Smart People


So a couple of weeks ago, I got drunk and had a fracas with Umair Haque on twitter, in which I said:

All of your b-models are vague bollocks . Face it dude, you’re pretty much only good at criticsing the obvious.

and he replied

those aren’t my b-models. they’re everybody else’s. you just called about 100 smart people idiots. now crawl back into your hole.

Now Hemingway always used to say to me “always keep a promise sober, that you made drunk”. So I do.

A word about Umair.

I stumbled across his blog thing a couple of years back (at the height of the Bush insanity) and was so impressed that I sat down and read the whole thing from start to finish. I’ve never done that with a blog before or since. He had an amazingly prescient, articulate and refreshing take on what was going on.

Something you notice though is that… in the comments, people were (increasingly) asking “So what do we do about this? Tell us master, what must we do?” – and no answer was forthcoming.

So I think what Umair has done (see Bruce Sterling talk from a couple of days back). He’s taken the Richard Feynman 2.0 approach to problem solving – which is basically to crowd-source it.

And maybe this is the best approach… but what’s it come back with?

Looks to me like a series of manifestos with names like “Wisdom Manifesto“, “The Awesomeness Manifesto

“Awesomeness”? What is this? Bill and Ted? Please.

The content of these manifestos looks to me like a touchy-feely feel-good fest for this emergent tribe of “Smart People”. Or Umair’s Army of Textarea Sycophants. Whatever. The content of these manifestos looks to me as much to do with what the audience want to hear, than what will actually wind up being used. Everything is memetics – but the memosphere for Umair’s “Solutions” is different from the memosphere where any solution will need to take hold.

It’s not that easy.

Umair like my other greatest fan, Douglas Rushkoff has this truly inspiring talent at pointing out what’s wrong, but when it comes to creating solutions…? Meep.

All that comes back is a selection of anecdotes that people have tried which have sortof worked… but which aren’t (as you may have noticed) exactly spreading like Islam in the Desert.

Because I think… ideas can be smart (ie: well adapted) – but people? Some of the stupidest people I know are smart people.

There seems to be this repeating pattern of someone writing a book that becomes famous, based on a single “smart” idea – the author acquires the laurels of Smartdom, and then they have to write another book.

And it kindof sucks. A bit.

So you start to get an inkling that maybe this person isn’t quite as smart as was once supposed – and really the difference between the Rock-Stars of Smart, and the less exalted tiers of suffering humanity comes down to… luck.

Everything is memetics. Any “solution” to our problems won’t emerge from “smart people” figuring them out on behalf of the stupid, they’ll precipitate out on their own, as adaptations to changing conditions – and they’ll be as easy for an illiterate living in a bullet-holed breeze-block shell in Turano to figure out, as some Ivy League Professor, and his flock.

In fact my guess is that it will be the Turano-dwellers who figure it out first.

Because I think Smart People are over-rated. You hear a lot about them: “Smart People”. It’s become the TEDoid-memosphere’s stamp of quality. Smart People are the Intel-Inside.

Check this out.


Those are smart people. I know who almost all of those people are. That whole thing fills me with a deep sense of foreboding – because although these people are all famous multi-millionaires/billionaires etc etc, I don’t have a lot of faith in Smart People. I have more faith in Local Knowledge.

Experience. The well-spring of human existence. You will learn more from getting drunk and going out on a crack-bender with a homeless Iraq-war veteran than you will by networking with smart people. I know this because I’ve done both, and I know enough to know that I know fuck-all – and in a lot of really important ways, I’m less smart than the homeless crack-addict vet.

Smart people thinking up smart solutions for the rest of us. You see that photo at the top? That’s a 12 year old kid who’s made a shelter for homeless people – because he’s never actually sat drunk on a shop-front in Parkway in Camden, and found out that if you’re begging there, some cunt with a Stanley knife comes by and collects “tax” from you.

Maybe the new boss will be better than the old boss. Maybe these Empires of Intelligence will see us all… able to… “live”. But I have my doubts, because (as Vinay Gupta points out) The Internet isn’t democracy, it’s meritocratic feudalism. Once again, the people who are making decisions, are sheltered from the consequences of what they decide. As Vinay (kindof) says: “you really need to live in a Hexayurt for a year” etc – and none of these smart people are living in hexayurts.

That’s part of the reason I like Bruce Sterling I think. He moved to The Favela – if that’s what Belgrade was back in the day – and he’s got a wonderful habit of not telling people what they want to hear. I love him for his lack of hope.

So um… give me local knowledge any day.

2 Comments » for Smart People
  1. Swaaaapblingggggggg! Ouch! Don’t hurt ’em, Nick!
    Wow, fantastic smack down. Woo hoo! heh heh. Loved it!

    Man, you’ve nailed the empty hypocrisy sensationally.

    I know who four of the table-of-doom are, one, personally, the others through articles, and movies (wtf?). How’d this pathetic photo op get arranged? After no less than 3 underpaid and abused assistants look up and dial the mobile, a text is sent… “Dean, join us. We’re all sitting down for the press at a too tiny table and look like we are saying and thinking about smart important things.”

    For those that fancy position and power, it isn’t about the value of what get achieved. It’s about who you are seen with.


  2. Josh Ellis says:

    Extremely well-put. I wrote something similar but less cohesive that Big Bruce quoted a while back in a SxSW keynote:

    (Not meant to be a self-plug, but I thought you might find it amusing.)