But one reason why I’m optimistic about the future of the economy is, decades from now, once these smart, frugal, well-educated millennials, grown up, take over the upper-management jobs from the less intelligent boomers and gen-x, the economy will receive a significant tailwind from the increase in productivity and profits. According to an article in PsMag, The Kids are All Right But Why?, there is evidence millennials more socially responsible than earlier generations, better educated, less spendthrift, and less likely to do drugs, making them ideal employees. Thanks to Spock-like rationality and high intellect, millennials can easily anticipate, identify, and solve business problems and conflicts, saving employers money and time. If you took a Fortune 1000 company and replaced all its senior management with the top-100 posters by karma on Reddit, it would quickly become a Fortune 100 company. But because a lot of these same smart millennials also tend to be somewhat negative about corporate America, preferring to be alone indulging in intellectual pleasures, it will still take some prodding to get them involved.
But not everyone is happy though with America’s newfound ‘nerdocracy’. From Bryan Caplan, Redistribution: Blocking the Revenge of the Nerds?
One of my pet ideas is the Jock/Nerd Theory of History. If you’re reading this, you probably got a taste of it during your K-12 education, when your high grades and book smarts somehow failed to put you at the top of the social pyramid. Jocks ruled the school. If the nerds were lucky, they did the jocks’ homework in exchange for decent treatment.
But then something amazing happened: Nerds got enough breathing room to develop and implement amazing wealth-producing ideas. The process fed on itself, devaluing physical ability and elevating mental ability. Nerds built the modern world – and won handsome financial rewards in the process. (Yes, I’m painting with broad strokes, but bear with me).
But it’s not just about higher wages or having the most internet ‘karma’ points, Twitter and Instagram followers, Snapchat friends, Vine loops, or YouTube subscribers. Especially as of 2008, it seems like politicians, policy makers have been throwing themselves prostrate before the cognitive and financial elite, with bank bailouts, quantitative easing, and zero percent interest rates forever – things that benefit the rich, the best and the brightest, through surging asset prices and rising valuations, but does less for the remaining 90-95% of the country. It’s kinda unfair, but it’s the system we have, and it’s not changing, sorry. A utilitarian argument can also be made that since the smartest produce disproportionately more economic value than everyone else (by creating companies, innovation, research, creative output, and investment), policy should benefit them first.
Post-2008 society can be likened to a ‘revenge of the nerds’ in overdrive, with the redistributionist-left as the jocks and bullies, who are envious and resentful of the success of ‘nerds’ and wish to spread their wealth. Its understandable and predictable how this tectonic shift in social hierarchy, that favors the smartest and most productive, has made many democrats and liberals upset.
‘Intellectualism culture’ also is observed in online journalism and internet culture, in post-2013 trends such as the rise of ‘long form‘ journalism. Pre-2012 – with the exception of a handful of sites like The New Yorker and New York Times – listicles, slides, and short articles dominated the internet journalism. The assumption was attention spans were too short for anyone to read a 7,000-word article online, which obviously was wrong:
Common Internet logic would say that articles of those lengths just don’t go viral, and that an editorial website that only publishes occasionally certainly has no chance of retaining readers. But the success of Wait But Why has flatly disproved that. Its most viral article, a 1,600-word essay explaining the psychosocial reasons why Generation Y is so unhappy, has well over 2 million shares. The site’s other long-form essays typically get in the range of 300,000 to 600,000 shares each. Even the lowest performing articles boast share numbers in the mid-five-figures.
In eschewing churn in favor of substance and breadth for depth, WaitButWhy’s essays also capture a level of reader engagement that even the new-media giants would be envious of. WaitButWhy’s audience (“From all over the world, all different ages, all different backgrounds,” says Urban) doesn’t just share stories; They stick around the site to discuss articles in the comments, which can number in the thousands and, in some cases, are almost as long and thoughtful as the articles themselves.
