Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

The ‘stupidifation’ of our societies and failure of universities

It may come as quite a shock to learn that, contrary to what we are constantly told through the media, we actually live in the age of the systematic “stupidification” and infantilisation of society. What, I can hear most readers say with exasperation and indignation — we live in the age of information, of “knowledge societies” — how can anyone claim that stupidity is spreading? No, I am not talking about the movie Idiocracy (on which I have written here before), which deals with the stupidification of society in a humorous, albeit arguably credible manner. What I’m referring to is far more subtle, and actually masquerades as the exact opposite of pervasive dumbing down, namely the increasing levels of being “informed”, media- and gadget-savvy throughout the “connected” world.

Think of it on two levels: the changed relationship between parents and children, and the changed role of educational institutions such as schools and universities. Regarding the first of these, it is no secret that parents do not occupy the position of recognised authority figures in the estimation of their children any longer — symptomatic of this is the fact that the conversation between parents and their children around the dinner table has decreased noticeably in recent years (technology scholar Sherry Turkle talks about this in her book, Alone Together). It is also well-known that many parents feel at a loss when their children show more familiarity and adeptness with the latest tech gadgets than they can muster, let alone the grandparents, who are sometimes regarded with thinly disguised contempt by the grandchildren. (I know there are some exceptions to this rule, but as a general picture I believe it is accurate.) Why is this the case, but more importantly, why is it something to lament?

And why is it the case that the same phenomenon manifests itself at universities, albeit in a somewhat different guise? And how can it be rectified? These are questions that the philosopher Bernard Stiegler, whom I referred to in my previous post on nihilism, addresses in a recent book titled States of Shock: Stupidity and Knowledge in the 21st Century (Polity Press, 2015). For starters, Stiegler reminds one of the fact that, unless a certain degree of conflict between children and their parents occurs during (usually) the teenage years (in what is commonly known as puberty, or what Erik Erikson called adolescence), the child cannot claim her or his “identity”.

Most parents who have combined love for their children with the exercise of authority when called for, know this, even when such authority is not “imposed” in a dictatorial manner, but in a way that rests on the justified belief that, regardless of the intelligence of the child, he or she is still in the process of being introduced into the symbolic universe which they have to appropriate to become intellectually and morally responsible adults. Hence, when justified parental authority, based on their love and responsibility for their not-yet-mature children, falls by the wayside, the intergenerational conflict requisite for the children to claim their own maturity cannot happen, with the consequence that the children do not really “mature”, and the parents lose their authority, if not their maturity, becoming infantilised in the process.

This is precisely what has been happening of late, according to Stiegler. The question is why, and here is a succinct answer from him (2015: location 1036, Kindle edition): “This normal, necessary scene, however, in which the familial relationship becomes tense and then confrontational so that minors will be able to achieve their majority [maturity], has been short-circuited by the capture and diversion of individual, familial and collective attention towards the objects and subjects of the mass media and, through them, towards objects of consumption. And it is indeed the goal of this capture of attention to channel the desire of individuals towards commodities. This destroys the very thing that could found the desire of the social group as the circulation of desire between members of this group.”

The last sentence may seem cryptic; what Stiegler is saying is that the intra-familial “attention” (“the very thing”) focused on one another by family members, in a mutual bond of parental care for children and children’s respect for parents, is undermined by the efficacy of the programmes of the mass media (including advertising and “infomercials”), so that this mutual “desire” is undermined or destroyed. It may seem strange to talk about it as “desire”, but think about it: do parents not desire the maturation of their children into responsible adults, and do children not desire to attain adulthood and find their place in society?

This “normal” state of affairs has been fundamentally undermined by patterns of consumption today, which rob parents of their authority and “infantilise” them by channelling their properly educational desire into avenues of consumptive behaviour centred on obsessively pursuing the acquisition of the latest consumer items. Simultaneously children are robbed of the opportunity of channelling their desire to the reflective rational means for “growing up”, which are passed from parents to children under “normal” circumstances, until adolescent children reach the stage of necessary rebellion and appropriation of their own identities.

This is not all, however, and while I can at best give a hint at some of Stiegler’s other arguments, what he says about universities is particularly relevant today. In a nutshell, extending the critique of reason rendered by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer in the 1940s, Stiegler points out that universities are unable to fulfil their responsibilities as institutions introducing students to learning at the highest level, constantly renewed by ongoing research on the part of faculty members, as long as they do not include in their programme of education and research an attempt to understand and address the effects of the use of advanced technologies on reason.

Information technology is not just a tool without a notable effect on the way its users think and act; it is a different memory system, external to its users, and supplements the internal memory of its users, which is essentially labile. I use “supplement” here in the Derridean sense of that without which something would not be what it is, and which, moreover, affects what it is supposed to be an innocuous addition to — witness the growing inability of people to do without their smartphones, tablets, etc.

Therefore, to be able to regain the condition of “enlightenment” — knowledge of the world we live in and the critical-reflective ability to act on it so as to retain one’s rational sovereignty — what Stiegler (2015: location 348) calls the “rearming of thought” has to proceed via the theorising and “enlightened” practising of the digital technologies of today, and universities are failing in their duty to do this. He sums up the lamentable state of affairs as follows, connecting what I have summarised above with a broader economic and political field (2015: location 286):

“Western universities are in the grip of a deep malaise, and a number of them have found themselves, through some of their faculty [a reference to the economics professors in the US who were implicated in triggering the global financial crisis in 2008], giving consent to — and sometimes considerably compromised by — the implementation of a financial system that, with the establishment of hyper-consumerist, drive-based and ‘addictogenic’ society, leads to economic and political ruin on a global scale. If this has occurred, it is because their goals [the enlightenment of humanity through self-critical knowledge], their organisations and their means have been put entirely at the service of the destruction of sovereignty.”

Comprehending the complexity of Stiegler’s argument, supported by plenty of evidence, depends on reading the book. Suffice to say that here is a thinker who is not afraid to indict the real culprit in the demise of education, and to show the futility of universities “engaging” a society already compromised by uncritical surrender to the imperatives of consumption. In the process universities neglect their duty, to educate this “addictogenic” society.

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