


James Higham said...

The internet as the ultimate virtual assembly may damage or even destroy our collective critical faculties.

Beautiful, AKH, beautiful.

A K Haart said...

James - thanks (:

Demetrius said...

There is an assumption here, that many people have critical faculties. This may be over optimistic. If so the crowd effect may be just an emotional spasm led by unthinking and ignorant people. So in today's world we have government by emotion and decision making by irrational spasms.

A K Haart said...

Demetrius - good point. Critical faculties have to be developed but are not essential for daily life. Possibly even a hindrance.