Intelligence and the Future

Once upon a time, a man named David L. Freedman wrote about “the war on stupid people.” It was 2016, the Year of the Trump, although the fiscal calendar of that particular sci-fi kingdom had not yet clicked over into ADL 1.* And so the proletarian revolution against monarchical musings of this article’s genre had not yet entirely consumed Canada’s neighbours to the south in a fiery ball of perpetual troll rage. (Will there be any bridges left to live under, or will every last one be burned?)

Unfortunately, I think both Freedman’s title and his argumentation required him to quite uncritically subscribe to the exact elitism he wished to discuss, and for me, that damaged his credibility as a proponent of change:

“When the less smart are identified by lack of educational achievement (which in contemporary America is closely correlated with lower IQ)…”

It’s worth noting that the intelligenzquotient arrives with us via the European standards of the late 1800s and early 1900s, back when factory-style education designed to manufacture humans in hierarchical ranks for the use of their government was still considered a positive ideal. Hitler and Stalin had not yet unscrewed the last light bulbs of modernism, and North America had not yet fully settled into a stratified and organized society of its own.

“’Every society through history has picked some trait that magnifies success for some,’ says Robert Sternberg, a professor of human development at Cornell University and an expert on assessing students’ traits. ‘We’ve picked academic skills.’”

Since Freedman’s writing, America has proven amply that the intelligence running things is hardly academic. In fact, academia is the party struggling to keep up. A perfect storm of artificial intelligence, international intelligence, and Freedman’s lamented widespread “lack of intelligence” — in the form of wholesale rejection of empiricism — has enveloped the continent. No social stratum of any IQ seems to have remained unscathed.

“Instead of bending over backwards to find ways of discussing intelligence that won’t leave anyone out, it might make more sense to acknowledge that most people don’t possess enough of the version that’s required to thrive in today’s world.”

Freedman’s allegation was that today’s economy holds little to no place for half to two-thirds of the population, i.e. those whose IQ tends to correlate with clerical work, semi-skilled labour, and unskilled work. Somehow, some way, perhaps through the institutionalization of impoverished toddlers, education must be bent to prevail. University-educated millennials are curious to know: Would anyone from Gen X and back like fries with that?

We of the 20th century have been guilty of a myopic focus on an educational model created to staff industrial jobs that no longer exist with compliant workers ranked by suitability. Yet we all have memories of how the institution crushes the creative intelligence and open exploration out of a person’s system at a very young age. There goes critical thinking. There goes the drive — not to mention the constructive use of free time — to continue early habits of assessing ideas and claims against reality.

None of that used to be allowed until after childhood and the entire formative portion of adulthood had been signed away to proving successful conformity to established presuppositions. Have you seen what eighteen-year-olds are like on campus? Terrified.

Meanwhile, with the digital revolution, a whole new definition of reality, as well as a whole new industry of manufacturing, has entered play.

“We must stop glorifying intelligence and treating our society as a playground for the smart minority. We should instead begin shaping our economy, our schools, even our culture with an eye to the abilities and needs of the majority, and to the full range of human capacity. The government could, for example, provide incentives to companies that resist automation, thereby preserving jobs for the less brainy.”

Freedman’s final conclusion is a magnanimous gesture publicly wedding his conformist demonstration of intelligence to his conformist demonstration of what a sense of social compassion entails. (Oh! There’s my knife.) Disruption is a very real problem, but perhaps what the author misses, with his university degree from before the internet, is that the automated future is coming for the jobs of the academically skilled too. Educational institutions now tell students to deal with rising costs and attenuated value by doing hours of independent homework with parents, going on YouTube to access Khan Academy, or buying a tutorial video series or service. This is what the 20th century saw that the 19th century did not: Everything modelled on the assembly line can be automated.

This new assembly line has inspired the creation of a pocket watch that’s also a calculator so ubiquitous that no one needs math, a dictionary so vast no one needs vocabulary, an encyclopedia so full so no one needs history or experience, and a communications tool so powerful no one needs to be present.

The manufacturers of that pocket watch are a small aristocracy indeed, and the type of intelligence required to maintain intellectual and individual autonomy is altogether too quick and fluid for schools to pace.

This, I suspect, is why America turned to the internet, especially that part of it crafted for mobile use (looking at you, Twitter and Facebook), for partisan information and analysis. The old alternatives involving deep reading and analysis could surely be covered by watching some tutorials, if anyone cared to. That’s what the educators said, and they were the authority.

And so, here we are. The problem is not the old elite and its “smartness” values. It’s the new elite and how it both uses and subverts the old, like a horror show hive intelligence. Mere microvolts of power in each of our generically non-smart brains somehow scale up to one big monster of constantly morphing faces and values, depending on who looks at it, and from which angle. Look at all the knowledge! Or don’t, because we don’t have time, we’re tired, and it’ll be there later, if it doesn’t get buried by landslides of cat videos. And if it does, we (and especially the Russians) know what was more important.

This is not a kind of intelligence any of us possesses. Even those orcish dwellers deep in a data mine, who stitched up its sinews from the components of harvested humans, neither controlled nor predicted the brave new world they made.

*Anno Domini Luteum, or Year of the Orange Lord