“I have a foreboding of an America in my children's or grandchildren's time -- when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what's true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness...
The dumbing down of American is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30 second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance.”
It’s a quote from the past. It is eloquently written in a long tradition of dystopian prose.
What’s striking is Sagan speaking to the magical thinkers of his time, and trying to shock them by the change he envisions (duh—it is a scary picture).
And what we have today are literate moderates who gave up on democracy after Nixon was pardoned, shocked into consciousness.
My worry with quotes like these is that there's always a hint of nostalgia and conservatism mixed through it. It's easy to remember your own past as more nuanced, more substantial than the present, but is that really true? I can never tell.
In this case, were people really more well-read and less ignorant in Sagan's past than they were in the mid nineties, or was he simply surrounded more by well-read, nuanced people when he was younger than when he was older? Or maybe both are the case? He complains about dumb TV shows in exactly the same way people these days complain about dumb Youtubers. Wouldn't there have been equally dumb things in Sagan's past that just happened to be easier for him to ignore?
I've read quotes with a very similar vibe but focused on other (perceived) societal changes, such as changing sexual mores, immigration, and so on. It's basically the standard template "things were better in the past than they are now, wrt $TOPIC-that-I-care-about, so I worry about the future". In Sagan's case, obviously, $TOPIC is science, but you could swap it out for nearly anything and write a similar story and it'll ring true to people with similar values as yours.
Basically, I think all I'm asking is, is society really dumbing down? Or are we simply confronted with it more?
Nostalgia and conservatism are always attacked in a kneejerk way. Some things were indeed better in the past, and it makes sense to want to conserve them. And, similarly, the future or present is not magically better, just newer temporarily.
>In this case, were people really more well-read and less ignorant in Sagan's past than they were in the mid nineties, or was he simply surrounded more by well-read, nuanced people when he was younger than when he was older?
The public discussion and politics, and the people involved were more well-read and less ignorant in Sagan's past than they are today. How about that?
E.g. back then some serious news outlets (with more gatekeeping and quality control and staff in remote areas, paid proof editors, etc) were the average person's main option to get their news.
Now any random, under-staffed, "news" website (which doesn't even have proof-readers, on-field reporters, or anything, and just repeats AP and Reuters news, opinion pieces, and internet gossip, is a "media outlet" anybody can access. And that's the best case, on top of random blogs and social media accounts.
It depends which people you talk about. The average person? Maybe not.
Thought leaders that shape the overall tone of social consciousness? Almost certainly.
That’s certainly the course over a much longer time window in the country.
If nothing else, the print (and even within print, shifts in frequency and volume) >> radio >> TV (and now >> social media) media transition has led to shifts in what the influential content is and what kind of people are thought leaders. And every step along that progression is to media that inherently are less suited to informational/intellectual content and more suited to content that short-circuited intellectual processing for pure emotional urgency.
It doesn't matter whether it's the lesser of the two, what matters is the overall effect on society as a whole.
For example, If people are generally more ignorant, would that be a benign thing 'overall' to society? Or non-benign?
We are going through a tremendous democratisation of dissemination of opinions. Each and everyone can publish content and there are better platforms for building a reader base.
The humans having opinions are mostly the same as before. The ability to hold at least two contradicting ideas in your head at the same time is still subject to the normal distribution of intelligence. My very subjective take on this is that individual humans can shine, while humans as a population... not so much.
A key, post modern, difference is that everybody has their own right to their understanding of 'truth'. There is no longer any normative mechanisms that weed out outliers, allowing QAnons of this world to proliferate. I am really not very hopeful for the near future. Over time, we will of course learn to live with this situation.
However, I stopped when I remembered the fate of Athens and Greece after Socrates. Although humanity as a whole certainly advanced forward in the last couple of thousand years, Greek civilisation did experience decline that Socrates predicted; old man yelling at cloud wasn't as wrong after all.
I believe that humanity will advance forward in the next couple of thousand years. But it doesn't mean that it will won't decline in the next few hundred years.
Maybe we need reminding; the more you feed the beast, the bigger it gets.
(Vague and broad maxim courtesy of any 'ancient' civilisation)
It's not so prescient. The same quote was often raised 15-20 years ago during the Bush Jr. years with similar praise for its foresight. But the economical transformation was well underway when Sagan wrote it, and even today it hasn't been that long (25 years) since it was written. In some sense it's horribly myopic - concern about 10-30 second mass broadcasts rather than 20 paragraph conspiracy theories from your uncle is quaint!
It's not a good context for it. Sagan would have detested Kassam and Rubin, holding them up as prime examples of the media, political, and intellectual failings he's describing.
I'd say that rather "ok boomer" is bad now (a thought stopping cliche), and will look extremely bad and dated in the future.
This randomly came to my YT queue one day: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qk1kuYPt51g