Forget The Cat, Who Killed Curiosity?

2009 October 28

Yesterday afternoon, a friend and I were lamenting the announced closing of a prominent think tank. She remarked that the general public probably wouldn’t even notice its disappearance from the intellectual landscape. True. Social sciences research for its own sake ain’t exactly the stuff of sexy headlines and well, duh, it’s a recession y’all. Organizations are going under. People are losing their jobs. And those of who are still employed are probably going to come down with H1N1. C’est la vie, kiddos.

979496_fafa6d8dd1Photo by Ishtiaque Zico

But still, I couldn’t help but see the shuttering of this one institution as emblematic of a larger-scale devaluing of acquiring knowledge for its own sake. Forget about justifying policy options, determining ROI, indulging our collective fetish for pithy statistics, what happened to edification alone being a sufficient reason to explore an issue, an idea, a social phenomenon? Figuring stuff out just because it was neat or interesting or crossed your mind while idling in traffic on your morning commute. When did curiosity become purely teleological?

There’s no time. Identify the problem. “Source” a solution or hire someone to do it on your behalf. Monetize the hell out of said solution. Lather, rinse, repeat. Knowledge is only good if it’s “productive.” Will it make us faster, stronger, richer? If yes, bring it on. If no, well, who has time for that sort of high-minded self indulgence? Thinkers aren’t doers. And the world loves a doer. Go-getters don’t sit around pondering, they go and they get. Ya dig? It’s a return to a Wall Street era mentality, but information is the new junk bond. Buy low, sell high.

And instead of the internet substantively broadening our curiosity horizons (so many tangential rabbit holes to tumble down!), it has actually created some sort of social hive mind. News stories, viral YouTube videos, chain emails, memes up the wazoo. It’s as if we all adopted the digital delphi method – we just keep winnowing the breadth of content down until we can all agree that a clip of a bridal party dancing down the aisle to a Chris Brown song should definitely win an Oscar. Retweet the same Mashable link as if it were your job. And if Wikipedia says it’s true, it must be so. No need to click further. They’ll aggregate, we’ll assimilate. Q.E.D, my peeps.

Maybe I just take it all too personally. After all, one of the most expedient ways into my esteem/affection/heart/pants is to share a genuine curiosity about the world. Be into esoterica, trivia, technical and factual minutiae and we’re almost guaranteed to hit it off. But it seems stumbling across these simpatico-minded people is getting ever rarer. Pragmatism and the weight of quotidian concerns (hello mortgage, health insurance, etc.,) doesn’t just take top priority, it takes sole priority. Teach the test and shelve the rest. And it feels more and more as if I’m out of sync with the prevailing corporate and social culture that views learning as a means to an end, with that end being a better standard of material living. Maybe I’m romanticizing a state of inquisitiveness that hasn’t been in vogue for two or three hundred years. Maybe I’m a curmudgeonly intellectual snob. Think Andy Rooney with better eyebrows.

But man, it’s hard out here for a dilettante. I could use a little commiseration, ya know?

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