"What we choose to do with the result determines its meaning as well as its significance."

In his Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, whenever author Douglas Adams' protagonist Arthur Dent found himself in serious peril, an impossibility generator would shift the plot into something completely different, if not always any less threatening. I think of voting as just such an invocation. Some mistake it as a referendum on knowledge or intelligence, and understandably so, but improbability generators hardly ever produce logical or rational (knowledgeable) results, but usually unlikely ones. Before the election, pollsters and pundits carefully take the electorate's pulse, just as if an electorate possessed such a thing, then project results with appropriate-seeming ranges of probability. Sometimes these predictions turn out to be true, though nobody ever investigates the root cause of their seeming accuracy when they are right. Folks seem altogether too busy failing to explain instead why they were wrong when they turn out to be wrong, the correct answer finally becoming beside anyone's point. This practice only seems smart, and might actually be smart, but how smart is smart in practice?

My point about voting might be that it is almost but not completely unlike (to borrow another Adams phrase) an exam. It was never intended to survey for correct responses, though each voter might well hold convictions about right and wrong for themselves.
A majority can easily share a spurious conviction, producing an objectively wrong outcome which then finds itself elevated into a fresh right, which everyone gets to 'enjoy'. Even when the majority holds a demonstrably accurate conviction and their votes produce an objectively correct response, the minority will leave feeling as though their personal conviction was discounted. Whatever the outcome, some will feel ignored. But unlike a seventh grade algebra exam, nobody holds the position of teacher capable of providing the universally mediating answer everyone should have provided.

Voting can just as easily result in a tyranny of the majority as of the minority, the only difference perhaps lies in who made the decision and who just tolerates living with the result. Democracy seems to reliably put some noses out of joint. Under the old divine right of kings, no majority ever got to put anyone's nose out of joint. The brilliant improvement brought by democracy means that anyone might become a tyrant and likewise, anyone a serf. Whichever, rather than blaming the poor old king, we get to blame ourselves now for our own seemingly serial stupidities. But this assessment relies upon what I already suggested might be a misunderstanding of the purpose of voting, which is never a referendum on intelligence or knowledge. If it were, the outcome could never be more than modest, anyway, for the average intelligence of any population, whether gauged as mean, median, or mode, must necessarily be modest, disappointing the geniuses and elevating the morons. No, voting, the great improbability generator, produces what we now refer to as Crowd Wisdom, a majority opinion that initially hardly ever seems very smart.

Crowd Wisdom can be influenced by manipulating individuals within the crowd. Media accepts this responsibility more enthusiastically than some within the crowd exercise their obligation to carefully monitor media's influence upon them. Many, if not most, find it nearly impossible to vote their own conscience, having ceded title to that personal possession to some influencer. Some individuals vote with the dormative conscience of a conservative rather than with their own. Others vote with The Left and feel as though they honestly represent their personal convictions, having found an identity within association rather than within themselves. Propaganda throws another level of improbability generation into the improbability generator. We could have no idea what influence additional levels of improbability might have on any outcome, though those still struggling to create a determined result labor even more emphatically to produce some determined end.

We might still be coping with how to understand a world struggling to grow beyond the dearly departed Information Age. We entered the subsequent stage some time ago, though many never managed to understand information in any other than mechanical perspectives left over from the departed Machine Age. Beyond The Information Age lies the Age of Insight, an era influenced less by Mechanical Age smarts and ever more by the improbability generator-produced strange sort of wisdom, one which understandably hardly resembles the Information Age's much revered smarts. Collectively, we're still just as stupid as ever, but with the sometimes-able assistance of tools like voting, we might also find ourselves at least as wise as any improbability generator. Just as complacency or hubris seems ready to overtake us, we shock ourselves with the result of another general election, confirming what we both suspected and feared. We're not nearly as smart together as we'd hoped, and perhaps just as stupid as we'd feared. What will we choose to do with that insight?

Well, if we choose to treat that insight as information representing smarts, we might well fuel a collective despondency, regardless of whether we find ourselves cast as tyrant or pawn this time. Considered as insight, an often distasteful form of wisdom, we might well feel moved to react differently than before, if only less reflexively and more reflectively. Just as we were closing in on an inside straight, somebody reshuffles the deck, propelling us back into some strategic stone age. What will we do then, once we acknowledge that what we'd hoped might prove to be a clever strategy becomes a threatening chasm instead? What now? What next? We might revel in just how stupid we've proven ourselves to be again, or consider that, collectively, we might have just exhibited an as-of-yet unrecognized form of wisdom. It's a new game with similar rules and fresh possibilities. The one thing the election prevented might be the continuation of the same old game as it was played before. We might collectively be wiser than we think, but wisdom holds about as much resemblance to thinking as an improbability generator does to any familiar old plot convention. What we choose to do with the result determines its meaning as well as its significance, and, ultimately, its utility.

©2018 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

blog comments powered by Disqus