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That ineffable instant of stupidity

As tough as it may be to admit, maybe our current rut isn’t because of political, social, or technological factors. Maybe it’s just because some people are stupid.

Go on. Tap the shoulder of the unemployed techie slumped next to you on the bus and ask the question that’s been killing you:

What’s the big damn problem?

I mean, what exactly is holding us back?

Here we are at the most advanced moment in history (no, this is … no, this is!) but we just seem stuck in a rut. Not technologically, but in our momentum to go forward. Something is keeping us from evolving at the rate we might be. That we were evolving at a decade ago. It’s like the old maxim about people only using 10 percent of their brain potential. Given the things we could be doing, look what we are actually doing.

We could be flying digital helicopters to and from work. We could make breakfast on superconductive wafflemakers. We could have handhelds implanted right in our hands. We could have a way to keep those hairy little balls from growing on our sweaters. But we don’t. Instead we’re still booting up Windows and frowning quizzically when it crashes.

We could spend our time more productively bashing our foreheads repeatedly with ball peen hammers. So what’s the problem? Is it the economy? Is it geopolitics? Too much acid in the ozone? What? This is where the weary tech support professional beside you opens his eyes briefly, like the Dormouse in Wonderland, and tells you the answer.

“People are stupid.”

This isn’t just your standard techie sociopathy talking. It’s the sweet honey of wisdom, poured straight from the hive. If people weren’t dumb, that techie wouldn’t be nodding off on the 21-A bus, returning from his 14th job interview this week.

Think about the things that wouldn’t have happened if we’d all been just a wee bit brighter. If people weren’t stupid, Microsoft wouldn’t have wasted 20 techno years–that’s over 11,750 dog years–guaranteeing that every new OS iteration was backwardly compatible to the worst OS ever conceived.

If people weren’t stupid, instead of acquiescing to the stubbornness of old software users, developers could develop smart, fast new programs that write a completely new page.

If people weren’t stupid, certain stocks that were selling at $100+ multiples a while back wouldn’t be selling for pennies on the dollar.

If people weren’t stupid, we would never catch colds.

If you cup one hand to your ear and listen carefully, you can hear: The sound of hard drives not being backed up, spinning a zillion more revolutions toward breakdown. The sound of stupid people opening .SCR files sent to them anonymously. The wave of cyber-entrepreneurs setting up ma Ôn’ pa pornstops every 30 feet along the Infobahn.

Now, some of this is statistically unavoidable. On average, half the people on the planet are going to be below average. No matter how you measure intelligence, that ain’t going to change.

Also, if everyone were smart, the global economy would be an even bigger mess. Who would we sell our old computers to? The idea was that democratized information technology would lift all boats.

We worried a lot about the haves and the have-nots. But we were talking about money then, not brain cells.

But for a long time that democratization seemed to be happening. Thousands of people, then millions, began plugging in. It was a revolution of knowledge and entrepreneurship, and it seemed like it could go on forever. And it made Bill Clinton look awfully good.

But the market ran out of smart people. The leading edge gave way to the vast sprawling plains, and the uplift everyone had been experiencing began to sag.

As the lowly ones entered the market, it was just too much temptation. Products buckled with features. No company was willing to cut a clear path toward the future. Everyone burdened themselves with the yoke of past product design.

Instead of a cyber city on a hill, in which eyeballs were more important than earnings, we reverted to an immigrant economy, with the last people off the boat getting offered the deed to the Brooklyn Bridge.

The dynamic in four parts:

1. Mega-smart people hatch a great new idea.

2. Very smart people shell out big bucks to embrace it, at considerable risk to themselves.

3. Less smart people follow, but spend more timidly.

4. Finally, those who can barely locate their money in their pockets buy in–but with qualifications that hamstring future development.

In an intelligent economy, new ideas would race from drawing board to the street. The world would be a house afire, for the bold elite at least. It would be a win-win, post-capitalist world. Everyone would be a wolf–lean, mean, and scary. In a refreshing sort of way.

In an intelligent economy, companies would stop selling to customers halfway through Part 3 (or the moment the first customer puts the install disk in upside-down and complains.) Instead, the lower tiers furnish an enormous flock of irresistible sheep, and dollar-driven technology companies are obliged to pause and fleece them–bogging down their products in their zeal to expand market share to include the lowly ones.

Soon, the tarmac on the jet runway is just tar.

The good news is, we still haven’t tapped the dumbest of the dumb, the 40 percent of Americans who, after all these years, said in a recent poll that they have no intention of venturing onto the Internet, ever.

Whew!

Now, I’m sorry if this analysis offends you. It’s not your fault if you’re dumber than a stuck doorknob. Bad genetics is probably to blame. The problem is, no one’s eating the especially slow sheep, because we are taught it’s not nice. So the gene pool, already far too diverse to facilitate progress, gets stupider with every mouthful of grass.

It is like someone pulled the plug from the bathtub, and a twirling maelstrom informs us that everything must go. And the last thing you see before the sucking sound of the last suds going down the drain, and that yellow plastic ducky lodging in the pipe, is a message from another country, a message that has raised millions of dollars for the entrepreneurial economies of East Africa.

Five years after this idea first rolled out, there are people who, though they somehow get food into their mouths and remember to exhale following every inhalation, still fall for this line: “Greetings from Joseph Mobutu. I represent the estate of Jonas Savimbi, deceased president of Angola, and I request your assistance in a matter of the utmost gravity…”

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