Have we reached “peak” dumb?

The answer, my friend, is not blowin’ in the wind…

By Morf Morford

Tacoma Daily Index

We think we’re so much smarter these days, but 50 years ago the owner’s manual told you how to adjust the valves. Today it tells you not to drink the contents of the battery. – meme seen online

The British classics scholar (and popular children’s book writer) C.S. Lewis used the term “chronological snobbery” to describe the idea of pretty much every generation to believe that it is more intelligent, or at minimum, more sophisticated, than the immediate, or even any, generation.

The evidence is convincing and compelling – but in the opposite direction.

Elementary school books from a century ago, for example, had extensive sections in Latin and selections from Shakespeare, Pope (Alexander) and Plato, among many others.

“Dumbing down” was a popular term several years ago. I have not heard it much the past five years or so – perhaps because we have achieved “peak” dumb.

One clue should have been the emergence of “smart” devices. Who needs a “smart” phone or car or refrigerator besides someone who lacks a certain set of characteristics in the intelligence department?

Who really needs an appliance smarter than they are?

Any aliens from a distant galaxy – or great-grandparent from a hundred years ago would marvel at our near universal inability to cook, drive, write or make a persuasive argument.

Once in a while I hear someone ask how many of us could drive with a manual transmission – but, like “dumbing down,” I hear that conversation less and less. Most young people (under 40 or so) have no idea what a manual transmission even is.

But it’s even more basic than that – as I write in the mornings, my wife often watches those mind-numbing, soul-dissolving “morning shows” – one recently touted their “love coach”.

Yes, apparently, we need “coaches” for even that most basic of human impulses.

Who needs a self-driving car when we have “formulas”, programs, blogs and yes, life coaches for every aspect of life?

How a rag-tag collection of paranoid, global, if not inter-galactic schemes, currently known as Qanon, came to dominate, if not define a once-great political party will be a topic of study for decades, or perhaps generations.

If great masses of Americans can believe aliens intervene in local elections, celebrities feast on children and that birds aren’t real, what else would they believe? (footnote: if you doubt that people believe these things, you could do a web search, but I have to warn you that the historic (false) claims about Jews sacrificing Gentile children is a recurring and horrible theme of European history).

A common complaint in the music world for many years was “Where is this generation’s ‘Stairway to Heaven’?” Or ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’? Or even the next ‘Happy’ (Pharrell Williams)?

The answer, my friend, is not blowin’ in the wind, it’s in the algorithms and focus groups that homogenize, sanitize and mass-produce something that in a few basic ways resembles music but misses entirely its power, purpose and identity.

It’s not just me – or even those of us “over a certain age” (I must admit that I hate that term!). Most current music, objectively, does sound the same. One study is here: https://www.mic.com/articles/107896/scientists-finally-prove-why-pop-music-all-sounds-the-same.

The bottom line is that music sounds the same because the audience for it WANTS it to sound the same. (https://www.oversixty.com.au/entertainment/music/why-pop-music-sounds-the-same)

One of the ironies is that the two “classic rock” anthems that I mentioned earlier (‘Stairway to Heaven’ and ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’) were not at all popular when they were first released.

Listeners had to “learn” to like them.

‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, for example, was not popular until about a decade after its release – and only thanks to a popular movie that featured it.

But almost everything is like that; from sushi to Shakespeare, from reggae to Bahn mi, and from fine wine to Bach, we have to try it and “learn” to like it.

In our era of shallow knowledge and “instant experts” (thanks to YouTube) everyone considers themselves an expert on everything from the US Constitution to the stock market (GameStop anyone?).

As the Urban Dictionary defines “a mile wide and an inch deep” as someone’s; knowledge, intelligence or, in some cases, opinion. Put another way, you’re saying the person knows a lot about everything, but nothing about a given topic.

In other words, these people “know” a lot of stuff that’s out there, but nothing that really matters or everyone else either already knows or could “know” if they went to the same websites.

In other words, knowledge now is not what “knowledge” always was (before the internet). Knowledge used to be acquired life experience, based on direct contact with authoritative “masters of their crafts” in every area from woodworking to opera.

Knowledge, in every arena from music to politics is not “a mile wide and an inch deep” – it is many miles wide, and one layer of latex paint thick.

This is where we are; everyone is an “instant expert” and we almost automatically distrust virtually any “real” expert who might have what used to be called “expertise” in his or her area of professional work and study.

No culture, no business and certainly no creative person can life this way.

Artists and business people, and definitely all cultures survive, even thrive, when they confront the necessities and basic impulses of life.

An AI (Artificial Intelligent) algorithm filtered through a focus group may give an artist or music company a “hit” pop song, but a year or ten years later, will anyone care or remember?

I know I am biased here, but I think the music that matters, the music that WILL matter a generation from now, will be those songs that speak to an urgency, a connection, an appeal to something far more than pop music impulses.

The same is true of movies and books – and even our beloved “smart” devices.

We say that we love our devices, but we eagerly dump them when the next upgrade is available.

And we pay far more than our parents or grandparents would have imagined for the privilege – now that’s dumb.