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.

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Comments
  1. John Eagan says:

    I happened to check out the Joe Rogan Experience a few months or so ago, and I now listen to episodes fairly often, depending on the guest. It’s a great thing. As you already spelled out, it’s cool because it’s completely open and free ranging, just a couple of people (occasionally three) having a real conversation for two to three hours or so. It’s a wonderful thing, especially in contrast to an era of Twitter and txt msg word-fart gibberish and sound-bite “news”.

    I like Rogan a lot, although I do have some profound differences with his thinking that he expresses sometimes about his notions of what future technological developments will bring, which has a distinct aroma of what James Kunstler likes to call “techno-narcissicism” or “techno-triumphalism”.

    • Brutus says:

      Thanks for your comment. Totally agree with you. Perhaps it’s true that optimist/pessimist character types fall prey to confirmation bias. That sounds too easy an explanation, but how else can one account for otherwise intelligent folks whose view of the future is so divergent from ours? I’ve also read that pessimists are better in touch in verifiable reality, but that’s a little self-congratulatory. I prefer to think in terms of what the evidence demonstrates and extrapolate from there.

  2. Clem says:

    You wrote:

    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).

    I’m not trying to defend Rogan on this point – but if I’m reading you correctly you are no closer to the basic life science of what we represent. That we employ energy and resources is not in dispute. What we make with them (at great peril) is what makes us. I guess my issue here is that you’ve each reduced humanity much too far.

    Joe can easily demonstrate that we process information. You likewise can show connections to your pig metaphor. But even the laziest, most disaffected miscreant you can draw up still manages (while holding onto some spark of life) to hold back the force of entropy. Sure, the energy and resources consumed by such a low life seem wasted somehow… but assigning value to the use of energy and resources is, well, a life manifestation. That piece of concrete you just waked past cares not (it can’t… its not alive).

    There is much to like in this piece. The creative process of reflecting upon the world as you witness it. Information overload. Societal preoccupation with ‘things’. The rarity of quiet contemplation. Knowledge and wisdom vs. pile upon pile of raw information. Good stuff all. And just think, by your own assessment some energy and resource pig just put this all down in an electronic format that just fifty years ago would have seemed improbable. And me, another pig, just happened upon these ruminations and took issue with part of it. Makes me wonder whether someone should put some lipstick on either of these pigs…

    • Brutus says:

      Thanks for your comment, which I’m having some trouble parsing. Your objection that I’m reductive in a direction different from Rogan has some validity. I will admit it was a snap assessment and that we’re not all or nothing with respect to consuming information vs. energy/resources. Humans consume lots of both. You will have to explain what you mean by “hold back the force of entropy.” My understanding is that entropy is an ironclad law (Second Law of Thermodynamics) and literally nothing defies it. Simply put, every use (instance of consumption) of energy increases the disorder and unavailability of energy stores. One can’t burn firewood (or another energy sink) twice.

      As I’ve had a day to ponder my statement, I think my statement is still more or less accurate. Information processing also falls under life science, but considering that most of life (microorganisms, insects, plants) consumes, procreates, pollutes, and dies in blind, unthinking processes, the sort of information processing with which Rogan is especially enamored falls out of scope. Even in the animal kingdom, it’s arguable that the bulk of life can’t begin to approach the information processing capability of just a few thinking species, mostly mammals and birds. Language is probably what gives humans absolute dominance in that regard.

      From a historical perspective, our information processing (not our ability or intelligence but our access) has increased enormously. The sheer amount of information available to an average person today in comparison to, say, a rural agrarian subsistence farmer (homesteader) in 1880 is completely unbalanced. Before the Middle Ages, when a sizable majority couldn’t read, information available beyond one’s immediate environment was modest. For one instance, inhabitants of the other continents didn’t know of the existence of North and South America. Regrettably, our information-rich modern world has catalyzed infrastructure and distribution networks that have increased human population, and with it material consumption, to utterly extraordinary levels. My review of Vaclav Smil’s Harvesting the Biosphere touches on this. Human footprints vary over time and place, but as ecologically destructive behaviors go, the average American in 2016 is an unmitigated disaster.

  3. germ says:

    And he and his guests are usually stoned outta their brains.
    Explains why the conversations are so interesting!

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