Age of Enlightenment

Henrik Karlsson wonders aloud for Wired Magazine whether podcasts will usher in a new Age of Enlightenment. He hears his friends in rural Sweden using English phrases they’ve picked up from listening to intellectual shows like those from Lex Friedman, Ezra Klein and others.

Anecdotally, people are picking up new behaviors and mental models from the conversations they overhear. They are imitating, at least on a superficial level, the strategies intellectuals use when confronting hard questions in real time (“You are saying …”, Let me rephrase that question,” There are several sub-questions here; let me start with …”). They absorb the tone that successful people use to establish casual rapport with someone they have just met. Podcast listeners also hear, again and again, how someone good at asking questions provides a context for someone else to be interesting.

Karlsson likens this spread of intellectualism to the original Age of Enlightenment and refers to Erasmus disseminating his ideas throughout the world several centuries ago.

The values, ideas, and norms that spread through DIY broadcasting and parasocial imitation today—can that shape the world, too? It is tempting to be dismissive of such ideas. For every person listening to an eight-hour intellectual podcast, there are 10 who listen to gossip and entertainment. But this was true of the early modern age too. When Erasmus sat on horseback sketching letters, it didn’t look like much. He was just talking to his friends, and what difference can a few antiquity nerds make? The world around them was descending into witch hunts and religious wars. The budding public, who listened in on the intellectual conversations, was a rounding error in the population statistics. Yet we now live in the world they wrote into being.

I can see the point Karlsson is making about the ideas of a few having a powerful impact when shared. Though I still harbor a certain level of skepticism, I will admit that we have indeed benefitted immensely from lights that shine in dark times.

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