December 1st, 1913: the world’s first moving assembly line kicks into operation, thanks to Henry Ford (et al.). The result was nothing less than the transformation of automotive manufacturing, and soon after, the fabric of society. Fast forward a hundred years and an innovation of similar magnitude has taken place, all thanks to tools of thought.
Cloud-storage, notetaking, bookmarking/read-later services, social media, document sharing and collaboration, workflow and task automaters; all these have come to together to alter how we think, what we think, and why.
Before the introduction of Ford’s assembly line, the use of automobiles was confined to the well-to-do; after its introduction, driving was within everyone’s means. Before the proliferation of tools of thought, thinking (speculatively, rigorously, seriously, whatever) was a pursuit of the privileged; after the influx of tools of thought, everyone is an intellectual. Not out of choice, but out of necessity.
Let me explain. Consider this basic process:
- Choose a topic and read books about it on my Kindle and articles about it on Instapaper, highlighting salient passages as I go.
- Export those highlights to Readwise and curate them.
- Export to Evernote, tag them and, like pieces of a puzzle, see which ones slot together.
- Copy the pieces to a writing app (like Scrivener or Ulysses), write a short introduction and outro.
- Upload and publish the finished piece on a WordPress.com site and (automatically) on social media.
The topic above could be a historical figure, an outdated technological process, postmodernism, or cutting edge microprocessor architecture. Really, it doesn’t matter. The astounding thing is that such a simple process allows anyone (irrespective of class, gender, race, socioeconomic status etc.) to attain basic conceptual clarity about any conceivable subject. With minimal effort, I can become (or position myself as) an expert.
Before tools of thought were developed and democratised, such intellectual bootstrapping was inconceivable. A person’s thoughts were bound by local maxima. A person birthed in an environment of intellectual poverty was likely to die there. Not so anymore. And funnily enough, this revolution of thought has occurred in sync with the onset of the so-called post-truth era. Mere correlation, or causation?
I don’t know. However, considering the link between tools of thought and our post-truth era has caused me to wonder–is it fair to say that the smarter a society becomes in the aggregate, the more stupid its citizens must be as individuals?
Not absolutely, mind you. The average person today probably knows more than the average person one, two or three centuries ago (and has access to much more thought). I’m wondering whether we become relatively more stupid.
Imagine a ratio: what we do know in comparison to what we can know. Thanks to a host of factors, the former is indeed growing. The problem is that the latter isn’t growing so much as exploding. Tools of thought, as mentioned above, may help us maintain the gap as is, but a scary prospect is the possibility that the gap can only ever increase.