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Enlightenment or Dystopia?
We carry supercomputers in our pockets providing access to all of the wisdom of human history, so why has public discourse deteriorated in the twenty-first century?
“All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
— Blaise Pascal
On August 24, 1814, British troops routed American forces in Bladensburg, Maryland and proceeded just a few miles into the heart of Washington D.C. where arsonists targeted public buildings including the White House and the United States Capitol. The burning of Washington was the only time that the nation’s capital has been captured by a foreign power since the Revolutionary War.
In the early nineteenth century, Washington D.C. was a nascent city with very few amenities. Today, the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress are located in grand buildings across the street from the Capitol, but during the War of 1812 these institutions shared space with Congress. When the Capitol burned, the country lost a priceless intellectual heritage in addition to a physical structure. Books were rare and very expensive, and the Library of Congress lost three thousand volumes.
In 1814, Thomas Jefferson had been retired at Monticello for over five years after completing his second term as President. Jefferson was a man of the enlightenment and he was obsessed with books throughout his life. By 1814, he had assembled the largest library in the United States, far larger than the collection of the Library of Congress prior to the fire. In 1815, Jefferson agreed to sell between nine and ten thousand volumes from his private collection to the United States for $23,950. Jefferson no doubt wanted to restore the country’s collection of books for the benefit of Congress but he also was heavily in debt and certainly needed the money.
Jefferson’s library served as the cornerstone of the new Library of Congress and the volumes were no doubt well used for decades. Today, the collection is displayed in the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress and it is well worth a visit.
Books were rare and expensive during Jefferson’s time, but at least those with adequate wealth had access to the best information and wisdom known to mankind. This was thanks to technology — specifically, the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century. Without the printing press, it is hard to see how the age of enlightenment could have been possible. Jefferson would have recoiled in horror at the thought of a world without printing presses and books.
One can only imagine Thomas Jefferson’s reaction if he could be resurrected to observe our world today. Attempting to project political views of the early nineteenth century to modern times is fraught with peril, but as someone who has read extensively about Jefferson’s life, I can say without reservation that he would love the internet. The ability to access all of the information and wisdom of human history for free or at low cost from the comfort of his study in Monticello, or perhaps on an iPad while sitting in the gardens would thrill and endlessly fascinate him.
In 2023, the median age of the United States population is about 38.6 years which means that over half of the people have little recollection of the world before the internet. Those of us who are a decade older than the median represent the last generation that grew up in an environment where knowledge was primarily in a physical form rather than online. Although privileged with far easier access to information than people who lived in Jefferson’s time, research in the 1980s usually involved reading words printed on paper after locating material in a library. Often, research involved microfiche, a technology that seems ridiculously archaic today.
The early internet expanded access to information mostly for those who took the trouble to look for it. Internet access involved sitting down at a computer, logging into a relatively slow internet provider, and then obtaining information with the help of primitive search engines. The rise of Google vastly improved the ability to locate information efficiently. This seemed like a paradise compared to conditions only a few years earlier. Investors were especially blessed with this development. No longer was it necessary to send out for annual reports or go to the library for most research!
Three developments in the 2000s and early 2010s fundamentally changed the internet:
Apple’s iPhone pioneered the touch screen interface that made mobile devices far more flexible than those that featured a physical keyboard. This created endless possibilities that were soon harnessed by third party software applications, soon to be known as “apps”, that proliferated throughout Apple’s ecosystem and were quickly emulated on Google’s Android operating system.
High speed internet access on mobile devices made it possible for developers to provide users with far more than textual information at reasonable speeds. The proliferation of wifi via home broadband coincided with the spread of wifi in public places and cell phone plans with progressively greater speeds. Video became a ubiquitous part of the internet, particularly on mobile devices.
Social media applications spread from desktop computers to mobile devices, allowing users to be in constant contact with friends, but also facilitating the consumption of an endless stream of “news”, broadly defined. Early social media typically presented users with a reverse chronological ordering of content, creating a never ending “now” in the mentality of millions of users.
The combination of mobile devices, high speed internet, and social media arguably had a far more profound impact on society as a whole than the early internet period from 1995 to the mid 2000s.