Especially since 2013, there has been an increased demand for complicated, introspective, technical journalistic content, in contrast to less intelligent, banal topics like celebrity gossip. Although the latter is still popular, there has been a huge surge in interest the former, and bloggers and YouTube ‘vloggers’ that cover more esoteric topics are getting a lot of traffic and making a lot of money while ‘mainstream’ subject have long since stagnated. This is probably because, decades ago, intellectual topics were underrepresented, but are now liberated thanks to the internet and a generation full of people smart enough to appreciate complicated, esoteric stuff.
An example is Wait But Why, an immensely popular blog that covers existential and scientific topics such as the Fermi Paradox. Although Wait But Why was only launched in 2013 and has fewer than a hundred total posts in its archive, it’s more popular than decades-old media publications.
Another is Gregory Cochran, who writes about anthropology, genetics, and other complicated subjects on his blog, West Hunter, and is another example of a ‘esoteric celebrity’, who has received considerable attention for his often controversial ideas on race and biology. His most recent post, Our Dumb World, was shared over 600 times on Facebook, which is impressive for a subject that perhaps only 2-5% of the human population is smart enough to understand, and indicates significant demand for complicated stuff.
As mentioned before, there’s Scott Aaronson, whose blog ‘Shtetl-Optimized’ gets a minimum of couple hundred comments per post and presumably tens of thousands of page views – not bad for a blog where knowing the difference between ‘NP-hard vs. NP complete’ is prerequisite knowledge.
Other examples include the blog Melting Asphalt (which I discuss later), Marginal Revolution (a very popular economics blog), and Steve Patterson , whose 2016 article Cantor Was Wrong | There Are No Infinite Sets was shared over 1,700 times on Facebook. Although celebrity gossip, politics, sports, and ‘outrage porn’ (such as the the latest college rape hoax or Black Lives Matter throwing a tantrum) tends to dominate the headlines, there is enormous interest (and huge growth) for even the most abstract and complicated of subjects, all as part of America’s post-2008 ‘intellectual renaissance’.
The two most popular comics on the internet – XKCD and SMBC – have seen explosive growth in the past two years, and involve high-IQ themes such as STEM, internet culture, and nerd culture – not politics, anthropomorphic animals, or kids.
On a much grander scale, Eliezer Yudkowsky’s 500,000-word fan fiction Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality got over 6,576 votes on ‘Good Reads’ and considerable media coverage on such mainstream sites as Vice, The Atlantic, and Wired. Because online reviews and ratings are only a fraction of total readers, that probably means his book, which is full of complicated stuff and probably not accessible to a general audience, was read hundreds of thousands of times – much more so than books by even popular authors who write about mainstream subjects like weight loss and marketing. It’s just mind blowing…that so many people have read his book, which wasn’t even marketed through mass media, but rather through word of mouth, forums, and Yudkowsky’s own esoteric ‘stardom’. Intuition would dictate to write about dieting, fashion, fitness, cooking, golf, etc. – subjects that have a broad appeal – but those markets are saturated and stagnant. Intellectual markets, despite being much smaller, are rapidly growing, and have a huge, loyal readership that until only very recently was largely ignored. There are seven billion people in the world and if 5% of them have an IQ above 120, that’s 350 million potential buyers and readers – nothing to sneeze at.
Other examples examples include Quartz (qz.com), Priceonomics, FiveThirtyEight, and Vox.com. These sites, which were only launched a couple years ago, are extremely popular and their articles almost always go viral, use a contrarian-style of writing, with lots of data and graphs rather than partisan demagoguery, which people as of 2013 have grown tired of. The style of just browbeating your audience with your option became obsolete sometime in 2013 – it doesn’t work anymore like it did in 2000-2008, the golden age of opinionated and political blogging. You cannot impose your will on other people, force your opinion down their throats. Now we’re in an era of data visualizations and nuance, rather than just uninformed, unsubstantiated angry opinions. As I explain in The Genius of Ross Douthat, partisanship and ‘culture wars’ have given way to ‘shared narratives‘ that cross the political aisle.