Dilettantism, he said, clenching his fists.

by waxbanks

Not overcommitted to making an argument here, but Steam Must Be Vented. Someone give me a grant.


This morning I noticed that Marc Andreessen — coauthor of the first graphical browser, Mosaic — had blocked me on Twitter. That made sense; I’d blocked him first, while calling him a dilettante. This isn’t hard to justify; a quick look at his ‘true purpose of capitalism’ pronouncements, or his carrying on about how only illiterate morons are bothered by the NSA’s secret surveillance programs, or his little nutshell accounts of human history, bears out the claim. He is a man whose expertise in one area long ago convinced him of his authority to talk about stuff he evidently does not understand. (As the generally execrable Valleywag put it, he appears never to have read a book.)

Andreessen’s pile of money helped convince him of both his rightness and his righteousness, of course. It’s a widespread Silicon Valley problem — the stupid belief that success in software is an indicator of a generalized transcendent ‘problem-solving ability.’

It may be too much to ask that our (thought-)leaders possess wisdom, but it’s certainly our place to demand that they be able to act and speak knowledgeably in dissimilar domains, beyond the purely abstract. I’m willing to listen to coders-turned-financiers talk about money, because money talk suits those who (e.g.) apparently process only a fraction of typical human emotional information. There’s a reason Wall Street, like Silicon Valley, is full of hyperadaptive sociopaths. But they really do need to understand their place. Funding lots of software startups makes you an expert on funding software startups, but it sure as hell doesn’t teach you anything about, say, how the human beings in the middle of the analytical-intelligence Gaussian relate to the software those hilariously, often fraudulently overvalued startups are building.

(A similar critique can be aimed at, say, Nate Silver — a stats wonk who now, for better or worse, makes a living writing mostly about politics as a kind of ‘reality TV’ for folks who think they’re too cool for the CNN/MSNBC/FOX horserace. It doesn’t bother his readers that Silver’s primary engagement with politics is precisely with that horserace; secretly, shamefacedly, that’s what they’re there for.)

Because the Valley evidently breeds absolutely no broad-based social concern beyond the gestural pseudoprogressivism of the anxiously surveilled 20/30something, there’s no cultural pressure there to learn deeply about human hearts. Absent any emotional intelligence or the forced pluralism of mainstream life’s everyday stochastic tumult, there’s something to be said for good ol’ noblesse oblige. George HW Bush would never have lived in Silicon Valley; his intellectually dead son might’ve done well there.

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Dilettantism is a huge problem in Washington as well — necessarily so, alas. Someone like Hillary Clinton is expected now to be able to make informed decisions, based solely on briefs from her team of expensively credentialed lickspittles, on matters ranging from farm subsidies to heroin overdoses to the place of religious belief in affairs of state to human beings’ role in recent climate instability. That she manifestly knows nothing at all about this latter, which is easily the most pressing issue facing humankind today, doesn’t make any difference to her millions of supporters. Merely by being less obviously stupid than her eventual Republican opponent, she’ll be ordained Wise and empowered to make decisions which may well come down to ‘Which billion humans should be displaced, in effect by oil/car companies, during this century?’

This is one reason Trump is doing well, by the way. A dilettante with expertise in area A who wades into area B making Big Pronouncements will do well with the folks in the cheap seats, who are poisonously envious of (and justifiably, Oedipally hateful toward) the folks in areas A and B.

President Obama, oddly enough, seems self-conscious about his lack of knowledge — unlike Clinton, who’s obviously intelligent but with a conventional narrowness of vision, Obama has given evidence time and again of his awareness of the limits of his knowledge and the seriousness of his charge. The fact that he’s obviously learned a great deal from his daughters speaks well of him, as does the self-questioning that characterizes his first book. (Hitchens unsurprisingly noticed this about him early on.) He seems to possess a broad-based intelligence, to be able to see himself and his work and world from multiple angles. That’s extraordinary, especially in his line of work.

Try to imagine Clinton actually writing her own autobiography.

But then, try to imagine Marc Andreessen actually meriting one.

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