The default state of life in 2023 is to be connected to the internet constantly, and increasingly this is expected by our families, colleagues, and friends.
Many people no longer have any time or space where they are alone with their thoughts for more than a few minutes, perhaps while in the shower every morning.
As I consider the accomplishments in my life, the common thread is that they were the result of many hours spent in a room by myself reading and thinking, often followed by discussions with others working on similar problems who also had spent much time alone seriously contemplating the subject.
Very little can be accomplished as an individual without entering a state of flow, a condition that is utterly impossible when someone attempts to multi-task on many activities at the same time. When it comes to initiatives involving collaboration with others, any serious subject requires much discussion, either in person or in writing. Serious debate subjecting one’s arguments to the criticism of other intelligent people is a necessity for anyone who hopes to get wiser over a long lifetime.
As I am writing these words in March 2023, we have just gone through two weeks of chaos in the banking system. We have witnessed runs on banks in the age of instant connectivity on handheld devices driven by narratives promoted on social media. Many of the narratives were disingenuous, but it seems like far more were simply clueless and driven by panic that spreads like wildfire on platforms like Twitter.
It takes more than 280 characters to explain what happened to Silicon Valley Bank, whether the government should provide bailouts, why bond prices decline when interest rates rise, or the role of deposit insurance in our banking system. These links are to a subset of the articles that I wrote over the past week in an attempt to shed light on what took place from my perspective. They took many hours to research and write because the subjects involved are inherently complicated. They also take ten or twenty minutes to read rather than ten or twenty seconds.
The version of the internet that we have today does not encourage any sort of introspection or consumption of content that takes more than a few seconds to read. If you are reading words this far down in an article, you are the exception rather than in the majority. Twitter and other social media platforms have algorithms designed to amplify “hot takes” and controversy, not to encourage intelligent discussions. In the ever present “now” of social media, you’re only as relevant as your last tweet.
Human beings are unlikely to give up the quick dopamine hits that come with constant connectivity and viral social media. Although this development is bad for society, it presents an opportunity for those of us who are able to harness the vast power of the internet while sidestepping the snares that appear all around us. This is easier said than done, but there are many potential solutions:
Browse, curate, and consume. A few years ago, I wrote an article about how to stay informed amid the noise of the internet. In order to deal with recency bias, it is critical to separate consumption of information from browsing. Rather than just reading the latest interesting article you come across, save a number of articles. At a later point, rank them in order of interest and consume the articles in ranked order, preferably after disabling your internet connection.
Think Weeks. Bill Gates is often given credit for the concept of a “think week”, but going into relative seclusion to be alone with one’s thoughts is hardly a new concept. It is very difficult to actually go off-grid for any length of time these days, and it would be agonizing to do so during a period of fast breaking news. I have occasionally taken time offline just to think. I might not be able to do so right now, being fascinated by the developments in the banking system, but a think week is definitely in my future sometime later this year.
Avoid “debates”. When I was in high school, one of our required classes included the basic principles of speech and debate. To say that what passes for “debate” on Twitter and most message boards falls short of rigorous debating standards is a huge understatement. Whether due to nefarious intent, limited intellectual capacities, or just plain ignorance, straw man arguments and other “gotcha” tactics proliferate. A favorite tactic is for an interlocutor to distort your argument beyond recognition and then demand that you defend their distorted argument. Ignore such people and resist their bait to keep engaging. Such tactics would be laughed out of any high school debate contest. Discard this noise from your life.
Returning to Thomas Jefferson, I suspect that he would find some of my concerns to be overblown. He would focus on the positive aspects of the internet and simply ignore what doesn’t further his own purposes. He would not have written this article because he would have been too busy reading or writing letters. Then he would have had ample time to take a walk in his gardens, or survey the countryside on horseback.
Benjamin Franklin would probably be the king of memes and practical jokes on Twitter. John Adams would be likely to get into testy debates and baited into endless arguments. Alexander Hamilton would subscribe to Twitter Blue so he could write threads consisting of a dozen 4,000 character Tweets. But it is almost impossible to imagine Thomas Jefferson using Twitter at all, except as a source of information from accounts he trusts. He would use Instapaper to collect interesting articles, download and print PDFs, disconnect from the internet, and start reading.
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