The Rot of Pop-Intellectualism

I just read an academic paper for the first time in 6-7 years(?). It was a pretty refreshing experience, which is something I never, ever thought I would say. It occurred to me how much post-degree learning has changed in the past 10 years. (I’ve been calling it pop-intellectualism.)

At the risk of sounding grumpy, 10 years ago…
- Everyone wasn’t an expert on Medium.
- Life’s insights were not packaged into 15-minute TED talks.
- If you built on someone’s work, you referenced it.
- You were required to show evidence before making vast proclamations across spacetime.

As we rushed to package intelligence for consumption, it feels like the pursuit of knowledge has become hollow. This seems especially prevalent in the realm of psychology, economics, and behavioral studies spread across the disciplines.

My guess is that this started with the big publishing houses; after Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point ripped through the charts, things have never been the same. Every book of this stripe knew it had to make their reader instantly intellectual. These books weren’t about opening up the larger questions of life for debate, they were about packaging ideas so people could ‘win at dinner’.

It followed soon into print media. Magazines were forced to re-factor to be more digestible, more glance-able. They had to compete with the web; long articles were so boring. I remember reading the Harvard Business Review in it’s original form. Every article was a death sentence to get through. Today, it’s hard to distinguish it from Fast Company.

And then even digital media fell. we can no longer read through three pages on the web, it’s not better to have a ‘listicle’. (Which is a word that I still can’t believe exists in the vernacular.)

To be fair, 10 years ago learning about life beyond academic resources sucked. This explains the current state of things; we got exactly what we asked for. Intellectualism is a packaged product.

It feels like we raced for an alternative, but on the way we lost something important. It pains me to say this, but the rigor of academia is important for our culture. Yes, research texts can be more accessible, but we lack anything of their rigor on the open web.

I feel like we’re reaching such a collective overload of broad information, I wonder if well-packaged, deep, cross-referenced research could be a thing soon. Stranger things have happened.