Lay Down Your Weary Smartphone

The Surprisingly Tragic Death of the Know-It-All

Todd Brewer / 6.16.20

Before there was Seinfeld, there was Cheers—a 1980s comedy about the lives of bartenders and regular patrons of a local pub. The show is famous for its lovable and deeply flawed cast of characters that spanned over 11 seasons. Now almost 30 years later, the jokes mostly hold up. But viewers today will readily note how old the show feels, a time capsule of sorts for city life before the existence of the Internet and 24-hour news coverage. In this ancient drought of learning, the bar’s resident know-it-all (Cliff Clavin) thrives, using every conversation to share his illustrious knowledge: The Bermuda Triangle isn’t really a triangle. Cows were used in China as guard animals for the Forbidden City. Suntanning became popular in what is known as the Bronze Age.

Fact-checking used to require a library card or liberal arts degree, so most of Cliff’s numerous errors are simply met with an eye roll. His egregious blunders only sometimes incited debates and even these were rarely answered with certainty. The truth didn’t matter that much and the conversation simply moved on.

On the other side of the Internet revolution, the Cliff Clavinses of this world no longer exist. Smartphones killed the know-it-all. Friendly debates over facts have been replaced by dueling Internet searches, with signal strength valued more than wisdom. Knowledge and truth have been democratized, diffusely spread to everyone equipped with a glowing screen. In many ways, this newfound accessibility is a gift, providing a wealth of intellectual resources previously reserved to a select few. Ignorant assumptions are now better scrutinized by the free exchange of ideas.

But this has also generated a number of unfortunate consequences. The sheer volume of knowledge available has produced little understanding. Facts are now the weapons of choice in our culture wars and the more shots are fired the less the facts themselves seem to matter. There’s a statistic to justify every worldview and political opinion under the sun and adjudicating between them has become everyone’s business. Two months ago, Mother Jones ran a satirical piece titled “Every White Guy on Facebook is an Epidemiologist Now,” but I actually think they were right. We have strong opinions about nearly everything because we read an article that one time. In a world where everyone is an expert, there is no such thing as expertise.

Perhaps most distressingly, this wealth of knowledge at our fingertips has become less like a gift and more like a burden. There’s now no excuse for being ignorant about any range of topics, and being well-informed is now the Law of the land. You didn’t know that microwaving plastics can cause cancer? Or that children who watch more than 4 hours of TV a day become depressed? How couldn’t you! Equating knowledge with activism, keeping up with the litany of the world’s tragedies is the new measure of worth. Knowledge isn’t so much power anymore, but the currency of judgment and self-justification.

It should be no surprise then that there’s a deep anxiety about being uninformed, one that has only been exacerbated by our pandemic times. We are addicted to learning more and more, but not in a good way. And like any addiction, the suppliers of the goods know just how to feed the addict and keep them hooked. As Nicole Nguyen wrote in the Wall Street Journal last week:

The interfaces of social-media apps are designed specifically to get us hooked. One key metric for these companies is “time spent on app”—the longer you spend online, the more opportunities to serve you revenue-generating ads … “These algorithms are designed to take and amplify whatever emotions will keep us watching, especially negative emotions. And that can have a real negative impact on people’s mental health,” says David Jay of the Center for Humane Technology, a nonprofit addressing how social-media platforms hijack our attention. […]

Apps such as Twitter and Facebook have no end, leaving us feeling like we might be missing out on something relevant if we don’t keep reading. An unlimited amount of content continuously loads in the background. “It leaves people feeling psychologically like they can never catch up on all the information. They never reach the satisfaction of being able to say, ‘Ah, now I understand the problem,’” says Prof. Cheshire.

If our knowledge is a shield against our fears and anxieties (real or otherwise), it’s likewise used as proxy for love and acceptance by others. Which brings us back to our friend Cliff Clavin. He was a know-it-all because he wanted to impress people and be liked by them. He wanted to be seen as knowledgeable because he was deeply insecure that people secretly didn’t like him. Perhaps it’s not the case that the Internet killed the know-it-all, but that it made everyone into know-it-alls looking for acceptance by our peers caught in the same rat race. So we trade anecdotes, bar graphs, and hyperlinks looking for something that no amount of data can supply.

The earliest disciples of Jesus weren’t all that smart, but that didn’t seem to matter to their Rabbi. It was the intellectual elites of the day who looked down on this uneducated Messiah with scornful derision. Paul reminded the Corinthians that “not many of you were wise according to the world.” While we might place a value judgment on intelligence, it has no eternal value before God. He’s not impressed by how many books you can cite or which newspaper you read in the morning. Lay down your weary smartphone; our more fundamental predicaments of sin, pride, and egotism are ones that can’t be solved by a Google search. Thankfully, salvation isn’t given to those who keep up with the news cycle or possess proficiency in Trinitarian theology. The only news that matters is that we know God, or rather, that we are known by God. To God, the wise guys finish last and only the fools are in the know (1 Cor 3:18). They say that ignorance is bliss, but it could also be blessedness.


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4 responses to “Lay Down Your Weary Smartphone”

  1. Socrates says:

    I miss the days when Cliff Claven was the biggest threat to informed citizenship.

  2. Bill says:

    Excellent, thank you!!

  3. Jen says:

    I ❤️ Cliff and Cheers!! Great post Todd!

  4. Amanda McMillen says:

    “If our knowledge is a shield against our fears and anxieties (real or otherwise), it’s likewise used as proxy for love and acceptance by others.” – so good and insightful. Thank you for this!

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