Thoughts about James Burke while watching You’ve Got Mail

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Jeff Bezos is the uberfurher of the current age.

He made his bones off of discounting books. Books cost money because it takes a lot of work to make them. Ever tried to write a book? It’s a life’s devotion. And then someone has to edit it. These things are valuable. So valuable that Gutenberg’s moveable type made books accessible and that led to the Reformation in Europe. Before that, illiterate Christians relied on a priest at the pulpit and stained glass windows to tell them what was what. After it, anyone could buy a Bible and interpret it how they chose. It loosened the monopoly of the elite but led to anti-intellectualism.

Bezos squeezed the little guy to sell consumers what they wanted. And now anyone can own basically any thing published. And, without a formal education or dedicated self-study, everyone thinks they know things they don’t. Everyone is an authority. Information is cheap and so are opinions.

This isn’t my theory. At least not about the democratization of information. That’s James Burke. But I’ve yet to hear him comment on Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerberg by name. He has commented the age of mediocrity that would arise when people who have no business owning opinions they can’t ground in truth and logic. Jeff and Mark make money because people have settled for mediocrity.

James Burke’s solution to this giant mess we’re in? Contextualized education. Show how things are interrelated. Establish an interdisciplinary network with strings to follow to understand how one thing led to another, even when the links are not obvious. At its basis is critical thinking. And critical thought is at a huge premium right now. It’s the compass to guide us through the inundation of facts and data.

But also, as an aside: There’s this scene in You’ve Got Mailed when Greg Kinnear is on a talk show and blowing the host’s mind with things Meg Ryan’s heard him say before. I think about this a lot. Every time you meet someone new, do you blow their mind with things you’ve said before? Maybe put them in your repertoire? Maybe hear your friends repeat things to impress potential sexual partners? If you’ve been dating for any number of years, you probably know that there is nothing new under the sun. That band he likes? Maybe it was something he got turned onto when he was fourteen. Or maybe a girlfriend played the album for him. That joke he tells over dinner? How many other women has he told that joke to? Are we all just reiterations of our former selves? Combination locks we keep spinning to get to the same numbers just waiting to be unlocked by someone who finally gets it?

In the beginning it was guys who talked about The Pixies and Mulholland Drive. Then it was guys who liked Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits. And then Television, but especially Tom Verlaine. Every one of these guys moved the ball forward in my pop culture education. And then when the next guy came along, I knew what he was talking about and the conversation went one step deeper. We are all of us collections of past relationships.

I love it when someone can quote things I’ve never heard about. I love learning from people. There’s a big difference between someone who will add weight to a conversation and someone who is jumping at the bit to repeat something they heard on a podcast and take credit for the critical thought. How do you encourage critical thought in adults who made it through very prestigious colleges without having to think for themselves very much? How do you fight against the tide of conformity, even when it is found in very same people who think of themselves as so contrarian and anti-establishment? I want to hear from the man who doesn’t pray at the alter of David Lynch. I want a man who will read A Wrinkle In Time and Jacob Have I Loved or any of the books that shook me to my core and reassembled the rubble into a new foundation.

Just surprise me is all I’m saying.

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