Although most of us would agree that both bullshit and the outright lie are modes of misrepresentation, there exists a key difference between the two. Neither the bullshitter nor the liar can be relied upon to tell the truth. But in order to lie, the liar must first believe that she knows the truth; only then can she persuade her audience of what she knows to be untrue. The bullshitter, on the other hand, maintains no relationship at all with the truth: it is irrelevant to the bullshitter whether what she says is true or false, and what she is guilty of misrepresenting is precisely her concern for the distinction between the two.
Over the past year, the IDW has arisen as a puzzling political force, made up of thinkers who support “Enlightenment values” and accuse the left of setting dangerously illiberal limits on acceptable thought. The IDW has defined itself mainly by diving into third-rail topics like the genetics of gender and racial difference—territory that seems even more fraught in the era of #MeToo and the Trump resistance.
Bullshitters pretend to a kind of wisdom that only very few people have, but that also means that only very few people are competent to challenge the bullshitters’ pretension. And here’s the rub: if bullshit clings to any undertaking that requires an unusual degree of discernment or expertise, then calling bullshit can itself become a form of bullshitting.
For the moment, these machines remain at the dawn of their potential, as likely to botch your request as they are to fulfill it. But as smart-speaker sales soar, computing power is also expanding exponentially. Within our lifetimes, these devices will likely become much more adroit conversationalists. By the time they do, they will have fully insinuated themselves into our lives. With their perfect cloud-based memories, they will be omniscient; with their occupation of our most intimate spaces, they’ll be omnipresent. And with their eerie ability to elicit confessions, they could acquire a remarkable power over our emotional lives. What will that be like?
What is the true point of a bookish life? Note I write “point,” not “goal.” The bookish life can have no goal: It is all means and no end. The point, I should say, is not to become immensely knowledgeable or clever, and certainly not to become learned. Montaigne, who more than five centuries ago established the modern essay, grasped the point when he wrote, “I may be a man of fairly wide reading, but I retain nothing.” Retention of everything one reads, along with being mentally impossible, would only crowd and ultimately cramp one’s mind.
The new children’s media look nothing like what we adults would have expected. They are exuberant, cheap, weird, and multicultural. YouTube’s content for young kids—what I think of as Toddler YouTube—is a mishmash, a bricolage, a trash fire, an explosion of creativity. It’s a largely unregulated, data-driven grab for toddlers’ attention, and, as we’ve seen with the rest of social media, its ramifications may be deeper and wider than you’d initially think.