I discovered “The Joe Rogan Experience” on YouTube recently and have been sampling from among the nearly 900 pod- or webcasts posted there. I’m hooked. Rogan is an impressive fellow. He clearly enjoys the life of the mind but, unlike many who are absorbed solely in ideas, has not ignored the life of the body. Over time, he’s also developed expertise in multiple endeavors and can participate knowledgeably in discussion on many topics. Webcasts are basically long, free-form, one-on-one conversations. This lack of structure gives the webcast ample time to explore topics in depth or simply meander. Guests are accomplished or distinguished in some way and usually have fame and wealth to match, which often affects content (i.e., Fitzgerald’s observation: “The rich are different than you and me”). One notable bar to entry is having a strong media presence.
Among the recurring themes, Rogan trots out his techno optimism, which is only a step short of techno utopianism. His optimism is based on two interrelated developments in recent history: widespread diffusion of information over networks and rapid advances in medical devices that can be expected to accelerate, to enhance human capabilities, and soon to transform us into supermen, bypassing evolutionary biology. He extols these views somewhat regularly to his guests, but alas, none of the guests I’ve watched seem to be able to fathom the ideas satisfactorily enough to take up the discussion. (The same is true of Rogan’s assertion that money is just information, which is reductive and inaccurate.) They comment or joke briefly and move onto something more comfortable or accessible. Although I don’t share Rogan’s optimism, I would totally engage in discussion of his flirtation with Transhumanism (a term he doesn’t use). That’s why I’m blogging here about Rogan, in addition to my lacking enough conventional distinction and fame to score an invite to be a guest on his webcast. Plus, he openly disdains bloggers, many of whom moderate comments (I don’t) or otherwise channel discussion to control content. Oh, well.
At the heart of the Rogan’s optimism is his expectation that access to information via electronic networks, which has already transformed human relations, will lead to an upsurge in autocatalyzing knowledge and intelligence. In combination with supposed connectivity technologies now in development, e.g., the Google implant hotly desired by some, Rogan believes we stand on the cusp of emergence of a new type of human. (I’ve yet to hear him or his guest raise the dystopian specter of the Borg.) Putting aside for the moment looming ecological catastrophe that renders this prospect entirely moot, Rogan begins with a basic error, namely, the notion that more is better, and relatedly, faster is better. In doing so, he reduces humanity to mere information processors, when it’s clear we’re really energy and resource pigs (basic life science). However, there are qualitative differences between (raw) data, information, knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. More of the first two (which we now have) does not necessarily lead to more of the last three (which we lack). Indeed, my recent blogging about epistemological crisis asserts that we are awash in a tsunami of information, much of it false or at least propagandist. Many people are frankly overwhelmed and bewildered, unable to sort, decipher, and referee various claims to truth and authority. Yet the waves crash over us nonstop.
There exists a variety of ways of knowing, which relate to ways of perceiving. The preferential way of knowing among well-educated individuals in the West (the one way) is abstract, rational, and quantitative. Accordingly, more-is-better fits well with insatiable curiosity and desires. Ideally, absorbing information goes beyond an additive process: more periodicals read, more Wikipedia pages consulted, more documentaries and YouTube videos watched, more lectures attended. But forming that mass of information coming at us constantly into knowledge and understanding takes training, discipline, and oddly enough, quiet (or if you wish, contemplation). Training and discipline are traditionally acquired through education and/or mentoring; quiet takes isolation and unstructured time. They’re far from automatic. This one way of knowing is also rather exceptional, though with large populations, lots of folks have managed it. Some, like me and Joe Rogan (I judge), are naturally bent that way. Let’s say it’s roughly 10% of the population (a number I just made up, but you take my point).
This ideal is a product of the English Enlightenment and the German scholastic model of university education. Along the way, however, distortions began to appear that led away from a coherent, universal, moral worldview (one associated with the liberal arts) toward atomized, individualistic specialization. The world has always produced savants in one field or another, but the rise in complexity of human institutions and systems now favors specialists highly skilled in only one or two fields, often irrelevant to most of us, yet completely unqualified in others. The American branch of philosophy consumed by formal logic might be a good example. Surgeons with bedside manner worse than a houseplant might be another. Those whose interdisciplinary expertise allows them to go beyond knowledge and understanding to wisdom are a subset of the first 10% (let’s say they’re a mere 1% of the population). Those are today’s supermen (and women, obviously), though the language they speak and their preoccupations are largely inscrutable to anyone not already among that 1%. Populists may appear who attempt to translate content to the masses, but preconditions for success are not present. It’s like planting in infertile soil.
In addition, other distortions thwart the process of building a worldview, such as disinformation, inaccuracy, faulty perception, and distractions (mostly in the form of entertainments). The biggest distraction of the day is undoubtedly social media, which is both boon and bane to those who spend a large percentage of any given day attending to their feeds. The introduction of every new medium, from print to radio to telephony to cinema to television to the Internet, has elicited warnings from conservatives that our minds were being colonized. Compared to earlier technologies, however, social media narrow-casting to handheld devices is the first truly ubiquitous distraction, and entire generations are now hooked on their hyperpalatable allure. Quiet contemplation necessary to digest and process information is forestalled because inexhaustible feeds add continuously, disallowing ever calculating a total. It’s probably too soon to say exactly what sort of mind is produced by these inputs, much of which is ephemera, but it’s fair to say that it’s not characterized by critical thinking. (I can’t judge how many critical thinkers spend much of their time on social media; I don’t have Facebook or Twitter accounts, etc., just this blog.)
Rogan’s approach reminded me of my own mistake in adolescence: the belief that years of education and exploration would add up to a union theory that could eventually be deployed to get amazing things done. I had not yet considered precisely what things needed doing, but self-aggrandizement was among them. Fast forward only a few years and the information environment (even before the computer era) turned into a telescoping hallway that receded ever farther as I ran faster (read: learned more). Thus, the time-worn phrase, “Man knows too much for any man to know much” or variants thereof. Also, this Mark Twain quote: “The man who is a pessimist before 48 knows too much; if he is an optimist after it, he knows too little.” Now that I have dutifully considered what most needs doing, my assessment is that human life ought to be severely restrained so that we don’t destroy ourselves and indeed most life on the planet with our insatiability. Regrettably, that ship has already sailed and disappeared over the horizon. The prospect of hyperintelligent supermen enabled by neural technologies falls so far out of scope that, except as a thought experiment, it’s unthinkable.