A Journey Toward A Theory of Stupidity 5 | The First Stupidologist Part 1

Strangely enough, despite wanting to make a historical account of the philosophy of stupidity I decided to depict history out of chronological order. I suppose this was done because the work of the fourth guy I mentioned, while important, was of a radical different breed than that of Cipolla. The man that I wanted to focus on next wrote in direct response to Cipolla’s paper and so I’m also going to go straight into him here for relevancy’s sake. That man was named Giancarlo Livraghi. Livraghi was an author and advertising executive who first started writing about stupidity in a blog (kinda like what I’m doing…hmm, I wonder where that idea came from?) but his main contribution to literature on the philosophy of stupidity would come in his book The Power of Stupidity (publish in English in 2009). Now, it should be noted that Livraghi’s book was actually the first work in the philosophy of stupidity that I came across so it’s not a huge stretch to say that he was the one who got me into it.

Unfortunately, he passed away in 2014 so I was two years too late when I first started looking into the subject to thank him for his work…

Nevertheless, Livraghi is an interesting case in that the very first thing he does in his book is to identify stupidity as a problem to be solved. At first this might not seem like much but compared to Cipolla who was merely creating a model to describe this phenomena and defining it on that bases, this is a radical step toward stupidology as it’s conceived of in this school — a pragmatic philosophy (i.e. practical way of life) devoted to making people less stupid. It’s in that sense that I would consider Livraghi the first stupidologist and the father of stupidology. (It should also be noted that Livraghi himself coined the term “stupidology” and it’s in respect to him and his work in particular that I decided to name the school after it.) That said, ironically Livraghi’s stab at the philosophy of stupidity wasn’t in offering solutions to the problem he identified. He decided instead to focus on how stupidity works in a range of different contexts so that we might better be able to handle it in…whatever ways we can.

…”Whatever ways we can” because to Livraghi being stupid is part of human nature.

Indeed, Livraghi believed that if we are to fully understand what it means to be human then we would necessarily have to understand stupidity. I hadn’t noticed this at the time but the theme of philosophers who study stupidity ultimately challenging the existentialist paradigm was growing ever stronger. First Cipolla challenged the nihilistic foundation that inspired it (although I’m not sure even he understood that he had) and now we have Livraghi challenging the fundamental notion of “existence precedes essence” (again, not sure if he understood that either) in that if we are all stupid by nature and we conceive of stupidity as a problem to be solved at the same time then by necessity we all have an inherited purpose of attempting to stop being something we naturally are. This strange insight into the function of stupidology aside, Livraghi ran with his notion and decided to formalize it into a law of his own (copying Cipolla’s style):

1. In each of us there is a factor of stupidity, which is always larger than we suppose.

The key consequence here is in eliminating the strict distinction between stupid people and intelligent people. According to Livraghi’s conception of the human population, we are all stupid and that means that in thinking this way we can’t possibly underestimate the number of stupid people in circulation because that number is the population. However, Livraghi wouldn’t leave that unqualified as in applying Cipolla’s graph, like me, he found it easier to place behaviors on the graph than people; this meant that you could track how stupid a person is by looking at trends in their behavior by placing individual behaviors on the graph and analyzing the cluster. But along with this came another possibility that Livraghi briefly touches on that would prove fruitful in defining stupidity: if we’re looking at stupidity on a behavior by behavior basis then it could be that stupidity as it manifests for an individual is context dependent. For example, for one person they may be stupid in one area of life but not in another while for another person it might be the opposite. Finding out how this might be would be crucial in defining it.

But Livraghi didn’t stop there. In analyzing the stupidity in how organizations work, he found another trend: when large amounts of stupid people get together, the effect of their stupidity is far greater than just the sum factor of stupidity in all of them combined. This goes back to something that Cipolla offered (and I kind of glossed over but we’ll take up here) in seeing stupid people as a kind of high-functioning unit without any kind of need for collaboration or creed. Indeed, stupid people don’t have to actively try to work together to make the world worse as they can simply do their own thing and everyone’s collective stupidity will impoverish us all regardless. When Livraghi calls stupidity “brainless” that’s exactly what he means: there is no forethought and it’s negative consequences are accidental. But in adding this caveat, the problem of stupidity become even more concerning: when we take stupid behaviors and integrate them into a system the effects are even more destructive. Thus Livraghi gives his second additional law:

2. When the stupidity of one person combines with the stupidity of others, the impact grows geometrically—i.e. by multiplication, not addition, of the individual stupidity factors.

This observation is incredible and explains so much of the problems of our current societies. As countries became more and more structured and systematized the stupid behaviors that were integrated into these systems created even more drastic effects than any collection of one-off individual acts. This is why it only takes a fraction of the population of the global market to crash most of the world’s largest economies. It’s also why the slave trade was far more destructive for Africans than the existence of the people that made it. There is so much more that I could apply this to in the history of humanity than I could ever hope to write about in my lifetime. Be that as it may, Livraghi’s second law has very dire implications for things like legal systems, political systems (such as representative Governments and even the operations of political parties), economies (as I already pointed out), religions, media sharing platforms (like the Internet and television) and more. So long as people are working together to do something — regardless of what it is or if they do it intentionally — this law applies. …So perhaps this law isn’t stated correctly, but the basic point stands:

Social organization is a much scarier thing than we usually give it credit for.

But it would seem that if stupidity works this way then intelligence would too. I suppose that is one saving grace of this insight: working together is kind of volatile in that it can either generate great harm or great benefit; there are systems today that do benefit society in large amounts. But Livraghi had more to say on this in respect to this law and its relation to intelligence: for stupidity, taking advantage of this law to create mass destruction is easy because it is brainless — intelligence, on the other hand, is not brainless and that means that taking advantage of it is infinitely harder. Keeping track of everyone in your network and making sure no one is screwing up majorly is something that intelligent groups have to do to maintain themselves that stupid groups simply don’t have to. Add that to the constant harassment of stupid people outside of your collective effort and suddenly the gains made by collective intelligent efforts become a very rare and precious thing. All of this is expressed in Livraghi’s third and final law:

3. The combination of intelligence in different people is more difficult than the combination of stupidity.

This doesn’t bode well for a world in which population is increasing (more stupid people, as we’re all stupid) at an alarming rate and systematization is only going to become more elaborate and prolific. Therefore, the possible negative effects of stupidity (“the power of stupidity”) are only going to grow in magnitude and it will grow very, very quickly. Livraghi, while not putting it in these terms, did understand this. …However, this understanding is all he had. In fact, and to my disappointment, all he attempted to have.

To Be Continued

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