June 24, 2024


Think spectacular technology

What Does ‘Smart’ Even Mean?

It seems like an obvious question.

If you’re technically minded, you might have a preferred definition of intelligence. ‘The ability to solve problems’ seems on the right track, until you remember 20 lines of Python can solve problems.

Maybe you could call it the ability to solve new problems. It takes way more code to make something that can adapt.

But is intelligence really the same thing as agility?

Maybe, maybe not.

But here’s where it gets interesting:

You might think that intelligence is something we can all agree on. Even if it’s a case of you know it when you see it, smart people are smart, no questions asked.

Except that’s not entirely the case.

What it means to be ‘smart’ varies from culture to culture.

And I reckon you can tell a lot by a society by how it defines it.


Love him or hate him, Elon Musk is undeniably intelligent… by our standards.

But there are plenty of standards that would condemn him and his woeful brainpower.

A common example that shows up in history – from medieval China to imperialist Britain to certain religious sects – is that ‘intelligence’ is about discipline, obedience and rote memorisation.

These social systems wouldn’t just resent his creativity and rebelliousness – they’d see it as a sign of weak mental character.

Our genius, their idiot – all because he doesn’t adhere to their model of a smart person.

Plenty of societies saw conformity as genius. We in the modern West tend to praise entrepreneurial folks – bold, innovative disrupters. Take someone who can memorise textbooks and please their teachers – but not think for themselves – and what would most folks say about them?

“Sure, they score well on tests… but they’re not exactly smart.”

Something to ponder.

And something else to ponder is, what exactly is my point?

Is it a condemnation of the schooling system, with its emphasis on standardised testing, rote learning and creativity-annihilating atmosphere?

Maybe I’m subtly debunking the ‘we used to be smarter’ myth. You know the one – folks take a test from the 1800s aimed at 12 year olds, give it to adults today and watch them fail. “LOL we’re so dum now”. Until you realise those same kids would fail any modern test (and not just the recent history portion). Those old-school tests were entirely (not just mostly) rote learning, often something pointless like obscure rules of grammar. Something you could learn in a tedious day of study, should the urge ever strike you. But it would take years to bring one of those old-timey students up to speed in our subjects.

Perhaps it’s a message of hope.

If folks call/called you dumb for scoring low on tests, you now know a different way to interpret that.

Plenty of folks will tell you tests don’t measure intelligence well.

I might be here to tell you they’re one measure of one interpretation of intelligence.

It would defeat the purpose – in a wicked blaze of irony – if I said one and only one of these interpretations were correct.

But here’s what I was thinking as I wrote this:

Almost everything you think is objective is actually subjective. Smart and dumb, good and evil, hero and victim – they’re all open for renegotiation.

And that’s great news! We no longer see genocide and slavery as right, even though older societies saw them as obviously noble.

The barriers in your life are mostly smoke and mirrors, only it’s lucky to break these ones.

So if you’re too old, too ugly, too dumb, too inexperienced or too poor to build the life you want…

You’re wrong.

At least, you’re using the wrong standards.

Your labels are only fiction, so stop believing them whenever you want.