"In the modern world more people have access to knowledge and the ability to publish. The internet also makes collaboration much easier and modern universities promote specialisation. So it could be that the way that knowledge advances these days is through networks of specialists working together, across the globe – rather than through a single, towering intellect pulling together a great theory in the reading room of the British Museum."
Jonah Lehrer from The Frontal Cortex speculates that the apparent dearth of intellectuals is due to the "lessened importance of the individual" because "the era of the lone genius is coming to an end," for which he cites a study showing that teamwork and collaboration is on the rise in modern research.
There's the obvious thing to say about Lehrer's argument. There has never been something like a lone genius. You don't contribute to a society's knowledge and well-being without being part of that society. Scientific research has never been done in intellectual vacuum. All the great thinkers had their friends, their correspondences, their mentors and colleagues. But maybe more important, that teamwork is on the rise doesn't lessen the importance of the individual. It just integrates it better and, truth be said, makes it less apparent. But either way, it is questionable that the number of peer reviewed articles from large collaborations has anything to do with intellectuals to begin with.
I think the reasons for Rachman's impression are more mundane. He is probably right with the suggestion that it is difficult to recognize a great thinker while they're still thinking. There's 7 billions people on the planet and all of them have something to say. A lot of them say smart things occasionally, some say smart things most of the time, but all that smartness may turn out to be bullshit anyway. Take that guy Kurzweil with his Singularity prediction for 2045. Chances are, in the year 2045 he'll be little more than a curiosity. And some people that today might appear completely nuts will turn out to be right on the spot. Time will tell, so give it time.
The only real possibility there won't be no intellectuals in the future (aside from stupidity spreading and progress stagnating) is that thinking indeed becomes truly collective. However, as I argued in my earlier post on Collective Intelligence, we are far from that. In today's collaborations knowledge is not emergent. It is not something that really happens on the collective level. It is simply an assembly of many small parts. Yes, the parts profit from the other parts' contributions and if you put a group of smart people together they can work with each others contribution faster, but it's still a piece-by-piece work.
The prototypical example for a system that is more than the sum of its pieces is a frog. If assembled correctly, it croaks and jumps and that's emergent features. The prototypical example for a system that is the sum of its pieces is lot of bricks. It gets you a wall, alright, and maybe even a house. But it doesn't actually acquire new abilities. Today's specialist networks are brick walls, not frogs. The thinking still has to be done by the individual. We're all just bricks in the wall.
"Ein Stein" is German for "a stone."
So what do you think? Do you share Rachman's impression that today's intellectuals are disappointing? And if so, what do you think the reason is?