As a resident of California, I vote my opinion on the generation of power, the definition of marriage and the treatment of farm animals. In the olden days, these kinds of things were decided by the King.
I do not mean to suggest that all the information we gather is for civic purposes. That I need to know more to do my job goes without saying, but I also need to know more just to have friends. I manage to get by without knowing exactly why Paris Hilton is famous, but I cannot fully participate in society without knowing that she is well known. Of course, my own social clan has its own Charlie Rose version of celebrities, complete with must-read books, must-understand ideas, and must-see films. I am expected to have an opinion about the latest piece in The Atlantic or the New Yorker. Actually, I need to learn more just to understand the cartoons.
We evolved in a world where our survival depended on an intimate knowledge of our surroundings. This is still true, but our surroundings have grown. We are now trying to comprehend the global village with minds that were designed to handle a patch of savanna and a close circle of friends. Our problem is not so much that we are stupider, but rather that the world is demanding that we become smarter. Forced to be broad, we sacrifice depth. We skim, we summarize, we skip the fine print and, all too often, we miss the fine point. We know we are drowning, but we do what we can to stay afloat.
As an optimist, I assume that we will eventually invent our way out of our peril, perhaps by building new technologies that make us smarter, or by building new societies that better fit our limitations. In the meantime, we will have to struggle. Herman Melville, as might be expected, put it better: "well enough they know they are in peril; well enough they know the causes of that peril; nevertheless, the sea is the sea, and these drowning men do drown."
- W. Daniel Hillis (1956-?)