Thanks to prominent politicians like Rick Santorum and Orrin Hatch, America has been having a contentious debate this week about what it means to be a snob in today’s society. According to Republican presidential candidate Santorum, the desire to attend college automatically qualifies you as a “snob,” while according to Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, the desire to wear a “hipster fedora” and drink a “double skim latte” qualifies you for indoctrination into snob society. Yet, in many ways, these are outdated notions of snobbery. Education, social status and income – the three primary keys to defining a snob for the past two centuries – are being turned on their head by the ubiquitous Internet. In the process, we are seeing the arrival of the Digital Snob.
Take education, for example. What used to be the most-recognized hallmark of snobbery – an expensive Ivy League education – has been completely overturned by the digital transformation of the world. Universities like Yale, MIT and Stanford – renowned for their exclusivity and their ability to limit entry to a tiny proportion of the college-age population – are throwing open their digital doors to the hoi polloi. Recently, Stanford had over 150,000 people sign up for a single course on artificial intelligence – while MIT and Yale have rolled out new open courseware on topics from the sciences to the liberal arts. Suddenly, prestigious, invite-only events for the intellectual elite like TED are being opened up to licensees all over the world. There are even Floating Universities, offering knowledge and access to Big Thinkers from prestigious universities, all at a fraction of the cost of a liberal arts education.
And that’s not all – technology is transforming what “social status” means as an essential ingredient of snobbery. If, in an analog world, being a snob was all about excluding the undesirables, in a digital world, it’s all about including those undesirables. After all, how else are you going to get to 100,000 Twitter followers? This has led to a disruption of the social pecking order in places like Hollywood, where C-list celebrities like Ashton Kutcher are suddenly the hot new tastemakers, while A-list celebrities are left fiddling with their shabby-looking AOL email accounts in the corner.
When it comes to income and employment, too, there has been a fundamental re-thinking of what it means to be a snob. Remember the days when it was good enough to work for a huge company like IBM or sell ads on Madison Avenue to have "status"? Now, you’ve got to become the CEO of a fast young tech start-up to have any sort of street cred. As Reid Hoffman reminded us at this week’s TED event in California, we’ve entered a new era in which our careers are start-ups and we are all entrepeneurs in search of world-changing ideas. We are judged by our network literacy, not by our bank accounts. In this new Occupy Wall Street era, try telling someone that you work for an investment bank or a Fortune 500 company and see what kind of reaction you get.
Finally, the last preserve of the analog snob – the arcane knowledge of a topic like wine, perhaps – is under siege by the great hive mind of the Web. We’re all connected now to the great external flash drive known as the Web, and so all knowledge is within our grasp. For anyone - even the old-time snobs who think that they are protected by the onslaught of the digital world - there’s just too much information to know – so we’re all turning to the types of digital tools and algorithms that can help us curate, filter and compute all this information.
With education, social status and income – the three major calling cards of the analog snob – now under pressure from the relentless digitization of the world, what is there left to be snobbish about these days?
How about technology? As Google Chairman Eric Schmidt pointed out at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week, what’s emerging is a new social class stratification where the primary determinant of your status will be your access to, and use of, technology. As Schmidt points out, technology-fueled society is coalescing into three distinct tiers: the hyper-connected digital elite, the well-connected middle class and the aspiring majority (who don't have any real access to technology). According to Schmidt, a small privileged group within society will become the new Digital Snobs:
"The privileged few, the hyper-connected, are likely to face a future that will only be limited by what technology can do. They will have access to unlimited processing power and high-speed networks in most major cities. In Schmidt's vision, this group will soon be represented by robots at multiple events at the same time while sitting in your office. For them, technologies that once looked like science fiction, will soon be available. Driverless cars, for example, will soon reduce accidents. At the same time, though, technology will actually become much easier to use and ideally just disappear."
The word "snob" has had quite a colorful history over the past two hundred years. In many ways, the word is returning back to its origins as a term that the students at Cambridge University used to refer to the commoners and townspeople. Today's snobs are not measured by wealth, by income or by social status. They can be the dropouts, the late bloomers, the black sheep of families of indeterminate origins -- so as long as they know how to use the Internet and connect with digital devices. Then, they can become part of the entrepreneurial elite with ideas that spread. To paraphrase (badly) F. Scott Fitzgerald (himself a bit of a snob), "Digital snobs are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy the Internet early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born into this digital generation, it is very difficult to understand."
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