Tuesday, 16 August 2011

The Elusive Big Idea

An excellent article from the New York Times on "The Elusive Big Idea"; the thesis that in today's society we just don't care about ideas anymore...

The Elusive Big Idea
Published: August 13, 2011

If our ideas seem smaller nowadays, it’s not because we are dumber than our forebears but because we just don’t care as much about ideas as they did. In effect, we are living in an increasingly post-idea world — a world in which big, thought-provoking ideas that can’t instantly be monetized are of so little intrinsic value that fewer people are generating them and fewer outlets are disseminating them, the Internet notwithstanding. Bold ideas are almost passé.


Post-Enlightenment refers to a style of thinking that no longer deploys the techniques of rational thought. Post-idea refers to thinking that is no longer done, regardless of the style.

The post-idea world has been a long time coming, and many factors have contributed to it. There is the retreat in universities from the real world, and an encouragement of and reward for the narrowest specialization rather than for daring — for tending potted plants rather than planting forests.


Scary thought indeed that "thinking is no longer done"; the implications of this will extend everywhere and affect every facet of our existence.

A further quote from the article:

...we get instant 140-character tweets about eating a sandwich or watching a TV show. While social networking may enlarge one’s circle and even introduce one to strangers, this is not the same thing as enlarging one’s intellectual universe.

A direct reference to Twitter and social media overall - the nature of communication is changing such that if you can't get your idea in 140 characters no-one is going to read it - assuming that anyone reads and thinks about what is actually contained in those 140 characters.

Is this some kind of existentialist crisis for ideas? And finally as a conclusion:

We have become information narcissists, so uninterested in anything outside ourselves and our friendship circles or in any tidbit we cannot share with those friends that if a Marx or a Nietzsche were suddenly to appear, blasting his ideas, no one would pay the slightest attention, certainly not the general media, which have learned to service our narcissism.

As Levitt and Dubner state in the Freakonomics series of books ( see: Superfreakonomics ) humans need incentive, and if ideas don't provide any incentive in either their thinking, development or execution to our narcissism then those ideas have no value. The problem here is rather self-referential in that narcissists aren't interested in anyone else's ideas - be honest who reads anyone's Twitter feeds or Facebook comments and partakes in deep rhetoric?

1 comment:

rogerGpineda said...

Gabler's characterization of a post-Enlightenment/post-idea world populated by information narcissists is not very useful in helping us understand why most us are unable or unwilling to create concepts that could possibly widen our perceptions of "truth".

As a regular contemporary bloke, living in my small village, I don't think I'm more of an information narcissist than my predecessors who lived in another village, for example, during Newton's time. I find it hard to imagine that my predecessors would have been more interested than I am about Newtonian mechanics. I don't remember when I last thought about mechanics in general prior to sitting down to write this comment. I think the question is not "why am I not interested in ideas or rational thoughts unless they have direct application to my everyday life?" The question is "why am I incapable/unwilling to formulate ideas, or to realize that certain ideas could have applications to things that have interest for me, as well as to others?"

It seems that Gabler, like many others, noticed some patterns in the way people use contemporary information and communication technology, and concluded that people today are information narcissists. I would argue that what he labels narcissism is not a product of the contemporary age nor of technology usage, because the behavior has been around for centuries (if not longer). As users of ICT such as tweeter, etc., we do modify how we organize our communication; and this activity probably affects our perceptions. I think what is happening here is that tweeter and similar applications tend to magnify existing behavioral attributes, so that it is easier to see that most people are not very interested in ideas, especially ideas that threaten status quo. Although the definition of a "village" might have changed due to usage of, for example, the internet, the behavioral attributes that we see are magnified versions, but not new.