Failing Intelligence

Radio Open Source
3 min readMay 7, 2023


This week: a conversation with Robert Pogue Harrison and Ana Ilievska about artificial intelligence and the humanities. Find the show at our site or wherever you go for podcasts.

“What worries me above all,” says Stanford humanist Robert Pogue Harrison on this week’s show, “is not artificial intelligence.” The scarier thing, he says, precedes AI:

It’s the failing intelligence of our fellow human beings at every level, beginning with the political. I mean, there is some kind of insanity that is taking over the whole institutional infrastructure of American society, if not world society. And I think there is such an inability to think clearly and distinctly that is becoming—really it’s a pandemic of thoughtlessness.”

Robert Pogue Harrison.

On Harrison’s own show Entitled Opinions, he recently spoke with Ana Ilievska, a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford, about artificial intelligence; there, the conversation turned especially toward human failings. On this week’s show, Ilievska and Harrison elaborate on those failings. Ilievska (initials A.I.) says, for instance, that there’s “a very clear difference in maturity between students that are now in college and students that were in college just over ten years ago. They seem much more incapable now of dealing with the real world.”

Ana Ilievska.

But in her account, the roots of our failures also go beyond an incapable Gen Z. The institutional emphasis on writing, Ilievska says, is a main culprit:

There is a criticism in philosophy and literature of how Western society at a certain point transitioned from an emphasis on oral interactions to the written word. And already Socrates, through Plato, criticizes that. He says that thinking cannot happen in writing. It has to happen in direct interactions.

But we started writing down everything, so we externalized our ability to think onto other devices. So currently this is why we cannot have a conversation, because we have lost the capacity to look inwards into ourselves and abstractly think about the issues that are of concern.

If the rise of AI prompts a reactive turn toward unplugged—or even unwritten—thinking, and if that turn refreshes minds and refines critical capacities, what sort of thinking would that be? Maybe something close to Harrison’s description of one variety of thought:

For the most part, nature does most of my thinking for me. If I don’t go out into the natural world periodically and occasionally, I lose access to a kind of thought process that actually has its source outside of either my brain or even my embodied mind.

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Radio Open Source

An American conversation with global attitude, on the arts, humanities, and global affairs, hosted by Christopher Lydon.