economics Philosophy

Digital Populism and the Future of the Humanities

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve no doubt heard of Bitcoin and the term cryptocurrency. You probably haven’t heard of decentralized finance (DeFi), blockchains, and decentralized data storage. If you have, it has probably only been through the grapevines. You intuitively know, however, that all of this is related to our technological and digital revolution. One might also ask, what does all of this have to do with the humanities?

As you undoubtedly know, I am a writer, teacher, and passionate exponent of the humanities online (among other things). There is no more exciting time to be involved in the humanities than in our current digital revolution which has torn down the old walls of humanistic education and has revolutionized the manner in which one can live a humanistic life.

Before, one had to be part of the economic and cultural elite to enjoy a humanist life of books, learning, and leisure. And while a humanities life is still impractical to many, those who say so are stuck in Old Order Boomer thinking. It is true that a life in the humanities costs time and money, as everything else in the world does. It doesn’t matter where we come from, we all live under the same 24-hour day and books cost money and education also costs money.

How should one who loves the humanities proceed in our age? In my opinion, one should not study the humanities in college and waste all that time and money studying for an ultimately worthless degree. I know I might sound hypocritical because I have an education in the humanities, attended Yale, and studied with Sir Roger Scruton prior to his death. But I am aware that I am also the exception.

I studied economics alongside history and philosophy as an undergraduate. I found the theoretic and intellectual side to economics fascinating and stimulating. It afforded me a summer in China in 2013. It was a glorious experience. While I do not use that economics degree for practical employment, I do use the knowledge I gained to examine and anticipate our economic future.

As we all know, we are living in the throes of a major digital and technological revolution. Cryptocurrency is all the rage. In other sectors, decentralized finance (DeFi) is a major hope and expectation. We also hear, almost ad nauseum now, of the dangers of “Big Tech.”

I don’t disagree that there are negative aspects to Big Tech. Our technological revolution, going back even to the Industrial Revolution, wrought dislocation and environmental changes that we are still living with and, even, suffering from. But what, besides the utopian neo-luddite dream of dismantling technology, is the end game of technological critics?

Humans have always been shaped by technology. The Neolithic revolution and the hierarchal life we have been living was a product of Neolithic technology which permitted permanent settling through the agrarian revolution which, in of itself, also served as the seed for the eventual industrial revolution and our current techno-digital revolution. Humans have created technology for their benefit. In turn, we have been shaped by technology.

Today, a humanistic education is widespread and universal precisely because of our digital and technological revolution. People who otherwise would have spent years learning languages and studying great books can turn to teachers and enthusiasts who have spent years learning languages and reading great books as a means in securing a foundational leg without going $40,000 into debt and wasting away their most productive years—their twenties—being economically and socially stunted as they waste away their evenings and nights reading Plato, Aristotle, and Augustine.

I wouldn’t trade four continents, my friends and colleagues, and the time I spent studying the humanities for something different. But I wouldn’t advise people to think that life is possible for everyone, or even a majority, of students who study the humanities. Moreover, I was on full scholarship as an undergraduate and didn’t go into debt for my education. My father gave me wise advice and support for graduate school. I invested money for graduate school precisely because I didn’t need $20,000 to sit wasting away in a bank as a full scholarship student. That, in combination with some modest financial assistance from my father, made Yale and England, the Philippines, China, Israel, Europe and more, all possible. But that won’t be the case for most students.

It is sometimes said that you should “do what you love.” I disagree. And this is not semantical. Most people don’t do what they love. They do what they must. Not everyone will also have this opportunity, but it is certain more attainable than “doing what you love.” You should do something that affords you to do what you love and enjoy.

This returns us to digital populism, DeFi, crypto, investing, and the future of the humanities. Contrary to the dour pessimism that the humanities are dying, it is dying only in its old form. Technological paradigm shifts always ensure an aufhebung of the old while a certain spirit of the old migrates into the new. On the contrary, more people are reading the humanities than ever before. They do so through decentralized and digital means.

Some of the most popular channels on YouTube and podcasts are, in fact, humanities oriented. History channels, book channels, and literary lectures are all available online and sometimes garner hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of views. That far exceeds the few hundred students (if that) in a classroom setting every year. Moreover, later in life lovers of literature, philosophy, theology, and history return to that old flame from their earlier lives with a solid job and financial freedom to pursue their intellectual interests. This has been made possible through our technological and digital revolution.

