In today's NYTimes, the article entitled, The Elusive Big Idea, got me to thinking - which is a bit ironic given the theme of this article about how our innundation with information is crowding out our ability to identify or deal with actual ideas. I had already started making some notes about this idea in a slightly different form, and reading this article prompted me to revisit my thoughts and synthesize them a bit, leading the following letter to the editor:
To the editor:
Like so many of today's technological marvels, easy access to information makes it easy for people to gather and consume information, which, upon its regurgitation, can create the illusion of competence. Snowboards, voice pitch correction software, and digital photography all share a similar basis for their rapid adoption and popularity. One no longer need bother with spending ten thousand hours of effort to develop true expertise, the kind that others may recognize and rightfully respect. Now one need only buy some software, or keep track of the latest fashion trends, celebrity tweets and their social circle's gossip in order to create the appearance of expertise, gaining all the approbation and respect of their peers with none of the work - or actual utility to society. So here is technology eroding yet another of our faculties. Whether or not this is inherently a bad thing will, unfortunately, not be knowable until it is too late to do anything about it.
And here is one from a couple days ago:
To the editor:
While it's heartening to hear President Obama speak out against the egregious behavior that defines much of what goes on in Washington these days, it is less clear what the path forward is. Could it be that we are bumping up against an entitlement mindset of a different sort than the one everyone has been talking about lately? Could it be that our emphasis on diversity, which has been a huge benefit in making our nation a more just and equal place for all, has also created an entitlement mindset when it comes to holding one's ground when engaged in a debate? After all, we are each entitled to our opinion. It seems to me that this mindset has found its way into every facet of our culture resulting in all manner of unusual expressions of independent thinking and behavior. While this is not a bad thing on its own, it unfortunately means that we have political factions that are unwilling to yield, negotiate in good faith, or truly compromise because, after all, everyone is entitled to their own opinion.
And finally, a little rant about plausible denial. In Mississippi last week a white teenager in a pickup truck can be seen on a hotel security camera deliberately running down a black man who was walking alone, apparently injured after a previous encounter with the teenager and his buddy. The teenager was immediately apprehended and is being held on bail. His lawyer issued a statement saying that the incident was not racially motivated, despite eyewitness accounts of the teenager bragging about how "I killed me a nigger" in a bar later that evening. Whether in fact he did say these things, and many other facts of this case, will all come out eventually in court. But one fact can never, truly, be known, and that is what was in the heart of this young man when he committed this crime. The difference is potentially huge. If in fact it can be shown that his actions were racially motivated then in addition to murder he would be guilty of committing a hate crime, which carries with it significant additional penalties. Proving that may be difficult, though, as long as he and his lawyer can plausibly deny that any such motivation was present, and that instead it was just a random, senseless act of violence.
We see our political and business leaders engage in this nonsense all the time - "I didn't know" or "I can't recall" have become the two most abused phrases in the history of mankind. They are being used to cover for all manner of egregious behavior and allow their utterers to avoid the accountability that should rightfully be laid at their feet. It is time for some new laws. "I didn't know" should be rendered entirely impotent as an excuse for not being responsible for one's personal actions whether those actions occur in the context of one's personal life, on the job, or on the behalf of a political consituency.