Stuck Behind a Plow in India

So this is going to come off as more than a bit cynical, but, for what it’s worth, I don’t intend it to be.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve heard an interesting claim expressed by disparate people in strikingly similar language. The claim was always some variation of the following: the most talented person in the world is most likely stuck behind a plow in some third world country. The recurring formulation caught my attention, so I went looking for the source.

As it turns out, sometime in 2014, Google’s chief economist, Hal Varian, proposed the following:

“The biggest impact on the world will be universal access to all human knowledge. The smartest person in the world currently could well be stuck behind a plow in India or China. Enabling that person — and the millions like him or her — will have a profound impact on the development of the human race.”

It occurred to me that this “stuck behind a plow” claim is the 21st century version of the old “rags to riches” story. The rags to riches story promoted certain virtues–hard work, resilience, thrift, etc.–by promising that they will be extravagantly rewarded. Of course, such extravagant rewards have always been rare and rarely correlated to how hard one might be willing to work. Which is not, I hasten to add, a knock against hard work and its rewards, such as they may be. But, to put the point more critically, the genre served interests other than those of its ostensible audience. And so it is with the “stuck behind a plow” pitch.

The “rags to riches/stuck behind a plow” narrative is an egalitarian story, at least on the surface. It inspires the hope that an undiscovered Everyman languishing in impoverished obscurity, properly enabled, can hope to be a person of world-historical consequence, or at least remarkably prosperous. It’s a happy claim, and, of course, impossible to refute–not that I’m particularly interested in refuting the possibility.

The problem, as I see it, is that, coming from the would-be noble enablers, it’s also a wildly convenient, self-serving claim. Who but Google could enable such benighted souls by providing universal access to all human knowledge?

Never mind that the claim is hyperbolic and traffics in an impoverished notion of what counts as knowledge. Never mind, as well, that, even if we grant the hyperbole, access to knowledge by itself cannot transform a society, cure its ills, heal its injustices, or lift the poor out of their poverty.

I’m reminded of one of my favorite lines in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Before he ships off to the Congo, Marlow’s aunt, who had helped secure his job with the Company, gushes about the nobility of work he is undertaking. Marlow would be “something like an emissary of light, something like a lower sort of apostle.” In her view, he would be “weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways.”

Then comes the wonderfully deadpanned line that we would do well to remember:

“I ventured to hint that the Company was run for profit.”

15 thoughts on “Stuck Behind a Plow in India

  1. I’m not sure how this wound up in my inbox but I enjoyed it.
    If your argument is that the civilizing effects of information- perhaps knowledge – are somehow tainted by a motive to profit, than the same can be said about the long list that comes before and after Gutenberg . Information will always access power and promote change.

    1. Well, I’d like to think it wound up in your inbox because you subscribed to receive new posts. But if that is not the case, please feel free to unsubscribe. There should be a link to do so in the email. Either way, glad you enjoyed it!

  2. “Never mind that the claim is hyperbolic and traffics in an impoverished notion of what counts as knowledge.” Hear hear. It also suggests that a simple agrarian life is always less worthy than an industrial, scientific or technical one. It traffics in an impoverished notion of what counts as “success.”

  3. Troubling how the conceit of the educated today seems to have decoupled the concepts of information and knowledge. Are we being persuaded that labor of any sort, even the practical exercises that build knowledge, is inefficient, cumbersome, backward?

    1. Indeed. While I grant that there may very well be demeaning forms of labor, some do seem to treat all manual labor, everything that is not “knowledge work,” as somehow undignified or subhuman.

      1. And the most profoundly humorous bit of this, is that the same things that people count as manual labor, or ‘unskilled’ or outside the scope of ‘knowledge work’, are still those very same things that construct the bridges, build the houses, and maintain the roads and create new ones we travel every day. Without some of those more ‘basic knowledge constructs’ which we utilize to know properly how to build a well structured home, or create traffic and pathways for vehicles and people, those same elitist-minded individuals would be homeless, without cars, phones, food or clothes. Personally, I find the jobs that people undertake to ensure that society has what makes society society are those that are most noble and dignified. For they provide the service that is most easily unrecognized for its necessity.

        What I took from this is the lack of understanding of the distinction between information and knowledge. You can have all the information at your fingertips you want, but it’s not your knowledge until it’s internalized. Further, it doesn’t matter how well learned you are (and I could go on all day with examples, but it will derail the point), if you don’t properly utilize the knowledge you have, you’ll go nowhere. So despite the internet being able to provide the information, if the people behind the plows don’t utilize it correctly they’ll stay behind their plows, regardless of what they ‘could’ do.

        As always, great article.

  4. “The smartest person in the world currently could well be stuck behind a plow in India or China.”

    The person who spoke these words does not understand basic neuroplasticity. He seems to assume that intelligence is some kind of preloaded entity which precedes all experience. But this is simply not true: the hypothetical person “stuck behind a plow” would not be “the smartest person in the world” if he has hitherto been denied access to good education, healthcare, or nutrition. His neural circuitry would be very efficient for the tasks required of him by his daily-life (pushing the plow; getting water from the well; haggling over food at the market, etc), but he would not have the neuronal networks which would constitute those tasks which are normally associated with “smart:” like abstract verbal and mathematical reason (those skill-sets trained by formal schooling) etc. Another way to put this: Physical changes in the brain manifest as changes in skill-level, and intelligence consists of various skills; this hypothetical person would not have the opportunities to drive physical changes in his brain, and so he wouldn’t change his skill-level, and he wouldn’t change his intelligence.

    Even if we assume that he has “strong genetic potential” (whatever that is), we still could not say “he’s the smartest person in the world”: all genes do is encode amino acids in responses to environmental inputs; and without those environmental inputs, the genes won’t express themselves.

    And all of the above assumes that there can only be one “smartest person in the world,” a notion which assumes that this rank is potentially identifiable and, also, that there is only one type of intelligence – a notoriously vague word for which everyone seems to have his or her own private, idiosyncratic definition.

    More than 2000 years ago Socrates talked about how people who are experts at X often assume they are qualified to talk about Y. This notion still holds true: these silicon-valley types need to stop pontificating about issues they are not expert about. Or, at least, they should do it privately.

  5. Knowledge is only useful if it is shared and enjoyed by everyone. Knowledge for its own sake can just as easily lead to despair or enlightenment. Knowledge, intelligence, wisdom and happiness are abstract concepts, often interacting in unforeseen ways. Experience is the defining factor, and I’m not sure we’re heading in the right direction.

  6. I guess I received the plow comment a bit differently than most of you and in contrast to your comments regarding experience as a way to become more intelligent and able to make a difference in the world I say this…To change the world there is no need for experience. A child can change the world because his or her vision of what the world should be isn’t jaded by our experiences and hardened (at times) ways or self interests. So I can agree that any person, perhaps one gem stuck behind a plow can be a key piece to making a change in the world. This person may not have technical or business experience but experience isn’t a key to make you useful. A great example is my current job. There is a guy here that has over 15 years of experience in the field, yet he isn’t very productive. There ARE some inherent things that some people have that others don’t. This can be a drive, common sense, a vision, an original idea, just some light inside that makes them be able to push the world in a more positive direction that the self interested, capitalistic, and blind world it is now.

  7. The difference between the rags to riches story and the access to information story is that in the rags story the victim is blamed if he is not successful. In the Google story the company is the savior not the individual who is working hard behind a plow unable to work hard with his brain. I don’t believe for a second that Google’s aims are altruistic though. They may want to find those geniuses behind the plows and exploit the hell out them for profit.

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