How should a lover of the humanities proceed in our exciting digital age? First is to have some understanding of economics and the future of our digital economy. We are no longer living in a physical global economy based on the slow, bureaucratic, institutional order that is slowly being phased out by tech entrepreneurs and their enthusiastic supporters and followers. We are living on the cusp of a digital global economy where transactions can take milliseconds. This, of course, is the promise and hope of DeFi.

Fiat currency has no intrinsic value. Simply storing money in a wallet or a bank is a sure way to lose money because of inflation and the weakening of fiat currency in the ups and downs of economic trends. Those who are negative toward DeFi, cryptocurrency, and the crypto-anarchist movement are ideologically and egotistically invested in the social democratic fiat experiment. But like the real Neanderthals, no amount of Nobel Prizes and New York Times or Guardian columns condemning the future will change the fact that they are being displaced by the future. Yes, I am an enthusiastic supporter of crypto, DeFi, as well as precious metals—all of which affords my personal humanistic life and leisurely pursuits with a nice cup of tea with the pages of Dickens opened before me as I make money while drinking and reading.

If one has found employment in a good paying field, with a stable income, or a field that pays well with generous hours that affords a humanistic life after work hours, then one is undeniably on the road to a humanist future for their entire life. Smart investing can lead to huge gains in short times (and especially in the long run), and prudent selling and enjoying the fruits of smart investing can lead to a massive private library previously only available to monks, clerics, universities, and the Top 1%. It is now possible for someone making a middleclass income to possess thousands of books if they are astute about economic probabilities, financial management, and our technological future (as I do).

Furthermore, the technological revolution has also made learning more accessible and insightful than traditional classroom settings. This is not a comment on pandemic education. This is a comment on the proliferation of high quality “publications of the higher journalism” that have been able to adapt and take advantage of our connected online world. One does not have to relay on a single teacher and the introduction to the book their reading to gain insights and foundations to what they are reading. One can find a plethora of lectures and essays available online to help ground their reading and learning in a way heretofore unseen. Perhaps the professoriate is envious of those who have left the cathedral of educational centralization and found great, and even greater, success in the digital and online world while having freer hours and a posher life than they—once again, doing something that affords them to enjoy what they love.

Despite the problems we do, in fact, face—of which I tend to be in empathetic agreement with various conservatives—we also live in the most exciting time to be alive if we are only willing to accept it and accommodate ourselves to the opportunities that abound for us. Simply criticizing the present, and the future, is rather tiring. Yet I find it ironic that these critics criticize the very world that allows them to play public intellectual when, even thirty years ago, they would have remained a nameless and faceless individual in the world.

For those who love the humanities, the present and the future offers boundless opportunities for the humanities to show its worth by adapting to the changes of our world rather than sulking in the demise of old order humanities and humanism. Classical and humanistic schools, especially in the United States, are booming. This comes with an opportunity for new publishing, writing, and online resources for the growing classical education movement in the United States. Instead of being a Yale, or Oxford, student, one can attain a quality humanistic education in rural and suburban America in any state at any reasonable income level. One can even achieve a quality humanistic education without attending classes—for the classroom of the computer or smartphone is available. And the truly astute will make the most of that.

If one loves the humanities as part of their general disposition in life, there is no reason not to work a “regular job” that pays well and permits you, through your own cultivation of virtuous and judicious use of time, to enjoy a nice scotch as one reads Herman Melville, Charles Dickens, or Jane Austen for an hour or two while having a portfolio grow in earnings that will allow, not only a nice retirement and another decade or more living and reading with Plato, Augustine, and Shakespeare, but also afford the next purchase of Virgil, Sappho, and Tolstoy.

The humanities are now accessible to so many. We are living in the century of a populist humanities (as is evidenced in many online journals with people who would have otherwise never been able to write and publish on these topics to write and publish on these topics and help grow global wisdom, knowledge, and insights). And, as a lover of the humanities, I wouldn’t trade the twenty-first century for the nineteenth, eighteenth, or the “Golden Age” of the humanities of the early Renaissance. A millionaire humanities life is possible, now, for more than the scions of Yale and Oxbridge classicists. And as a son of an immigrant mother and a working middleclass father, the life I enjoy is only possible in the twenty-first century and the decentralized, digital, world we are living in and entering.

