“I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots”—Albert Einstein
I’m no Einstein, but I know an idiot when I see one, and there’s no shortage of them. There are several common varieties. Let’s start with the garden variety, half of the population with the misfortune of having been endowed by nature with IQs average or below. I can hear you now. “Unfair, snobbish, the average person is plenty smart.” Politically correct balderdash. A person cannot graduate from college without an IQ of 115 and, because the ability of the brain to perform complex synthetic functions increases exponentially, not linearly with every point of IQ, the difference between 100 and 115 is huge. These unfortunate people are not to blame for their stupidity, but that does not alter the fact that they are not all that smart. I doubt they are the kind of idiot Albert was talking about. He probably was referring to smart idiots who do well in school but flunk common sense, evil idiots who don’t think past their own self interest far enough to realize it profits not a person to possess the world and lose their soul ( and their planet,) and gullible idiots who are so besotted with false beliefs, they are rewarded with seats in Congress. Whether or not Einstein anticipated the internet per se, he was spot on about idiots and technology.
I had a “smart idiot” friend who graduated with highest honors from Harvard. A big time early computer enthusiast, the idiot savant waxed ecstatic one evening during the early 90s about the bright future the internet would usher in. My warning that it would, in short order, be turned to the most nefarious purposes of human endeavor were summarily dismissed. In Washington DC on Jan 6, 2021 the havoc induced by the idiot-generative power of computer driven disinformation validated my (no-brainer) warning.
Though all stripes of idiots have been brainwashed, scammed and fleeced by propaganda and advertising from the beginning of time, when mass media came on the scene the scope and reach of disinformation accelerated many fold. Turn on your TV and mute the sound. Watch several commercials. Notice what they have in common. They generally consist of very brief scenes cascading upon each other to create a nonverbal narrative leading to the conclusion “this product makes people ecstatically happy.” Alternatively, they may say nothing about the product but present some kind of non-sensical situation or an uplifting or patriotic message that has nothing to do with what is being sold. The name of the company appears on the screen at the end to create an association between it and the feel good message.
You think you are unaffected? Think again. Even moi, the ultimate cynic and iconoclast with a level of sales resistance and self control the Dali Lama would approve of, became aware of the power of visual media to suck you in during our daughter’s high school years. We’d removed the TV from our home and the internet didn’t yet exist. (By the way, her grades skyrocketed as a result of our unpopular but wise action.) When we encountered TV outside the home, I felt as though my brain was being sucked into a whirlpool and entering a hypnotic state. Take this brainwashing and multiply it a thousand fold when the president tweets lies and Q-anon theories are spread all over the internet.
And don’t kid yourself that apparently positive messages are any different from the negative ones. Recently I was forwarded a short video, slickly and professionally produced, with compelling images and a swelling musical score. It depicted something as if it had actually occurred though it was most probably made up. In some unspecified classroom, an unidentified teacher had the students list the “7 wonders of the world.” They cited the usual—Empire State Building, Grand Canyon, etc. Except for one (beautiful) quiet little girl who protested that the real wonders are such things as the five senses, nature, love etc. How nice, huh? I thought so until I emerged from watching it with that unpleasant feeling that had come over me when I’d been out somewhere near a TV during those TV-less years. I was being manipulated and hadn’t even been aware of it.
Then I began to wonder who made this video and why is it being spread around just now? One of my blog readers suggested it was sent out to influence people to ignore the horrible situation in the country and the world and just go along singing “la-la-la” while politicians go about the business of messing the world up for fun and profit. I don’t know. I do know that this apparently positive message was conveyed via the same techniques as all other manipulative mass messages. Campaign ads, political deep fakes, you name it. They aim at the the gut, not the mind. It makes you neglect to ask important questions. Why this? Why now? Did this really happen? What’s the underlying issue? In this case maybe it was actually just what it appears to be, someone’s creative way of reminding people what really matters in life. Even so, my concern is not with the message, but with the method. We all enjoy suspending disbelief watching a movie, but it’s very scary to realize the same special effect techniques are used to control our minds every day.
For good or for evil, techniques that strike at the illogical portion of our minds have been honed to perfection, and much of the time, we are unaware of what effect they have on us. You’ve probably gotten tired of hearing me say that religious indoctrination into absurd beliefs trains the minds of people to be gullible, hence their ability to put aside common sense when they vote. But even that ancient and powerful fake news generator can’t hold a candle to Facebook.
Every human invention has the power to do good or evil. Unfortunately, the evil increases as the power of the medium increases. Such is our dilemma with the wondrous internet.
As the genius Einstein and this non-genius predicted, it has been sorely abused and has clearly created a lot of idiots. Some day, government may find a way to thread the needle between public safety and free speech and create effective regulations on big tech. To make this easier, I have often suggested that all political and religious content simply be banned from social media. Brag about your kids, show photos of what you ate, your lovely home, your dog, cute videos of kittens and the like. Tweet a public information announcement every time you burp. Everything has its place, and the internet is no exception. Until such time as some, unlikely, limits are imposed, our only protection requires something I fear not enough of us are capable of. Step back, ask questions give your mind quiet time to think things through. or better yet, break the habit of being joined at the hip with your phone. As one who owns one mainly in case I get a flat tire, gives the number out in only extremely limited situations, and often doesn’t turn it on for weeks at a time, I assure you, you will feel like someone gave you your life back. It all boils down to this: only you can prevent the internet from turning you into an idiot.