Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A gathering of imbeciles

The ease of modern communication is often seen as a good thing, socially, politically and economically. But what if there is a dark side to it?

One attraction of reading early writers in any field is often their unassuming nature. They write as they see, before the academic barnacles had a chance to encrust and obscure the original structure. In modern terms that structure may be somewhat lacking of course, but that doesn’t always matter.

One such is Gustave Le Bon. Politically incorrect and not the most profound writer, but some of what he wrote is worth a second thought. For example, he believed that a crowd wipes out the intellectual faculties of its members. Not a new idea even then and many others have expressed similar views, but take this quote as an example.

The substitution of the unconscious action of crowds for the conscious activity of individuals is one of the principal characteristics of the present age.

This very fact that crowds possess in common ordinary qualities explains why they can never accomplish acts demanding a high degree of intelligence. The decisions affecting matters of general interest come to by an assembly of men of distinction, but specialists in different walks of life, are not sensibly superior to the decisions that would be adopted by a gathering of imbeciles.
Gustave Le Bon - The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (1895)

This is more than cynical rhetoric. Le Bon is saying that crowds or assemblies have their own psychology which is not the sum of component individuals. It is something else, something sentimental, conservative, easily swayed by images and not intelligent in the sense that an individual is intelligent.

Okay, one could pile on the caveats and exceptions to this, but in the modern world when crowds become assemblies and when assemblies can be virtual assemblies on the web, then what if Le Bon was right? How much intellectual resource is the internet liable to suck out of our collective heads?

An implication of Le Bon’s point, whatever its limitations, is that many kinds of association constitute an intellectual loss for its members. By adopting a group belief, we don’t put our intellect on hold, we lose it wherever the belief system holds sway. Our critical faculties disappear like smoke on a windy day.

To know the art of impressing the imagination of crowds is to know at the same time the art of governing them.
Gustave Le Bon - The Crowd; study of the popular mind

The internet as the ultimate virtual assembly may damage or even destroy our collective critical faculties. The web may become a conservative, sentimental and unintelligent virtual crowd.


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Nick Drew said...

How much intellectual resource is the internet liable to suck out of our collective heads?

for another (perhaps congruent, I haven't thought it through) view on this, see Iain McGilchrist's remarkable book The Master and his Emissary - The Divided Brain and the Search for Meaning

Summarising the relevant point wildly, the internet is (in M's view) a classic left-brain construct and if allowed free rein will have baleful consequences

(Don't entirely agree but it's very thought-provoking)

A K Haart said...

Nick - I haven't read McGilchrist's book, but I'm sure neurological explanations of our behaviour could emerge eventually.

What I'm not so sure of is how the calibration will be done and if it will be effective. I see decades of argument ahead - at least.

Sackerson said...

Of interest only to everyone who wants to manipulate human beings...

A K Haart said...

Sackers - and we can be sure that similar ideas are used as a matter of routine. What surprises me is how clumsy they seem to be, but perhaps that is to be expected.

cuffleyburgers said...

I think we see this every day, and the next question could well be; regarding the specific issue of government where according to this theory (which has a certain resonance), an electorate of imbeciles will elect a parliament of imbeciles (or rather the outcome will be equivalent to), and this assembly of imbeciles will then proceed to subcontract power to a further assembly of even bigger imbeciles (although to be fair, not having been elected they are perhaps not quite such imbeciles), who will seek to control guide tax regulate and generally determine every aspect olf our lives...

We're completely f*cked aren't we?

Because the obvious solution would be to reduce the scope of their activities so that it doesn't actually matter terribly much who is in the assembly of imbeciles, because we are allowed to live our lives as we will... but it's never going to happen is it?