Public Intellectuals: The Rise of the Librarians and the Decline of the Author

There are two flavours of public intellectual: librarians and authors.

Librarians possess a synoptic view of mostly trivial and anecdotal data, interspersed with histories, accepted truths, slogans, catchphrases, clichés, and platitudes. They are good at composing bibliographies, regurgitating knowledge, and cross-referencing information. Though always fanatically biased and orthodox, they are often meticulous, conscientious, and erudite. The best of them are great and entertaining historiographers. Daniel Boorstein and Paul Johnson are prime examples of modern-day Librarians as are many popularizers of science, such as Carl Sagan. David Hume was a curious hybrid: a Librarian, yet with sublimity and penetration that place him firmly in the authors’ camp.

In contrast to Librarians, Authors focus on one topic at a time. They are rarely as learned as the Librarians because they are less concerned with precedent, received wisdom, and with the work of their predecessors. Their product is frequently academically sloppy and their texts unintelligible on first skimming. They coin neologisms and invent whole new languages, narratives, and fields of discourse to describe their work and convey it to the uninitiated. They are innovative, ground-breaking, and iconoclastic. Notable modern Authors include Freud, Einstein, Marx, and Sartre.

In the great scheme of things, Librarians are responsible for introducing Authors and their works to the public. Regrettably, as most Librarians are hoarders with conventional and intellectually-provincial minds, they often fail to grasp the essential insights and revolutionary implications of the Authors’ words. Instead of “getting the big picture”, Librarians resort to nitpicking and criticism and purvey distorted and over-simplified versions of Authors’ ideas, embedded in faux historical “context”. Authors struggle to think outside the boxes that Librarians keep foisting upon the academic disciplines within which they both operate.

Modern technology and the New Media – concerned as they are with data hoarding and taxonomy – have sealed the triumphant ascendance of the Librarian over the Author.

The few real scholars and intellectuals left are on the retreat, back into the ivory towers of a century ago. Increasingly, their place is taken by self-taught “experts”, narcissistic bloggers, wannabe “authors” and “auteurs”, and partisan promoters of (often self-beneficial) “causes”. The mob thus empowered and complimented feels vindicated and triumphant. But history cautions us that mobs have never produced enlightenment – only concentration camps and bloodied revolutions. the Internet can and will be used against us if we don’t regulate it.

Dismal results ensue:

The Wikipedia “encyclopedia” – a repository of millions of factoids, interspersed with juvenile trivia, plagiarism, bigotry, and malice – is “edited” by anonymous users with unlimited access to its contents and absent or fake credentials.

Hoarding has replaced erudition everywhere. People hoard e-books, mp3 tracks, and photos. They memorize numerous fact and “facts” but can’t tell the difference between them or connect the dots. The synoptic view of knowledge, the interconnectivity of data, the emergence of insight from treasure-troves of information are all lost arts.

In an interview in early 2007, the publisher of the New-York Times said that he wouldn’t mourn the death of the print edition of the venerable paper and its replacement by a digital one. This nonchalant utterance betrays unfathomable ignorance. Online readers are vastly different to consumers of printed matter: they are younger, their attention span is far shorter, their interests far more restricted and frivolous. The New-York Times online will be forced into becoming a tabloid – or perish altogether.

Fads like environmentalism and alternative “medicine” spread malignantly and seek to silence dissidents, sometimes by violent means.

The fare served by the electronic media everywhere now consists largely of soap operas, interminable sports events, and reality TV shows. True, niche cable channels cater to the preferences of special audiences. But, as a result of this inauspicious fragmentation, far fewer viewers are exposed to programs and features on science, literature, arts, or international affairs.

Reading is on terminal decline. People spend far more in front of screens – both television’s and computer – than leafing through pages. Granted, they read online: jokes, anecdotes, puzzles, porn, and e-mail or IM chit-chat. Those who try to tackle longer bits of text, tire soon and revert to images or sounds.

With few exceptions, the “new media” are a hodgepodge of sectarian views and fabricated “news”. The few credible sources of reliable information have long been drowned in a cacophony of fakes and phonies or gone out of business.