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6 comments

  1. I think you are the only optimistic enthusiast about digital age I have read so far. I am an enthusiast too but people misunderstand freedom in digital age. That’s what I have tried to warn about in previous blogs. Your post gave me good vibes. I will surely share it. Thank you!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I wouldn’t say I’m entirely optimistic. There are, as I see it, some negative drawbacks (big ones too). Obviously increased surveillance and tech domination are not to be things celebrated. But I also think too much complaining on the negatives obscures the great positives of the digital age too. More openness, cross pollination, communications, individual control over future (especially in finance). So it’s also important to remember the positives. In my own mind, the constantly negative approach is filled with too much Nietzschean resentment from people being displaced by the digital revolution with “upstarts.” As I noted in the conclusion, given my own background, there’s no way I’d have the education I received, the opportunities I had, and the current life I live, if not for the digital age.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Your optimism about the digital age wouldn’t be totally contrary to your posts criticizing liberalism? I’m assuming – and correct me if I’m wrong on this – that liberalism plays a big part in this “free world” of today, right? so how do we reconcile this?

    For my part, I think it’s an obvious truth that the internet age brought a lot of good things. Like you said in the post, I would’ve never started an intellectual life if it wasn’t for the internet.

    But I wonder if this’s an innate thing to modern technology or just a result of the ugliness of the modern world? thus finding in books and the life of the intellect an escape from the tragedy of modernity.

    But going further, I think we have more problems. Just to illustrate two: 1) not everyone can live off the fruits of its intellectual life. Think about it, if someone who’s really good and knowledgeable of this stuff (the ancients, the germans, myths etc) – like yourself -, why would we need more people doing this? It surely wouldn’t need everyone who would love to live off this. 2) I wonder if we’re not having a fetishization of reading just for the sake of it. Sure, it’s very nice to read Homer, Virgil, Dante, Goethe etc..but how can we feel when we know, for a fact that no one, like those mentioned above, will ever emerge in the state of our current world? it’s like we’re reading just for the sake of it, and not actually trying to apply those “realities” to our own – and that’s because we can’t!

    I don’t think having more goods, leisure time(which is debatable, obviously a medieval peasant had more leisure time than we do), or reading the “classics” worths more than living in a healthy society.

    I don’t know, maybe I’m just rambling, or maybe I’m just not that knowledgeable about America’s society, but I surely know that we’re not living in the best age ever.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Not everyone can live off the fruits of an intellectual life; and that has almost always been the case going back to ancient times. The intellectuals were almost always notables from aristocratic families. But today one can live well while also enjoying an intellectual life.

      Now someone like myself, even 50 years ago, would not have this opportunity (as you’ve admitted about yourself). There’s a difference, say, in seeing problems that modernity has vs. becoming a pedantic pessimistic and resentful complainer over why you’ve not achieved your impossible dreams. Entitlement has bred a generation, multiple generations, of people who think the moon is theirs and when they don’t get it they’re just pissed off and angry. Others are navigating the waters very well and enjoying what the present has to offer. I have no illusions that I’m in the second camp while worried about certain problems wrought by modernity. But I’m not going to dedicate my life and my prime to complaining and complaining and complaining. I also have a life to live!

      I can’t think of one healthy society in the past—they all had problems once you start digging deep enough instead of indulging in cursory nostalgic romanticism. I think nostalgic romanticism has its purposes when it is not overblown, the same with digitization and technology. It would have been great to spend time in, say, Renaissance Florence or early modern Amsterdam, etc., but would I actually want to have lived in that time period? Certainly not. The wisdom of Aristotle is useful: find the mean.

      I definitely don’t retreat into books as an escape for the ugliness of modernity. On the contrary, it helps me navigate and more fully appreciate and critique modernity. It’s about trying to make the most of our situation rather than a form of escapism. I do believe, however, that I wouldn’t want to live in any other era other than the one I’m living in.

      Liked by 1 person

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