Why is it that when you twist things out of their natural order, when you become a little sophisticated and want more than you ever did before, the risk is relatively greater? So easy to become rotten. A tree never gets that way because it is a tree.
Sherwood Anderson – Dark Laughter (1925)
As age pulls back the social veils it becomes ever more difficult to admire - what? More difficult to admire anything.
I can’t tell if it is the internet or age-induced cynicism but I think much of it is the internet shining its pitiless light on people in the public arena who simply should not be there. People with nothing to offer but their vanity and a grim determination to claw their way up what is now a forest of greasy poles.
Ignorant pundits, political apologists, talentless celebrities, venal politicians, professional liars, grievance mongers, deranged activists, serial exaggerators, insane feminists, male feminists, social justice warriors, eco warriors, gender pundits, race baiters, celebrity celebrities, religious maniacs, atheist maniacs, sports pundits, poverty pundits, fashion gurus, doom mongers, economic fantasists, junk scientists, junk artists, pseuds of every description, bent councillors, sinecure seekers, dodgy charities, fake radicals and all the unlovely crew we would be far, far better off without.
So little to admire, so much to scorn. Was it always like this or has the digital revolution exposed just how bad it is?
Two trends seem to be emerging. Firstly the obvious one – the public arena is far bigger than it was only a few decades ago. More TV channels, more video on demand, more digital voices and many more ways to get a narrative across. As a result the public arena is more diverse with lower barriers to entry. Anyone may hit the right note and propel themselves into the digital arena, especially with professional assistance.
The second trend is paradoxical but it may be real and it is this. In an important sense people are becoming better informed and at the same time more ignorant. The public arena has become so vast and clamorous that many people seem to miss what might once have been called the narrow path of virtue. It may have been narrow but it imposed a kind of sanity we no longer have.
This second trend makes for a peculiar world where people are at the same time both less and more naive than their forebears. They are both less conservative and more conservative as they become less aware of what is worth conserving but more susceptible to wildly exaggerated risks spewed at them from the digital arena.
The digital revolution asks more of us. More time, more effort spent checking sources, a more circumspect and sceptical attitude to information and authorities. Unfortunately many of us do not do the spadework, including many members of the elite. Perhaps most of them.
The net result feels like an explosion of ignorance. Not the ignorance of the past where people were simply uninformed, but a new mode of ignorance where we fail to be adequately sceptical and selective as a brave new world busily wires up our minds.