It is a sad mockery of the idea of progress. The more texts we make available online, the more research is published, the more books are written – the less educated people are, the more they rely on visuals and soundbites rather than the written word, the more they seek to escape reality and be anesthetized rather than be challenged and provoked.

Even the ever-slimming minority who do wish to be enlightened are inundated by a suffocating and unmanageable avalanche of indiscriminate data, comprised of both real and pseudo-science. There is no way to tell the two apart, so a “democracy of knowledge” reigns where everyone is equally qualified and everything goes and is equally merited. This relativism is dooming the twenty-first century to become the beginning of a new “Dark Age”, hopefully a mere interregnum between two periods of genuine enlightenment.

In the age of Web 2.0, authoritative expertise is slowly waning. The layman reasserts herself as a fount of collective mob “wisdom”. Information – unsorted, raw, sometimes wrong – substitutes for structured, meaningful knowledge. Gatekeepers – intellectuals, academics, scientists, and editors, publishers, record companies, studios – are summarily and rudely dispensed with. Crowdsourcing (user-generated content, aggregated for commercial ends by online providers) replaces single authorship.

A confluence of trends conspired to bring about these ominous developments:

1. An increasingly narcissistic culture that encourages self-absorption, haughtiness, defiance of authority, a sense of entitlement to special treatment and omniscience, incommensurate with actual achievements. Narcissistic and vain Internet users feel that they are superior and reject all claims to expertise by trained professionals.

2. The emergence of technologies that remove all barriers to entry and allow equal rights and powers to all users, regardless of their qualifications, knowledge, or skills: wikis (the most egregious manifestation of which is the Wikipedia), search engines (Google), blogging (that is rapidly supplanting professionally-written media), and mobiles (cell) phones equipped with cameras for ersatz documentation and photojournalism. Disintermediation rendered redundant all brokers, intermediaries, and gatekeepers of knowledge and quality of content.

3. A series of species-threatening debacles by scientists and experts who collaborated with the darkest, vilest, and most evil regimes humanity has ever produced. This sell-out compromised their moral authority and standing. The common folk began not only to question their ethical credentials and claim to intellectual leadership, but also to paranoidally suspect their motives and actions, supervise, and restrict them. Spates of scandals by scientists who falsified lab reports and intellectuals who plagiarized earlier works did nothing to improve the image of academe and its denizens.

4. By its very nature, science as a discipline and, more particularly, scientific theories, aspire to discover the “true” and “real”, but are doomed to never get there. Indeed, unlike religion, for instance, science claims no absolutes and proudly confesses to being merely asymptotic to the Truth. In medicine, physics, and biology, today’s knowledge is tomorrow’s refuse. Yet, in this day and age of maximal uncertainty, minimal personal safety, raging epidemics, culture shocks and kaleidoscopic technological change, people need assurances and seek immutables.

Inevitably, this gave rise to a host of occult and esoteric “sciences”, branches of “knowledge”, and practices, including the fervid observance of religious fundamentalist rites and edicts. These offered alternative models of the Universe, replete with parent-figures, predictability, and primitive rituals of self-defense in an essentially hostile world. As functional literacy crumbled and people’s intellectual diet shifted from books to reality TV, sitcoms, and soap operas, the old-new disciplines offer instant gratification that requires little by way of cerebral exertion and critical faculties.

Moreover, scientific theories are now considered as mere “opinions” to be either “believed” or “disbelieved”, but no longer proved, or, rather falsified. In his novel, “Exit Ghost”, Philip Roth puts this telling exclamation in the mouth of the protagonist, Richard Kliman: “(T)hese are people who don’t believe in knowledge”.

The Internet tapped into this need to “plug and play” with little or no training and preparation. Its architecture is open, its technologies basic and “user-friendly”, its users largely anonymous, its code of conduct (Netiquette) flexible and tolerant, and the “freedoms” it espouses are anarchic and indiscriminate.

The first half of the 20th century was widely thought to be the terrible culmination of Enlightenment rationalism. Hence its recent worrisome retreat . Moral and knowledge relativism (e.g., deconstruction) took over. Technology obliged and hordes of “users” applied it to gnaw at the edifice of three centuries of Western civilization as we know it.

%d bloggers like this: