The Future Of Intellectuals

Back in 1991, … [a reporter] described Andrew Ross, a doyen of American studies, strolling through the Modern Language Association conference … as admiring graduate students gawked and murmured, “That’s him!” That was academic stardom then. Today, we are more likely to bestow the aura and perks of stardom on speakers at “ideas” conferences like TED. …

Plenty of observers have argued that some of the new channels for distributing information simplify and flatten the world of ideas, that they valorize in particular a quick-hit, name-branded, business-friendly kind of self-helpish insight—or they force truly important ideas into that kind of template. (more)

Across time and space, societies have differed greatly in what they celebrated their intellectuals for. Five variations stand out:

  • Influence – They compete to privately teach and advise the most influential folks in society. The ones who teach or advised kings, CEOs, etc. are the best. In many nations today, the top intellectuals do little else but teach the next generation of elites.
  • Attention – They compete to make op-eds, books, talks, etc. that get attention from the intellectual-leaning public. The ones most discussed by the snooty public are the best. Think TED stars today, or french public intellectuals of a generation ago.
  • Scholarship – They compete to master stable classics in great detail. When disputes arise on those classics, the ones who other scholars say win those disputes are the best. Think scholars who oversaw the ancient Chinese civil service exams.
  • Fashion – They compete to be first to be visibly associated with new intellectual fads, and to avoid association with out-of-fashion topics, methods, and conclusions. The ones who fashionable people say have the best fashion sense are the best. Think architecture and design today.
  • Innovation – They compete to add new results, methods, and conclusions to an accumulation of such things that lasts and is stable over the long run. Think hard sciences and engineering today.

Over the last half century, in the most prestigious fields and in the world’s dominant nations, intellectuals have been celebrated most for their innovation. But other standards have applied through most of history, in most fields in most nations today, and in many fields today in our dominant nations. Thus innovation standards are hardly inevitable, and may not last into the indefinite future. Instead, the world may change to celebrating the other four features more.

A thousand years ago society changed very slowly, and there was little innovation to celebrate. So intellectuals were naturally celebrated for other things that they had in greater quantities. The celebration of innovation got a big push from World War II, as innovations from intellectuals were seen as crucial to winning that war. Funding went way up for innovation-oriented intellectuals. Today, however, tech and business startups, and innovative big firms like Apple, have grabbed a lot of innovation prestige from academics. Many parts of academia may plausibly respond to this by celebrating other things besides innovation where those competitors aren’t as good.

Thus the standards of intellectuals may change in the future if academics are seen as less responsible for important innovation, or if there is much less total innovation within the career of each intellectual. Or maybe if intellectuals who are better at doing other things besides innovation to win their political battles within intellectual or wider circles.

If intellectuals were the main source of innovation in society, such a change would be very bad news for economic and social growth. But in fact, intellectuals only contribute a small fraction of innovation, so growth could continue on nearly as fast, even if intellectuals care less about innovation.

(Based on today’s lunch with Tyler Cowen & John Nye.)

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  • We’re definitely in the smartist era as evidenced by rise of the public intellectuals not only on sites like TED, but on Reddit on the ask me anything sub-reddit. This is also reflected in the much higher pay of intellectuality demanding careers. Never more in human history have the economic and social benefits of being smart been so great, or the consequences of not being smart been so grave and intractable.

    • Cahokia

      ” Never more in human history have the economic and social benefits of being smart been so great, or the consequences of not being smart been so grave and intractable.”

      I’m willing to hazard a guess that the differential in mortality rates between the smart and not-so-smart is smaller today than it was in the past.

      • IMASBA

        If mortality rate is all you care about you should become a monk. Most people like to have some fun during their lives as well.

      • Joe Teicher

        Isn’t there plenty of fun available for people all along the intelligence distribution?

      • IMASBA

        Yes, and less intelligent people can’t afford most of it…

      • consider

        As a less intelligent people, who happens to have little money, I definitely have my share of fun: reading, music, biking, talking with friends and of course drinking beer. (And you can mix drinking beer with #2 and #4)

      • Jason Young

        Nonsense. Even the children of welfare moms have Xboxes. I know very wealthy twentysomethings and very poor twentysomethings and the two groups do not spend their leisure time as differently as at least one of those groups likes to believe.

        To cite a fictional example, Mike Judge’s new show Silicon Valley depicts nerdy programmers playing Call of Duty to unwind after a day of innovating, which is exactly the same way the unemployed unwind after a day of vegetating.

      • Doug

        The worse part about being poor in America is having to live around other poor people. From a material standpoint your life isn’t that different than the wealthy. The main anxiety most middle class people have about falling below the poverty line is sending their kids to bad schools, living in dangerous neighborhoods and being part of boorish trailer park or ghetto culture.

        I.e. all things to do with poor communities, not low material living standards. Sub-cultures that avoid these problems, like Orthodox Jews or Mennonites tend to be quite happy even at low income levels.

      • consider

        Mennonites on Overcoming Bias! Cool. (My ancestors are all Mennonite, and I was raised as an agnostic Mennonite as a college brat.) All the Mennonites I know are middle class, and I’m sure some are very well off. But they know how to have fun: reading, listening to music, enjoying nature, talking to friends, poker, dancing and beer. Well, not so much the last three…

      • Cahokia

        I’m old fashioned. If you’re alive and have a secure shelter, steady food supply, are literate, and have a range of entertainment options available, life is pretty good. You don’t have to be rich to enjoy these things.

        And I haven’t even approached sexual access, which favors the young much more than it does the wealthy.

      • IMASBA

        The whole point of being poor is that nothing is secure: you know there’s a high chance you lose your low status low paying job tomorrow and/or that you won’t get assigned enough hours to pay the rent this month. You know you can’t handle something expensive breaking down at a time before you expected it to. You also know your options for mate selection are highly restricted after high school. You know you have to live in a bad neighborhood, you won’t get to travel. All kinds of normative societal institutions expect a level of certainty that you do not have (homeownership, a decent employee contract, savings, etc…)

        In the past there were more moderate/high status jobs with moderate/high pay available for less-intelligent people. There was always high demand for labor or a fighting force. You had to be smart and have pedigree to get the true high status positions, now you need far less pedigree (especially in Europe).

      • consider

        But the question was about the “amount of fun”. people have. Mate selection highly restrictive? Yet billions of poor people around the world don’t seem too concerned about this. I think you are romanticizing the past. There were plenty of moderate/high pay job/s status in the early 80s when employment was at 8 to 10 percent? And real wages, including benefits, were quite a bit lower then.

      • IMASBA

        Mate selection depends on relative poverty and in poor countries many poor people are intelligent, so it’s just not the same as in rich countries. I wasn’t speaking about the early 80s, that’s way too recent, but even if I were it doesn’t matter that real wages were lower if you were less poor relative to other people. Materially speaking (though even that is debatable: if you look at ownership of land or jewelry for example) a schoolteacher in 2014 has more real income than a pharaoh, but the pharaoh was the richest man in his country and that’s what counts for things like mate selection, prestige and food/shelter security.

      • consider

        If you look at the poorest neighborhoods in America, do you really find a problem with mate selection? Fewer probably marry if jobs aren’t secure, which is very tough, but people who are well-off cohabitate, marry, divorce and remarry as well. I’d think the issue is with people who were raised middle class and then became lower class and have more trouble finding a partner that they had previously thought. But even in this case it doesn’t mean that his or her choices are “highly restricted.”

      • Per Greg Clark, in the past poor people simply failed to reproduce, and were replaced by the downwardly mobile descendants of the upper-middle class.

      • consider

        I can’t see how this could be true with such a huge percentage of poor people with a very small segment of upper-middle class in the past.

      • It wasn’t necessarily the case that ALL poor would fail to reproduce. Poor surnames would decline and then dissappear over generations.

      • IMASBA

        Most poor didn’t have a surname (they were called after their birthplace, after a striking trait or after the first name of their father) and surnames that did disappear indicated no male heirs but not necessarily no female heirs.

      • My recollection from “A Farewell to Alms” is that by a certain point in England, surnames were universal, even among the poor. And the probate records Clark relied on included all children, not just male ones, so we can exclude the possibility that they had lots of surviving female children even if few male ones.

      • IMASBA

        Most of the world didn’t start using hereditary surnames until the 18th and 19th centuries (except for nobility of course). Although (from the renaissance onward) there were exceptions such as commoner families with great wealth who needed a fixed surname for contracts and other documents.

      • I’m less familiar with the non-anglophone world, but in England at least my understanding is that they were universal long before then. The anti-Stratfordians often complain that someone with Shakespeare’s background (and inconsistent signing of his own surname) could not have written those plays, nobody objects that he shouldn’t have had a surname. I remember reading something in Slate about how Jews (who were banned in England between Edward I and Cromwell). were among the last Europeans to have surnames.

    • Factual reality : humans have evolved towards larger brains. It indicates that intelligence in all its forms (eg. social intelligence) was a selection factor.

  • sflicht

    “A thousand years ago society changed very slowly, and there was little innovation to celebrate.”

    I can’t help but wonder if this is just the age-old fallacy of viewing exponential trends on a linear scale. During the long dark period between advances that increased agricultural productivity by a factor of 10 or more, it’s easy to overlook “minor” developments that improved quality of life for people with access to them by “merely” a factor of 2 or 3.

    It’s also possible that, in previous eras, the low-hanging fruit — measured in *purely utilitarian* terms — really *did* lie in actualizing the insights of earlier scholars. It seems quite difficult to convincingly argue that intellectuals of an earlier age were “misguided” for having Scholastic tendencies towards mining the developments of Antiquity rather than innovating on their own.

    Crop rotation and your other favorite advances may seem obvious in retrospect, but that doesn’t make them obvious in context. People still read Euler, Gauss, Riemann, Einstein, Ramanujan, etc., looking for insights that have been missed by previous generation of scholars, because *groundbreaking ideas are rare and not always appreciated at the time they are developed*.

    Put differently, in Robin’s terms, if innovation is the ideal, fashion, influence, and attention quite plausibly lead to a systematic underemphasis on scholarship.

    • During the farming era the world economy doubled about every millennia, while today it doubles about every 15 years. Given that slower growth, yes, it may well have made a lot more sense to be scholastic.

      • consider

        Since technology is still accelerating, will it make even less sense to be scholastic in 2035 when growth will likely be even faster?

  • John_Maxwell_IV

    “If intellectuals were the main source of innovation in society, such a change would be very bad news for economic and social growth. But in fact, intellectuals only contribute a small fraction of innovation, so growth could continue on nearly as fast, even if intellectuals care less about innovation.” By “intellectuals”, are you referring to academics, high-IQ people, or something else? ‘Cause there are a lot of high-IQ people at Apple.

    • “Intellectual” doesn’t mean smart. Most academics are intellectuals.

      • consider

        I’m not so sure. So many academics have dedicated so much energy into a subfield that they often don’t have broader interests. Maybe that type turns into and intellectual at age 50

  • brendan_r

    Are fashion and attention distinct enough to warrant separate categories?

    NFL punter and gay marriage advocate Chris Kluwe recently gave a Ted Talk on how quarterbacks are going to wear Augmented Reality Goggles real soon now.

    Either Ted has demeaned itself enough to be swapped into the Fashion category, or we should lump Fashion and Attention together into one.

  • Storewars News

    Interesting article! Here is something equally interesting: Coca Cola
    India volume growth at 6 per cent in January-March. Full story here:

  • Interesting article! Sometimes it is not clear if you talk about academics or intellectuals as source of innovation.