Believing in Stupid People

Was flipping through Jakob Nielsen's old Alertbox columns and happened upon Are Users Stupid? from February 2001. In it he reports that certain web designers are too apt to blame stupid people for any studies that find their sites to be klunky. He rightly skewers that kind of thinking; his point is perfectly sound.

Only problem is the question of who is stupid and who is not. His opponents, he reports, accuse his camp of believing that most users are stupid, when in fact there are only a few stupid users who just keep taking part in Jakob's studies. His rebuttal: no, no, of course I don't think users are stupid! I think users are smart--in fact, I think all web users are among the intellectual elite. It's all the other people who are stupid.

In other words, he doesn't even try to distance himself from the proposition that most people are stupid. On the contrary; he breathes it in like air.

Most readers of this column probably belong to the top 10% of the population in terms of intelligence. From such a vantage point, it is easy to think of other people as being stupid. But perhaps it is more fair and more accurate (not to mention more productive) to assume that the other 90% of the population form the mainstream audience. Not that they are stupid.

Nonetheless, it might be true that some people do not have enough intelligence to use sophisticated and advanced high-tech systems. But are they online? Not likely at this point.

Even in the most wired societies like the United States and Scandinavia, only half the population is currently using the Internet. It continues to be quite an elitist medium. Thus, almost by definition at this point, anyone who is now using the Web is probably a fairly smart person.

Mr. Nielsen fails syllogism class with that little gem, but that's the cheap response. The real point is that he's passing judgement on the relative intellects of all the world, and finding in favor of the wealthy. Honestly, who do you think is online? And he says these things, as if he were saying nothing of import, without any show of evidence, and apparently without any thought of contradiction.

It is always a comfort to the comfortable to think that their comfort is deserved by their intellect. And no idea has been more enduring; though one demographic after another has dragged itself to full standing in the eyes of the law, the myth of the Unintelligent Other remains--nursed by virtually every group of people, for use against the other groups. And while the Nielsen column was no political tract, it is precisely when this sort of classist ideology passes unnoticed in daily discourse that it is hardest to uproot.

Every "elite" is self-appointed.