July 14th, 2020

"Isn't there already enough X in the world?"

Some years ago, I remember reading a novel about businesspeople which contained a scene in which a young man who had rapidly risen through the ranks of a big corporation had announced that he was leaving to pursue a career in the arts. There was a scene in which this young man was in a meeting with a senior manager who asked the young man why he was giving up a promising, high-earning career for something which didn't promise a lot of money or prestige for the future by asking the question: "Isn't there already enough art in the world?"

If you had told me 20 years ago that I would have spent a decade of my life writing in a blog where the focus was on philosophy, I would have doubted this prediction. My attitude towards philosophy, at the end of the 20th century, was similar: "Isn't there already enough philosophy in the world?" Lots of people go to university to study Philosophy, lots of people debate it, and there are thousands of years' worth of tomes which have been written on it, more than one person could ever understand in a single lifetime, so why add more to that pile?

The beginnings of my focus on philosophy came when I tried to find out more about it. I quickly discovered that philosophy is an under-treated subject in most bookstores. If you go to any bookstore, you can find shelves upon shelves of forgettable, fictional novels which have nothing to impart to readers but an entertaining story, quite a lot of books aimed at children (because to adults, for some inexplicable and stupid reason, it is important that children read, but not that people continue to read as adults), a lot of cookbooks (because one of the biggest markets for books is bored housewives with nothing to do but cook at home all day, although of course the eroding middle class is causing this market to disappear), probably a handful of books on history, languages, and travel, and for most bookstores, that's most of it. I had never paid too much attention to whether bookstores actually have books on philosophy, but when I started to look for such sections, I realized that they were very often absent--even well-stocked bookstores often lack a "philosophy" section entirely--and when present, they were severely underserved. Very often, what gets stocked in the "philosophy" section of a bookstore is actually books on religion, Eastern-style mysticism, or pop-culture books which liken ideas from presently-popular movies and TV shows to ideas from classical philosophy. Even in Germany, which until the 21st century had been easily the most philosophical country in Europe, this is the case: "Philosophy" is often entirely lacking even in major German bookstores, and when it's present, it is often this ridiculous sort of pop-culture philosophy which teaches that the way to wisdom is to burn some incense, adopt the lotus position, and empty your mind of all thoughts, which is precisely the opposite of philosophy, which is specifically about good, careful, and rational thinking. You could (probably correctly) counter that such "Eastern" philosophy is just another way of thinking about philosophy, but it is not at all what I wanted or want from my philosophy: To me, wisdom is about turning the brain on, not shutting it off.

Then it became apparent to me how rarely one actually sees philosophy represented in everyday life. Yes, a lot of people study Philosophy in university, but how many people seem to take much of this study out of the classroom with them? The arts are well represented in everyday life: Take a walk around nearly any city in the world, or go nearly anywhere on the Internet, and you will see great, heaping, overflowing outpourings of music and visual art everywhere you go: people talking about it in casual conversations, people selling it in stores, and people giving it away for free on the street because they just like painting or playing music. But how often does one see, in everyday life, people working to establish a framework for how to think about human existence or the value of human contributions to the world?

Even on the Internet, where ideas can be traded more freely than in most other places in the world, one hardly sees real philosophy being discussed. When I first started seriously writing in this blog, I went looking for blogs that offered great wisdom on LiveJournal--then still one of the world's most popular blogging platforms--and I found nothing. Looking through the most popular blogs on LiveJournal yielded, again and again, people writing very short blog entries about things which had happened in their personal lives, random thoughts which had occurred to them and which they summarized in a short paragraph, and people writing fictional stories because they like fantasy fiction and wanted to write it. This is the sort of typical notion of a "blog" which existed at the end of the 20th century going into the beginning of the 21st, the idea that a "blog" is just a place for socially-handicapped teenagers to talk to nobody about their personal lives or complain about something which had upset them on a particular day. I do not wish to sound boastful, but it's difficult for me to write honestly without sounding that way, because I am so troubled by the lack of real wisdom and thought in public writing on the Internet and elsewhere. When I make points in my blog, I often link not to other people's writing, but to previous entries on my own blog which I wrote in the past, because I just can't find anyone else on the Internet who writes about what I do in the way that I do. I'm not trying to make myself seem better than other people; I'm just so terribly frustrated by the lack of wisdom and wise thinking in the world.

So no, there isn't enough philosophy in the world; there is, in fact, not nearly enough of it. Philosophy is not a stack of centuries-old books written by people like Plato and Hegel; philosophy is something living, something which exists in the minds of people, because philosophy is about wisdom, and books cannot be wise; only living minds can be wise.

A similar position is valid, I think, for the other thing which I have consistently tried to research and document throughout my life: Detailed information about how computers work. When the Internet first started becoming common in households in the 1990s, computers were one of the most common topics of discussion online, which wasn't surprising considering that most people who were on the Internet at that time needed not only a computer, but also some interest in (and savvy with) technology to be online in the first place, since getting onto the Internet at that time was not quite as simple as it is today. Since then, the rise of widespread smartphones and Internet access mean that the average level of technical awareness of people on the Internet has steadily decreased, and the "technical" information which finds its way onto the Internet tends to be of a distinctly less technical nature.

To be sure, there are still plenty of websites which carry information about the latest graphics cards, CPUs, and other big-ticket items, but there is very little information about how these things actually work. The reality is that even most people who work in technology or consider technology a personal hobby know very little about how computers work internally, which I believe is a great failing that has far-reaching implications for a world that is increasingly dependent on computers. People think that they know a lot about computers when they can recite the numbers being advertised for the latest graphics card from some specific manufacturer, but this is actually not at all technical knowledge, but rather knowledge appropriate for a marketer or salesperson. An engineer or technician is not interested in memorizing model numbers and the marketing blurbs associated with them, but rather in understanding how devices are structured internally and how the different parts of a device fit together.

Many people might ask, then: "Isn't there already enough technical mumbo-jumbo for nerds on the Internet?", and I would once again answer: No, there isn't nearly enough. Or at least, there isn't enough real, detailed, incisive information; there is a lot of fluff and advertising and other such nonsense, but very little concrete information which could be used to construct such electronic devices in a home electronics laboratory. People go to bookstores and see racks upon racks of books and magazines for "nerds", filled with information on digital photography, smartphone apps, and operating system upgrades, and people think that there is plenty of technical information in the world, but actually, all of this stuff is just superficial trash for people who falsely imagine themselves to be knowledgeable, people who think that clicking an "Update" button makes them technical geniuses. No, there isn't enough real technical information in the world, and there probably never will be. That's why I've tried to cobble together what information I could find: Because real information, actual concrete and useful information, is very rare on the Internet.

I suppose that most people with a particular interest probably have similar feelings about what interests them. A person with a specific interest in anthropology, for example, could go to nearly any bookstore in the world and lament the lack of good books about anthropology there. Nearly any kind of scientist would likewise be lacking for books about "real science" in a bookstore; books in the "Science" section there are pop-science books written for lay audiences, not books that really contain the kind of in-depth scientific data which would be necessary for serious research. This is the nature of a bookstore: A bookstore is a business, and as such it needs to cater its offerings to its customer base. I think I wrote, some time ago, that books have always been obsolete, because books are written for mass audiences, and anyone who wants detailed, extensive, in-depth information would need to find it in scientific or academic journals which are usually not sold in bookstores because they're written for specialty audiences rather than general ones. I suppose that if you ask any question of the form "Isn't there already enough X in the world?", there exists a small but devoted group of people for whom the answer is unequivocally "no". You might hear a lot about something, but that doesn't mean that there is enough of it in the world, or that people think enough about it.