The Elusive Big Idea

Great op-ed by Neal Gabler in the Times today about how modern society views the culture of ideas, and the people who create them. (emphasis mine):

Ideas just aren’t what they used to be. Once upon a time, they could ignite fires of debate, stimulate other thoughts, incite revolutions and fundamentally change the ways we look at and think about the world.

They could penetrate the general culture and make celebrities out of thinkers — notably Albert Einstein, but also Reinhold Niebuhr, Daniel Bell, Betty Friedan, Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould, to name a few. The ideas themselves could even be made famous: for instance, for “the end of ideology,” “the medium is the message,” “the feminine mystique,” “the Big Bang theory,” “the end of history.” A big idea could capture the cover of Time — “Is God Dead?” — and intellectuals like Norman Mailer, William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal would even occasionally be invited to the couches of late-night talk shows. How long ago that was.

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.

It is no secret, especially here in America, that we live in a post-Enlightenment age in which rationality, science, evidence, logical argument and debate have lost the battle in many sectors, and perhaps even in society generally, to superstition, faith, opinion and orthodoxy. While we continue to make giant technological advances, we may be the first generation to have turned back the epochal clock — to have gone backward intellectually from advanced modes of thinking into old modes of belief. But post-Enlightenment and post-idea, while related, are not exactly the same.

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.


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  1. He writes well, but this seems a bit curmudgeon-y to me. If you consider television as somehow truly representative of U.S. culture, then yes, we live in a wasteland of idiots. But I don’t think it is. Television may have gotten dumber since William F. Buckley last sneered at us through it, but that’s because “the medium is the message” has come and gone, and everyone has realized that the message of television, as a medium, is something like “Derp derp derp sports cars boobies pizza derp.”

  2. I agree it is a bit curmudgeon-esque, and I agree that television is not the beginning and end of American culture, but I do agree with his observation that there is a dearth of prominent original thinkers out there accorded esteem within mainstream channels.

    I have nothing real to base this on — no actual facts to back it up — it’s just a gut feeling. And I’m fully willing to accept that it’s just a personal phenomenon that doesn’t apply broadly.

    For me, though, it correlates with other ‘gut feelings’ I have:

    1) that we, as a culture, have less respect for one another as individual thinkers, and

    2) that, as a culture, we’re all kind of afraid in a way we’ve never been afraid before. I don’t know what we’re afraid of, but we’re sure acting (as a society) like we’re hesitant to do bold, dangerous things.

    There are certain subsets of society to which this doesn’t apply, but by and large I believe it does.

  3. Another way of looking at it is that we have so many people on this planet that a lot of ideas are co-generated, regenerated and recycled to the point that we, like someone whose gone insulin resistant, have started to resist paying attention to ideas. It takes someone special to listen, filter and isolate out the good ones, someone with capital to then implement and monetize, and someone with the drive to force the growth of the riskier, but more rewarding ones into acceptance.

    Another short-fall we have can be illustrated by the Newton to iPad example. A lot of ideas are here before their time, because they fail, the majority can view the idea as a failure because they equate it to the implementation. Many times, the difference between the success and failure can be a decade or more. Having patience and being willing to revisit the idea with a new approach and new technology takes someone willing to buck popular opinion.

    As to being the post-Enlightenment Age, not sure what to do about people who find thinking “too hard” and want someone to march in with absolute truths to save them from thinking. Iran can serve as an example of that. As a nation, they embraced it, but a portion of the younger generation is looking for a breakout from the mindset. It’s sad to think the US has this in common, but unfortunately, I’ve seen it firsthand.

  4. I’m always a little curious how these "big ideas" actually translated into society. Surely not everyone knows the entire theory and developed arguments behind "the end of history" and other big ideas such that one could argue these ideas affected society directly. More likely, these ideas were bastardized as they "trickled down", became cliches (such as that one) thrown about, and ended up looking something like the result of a game of telephone. It is also a little telling that the ideas he cites are summed up in pithy one liners. Is it not possible that we are actually becoming a more empirical society, rather than less, and that is why the big ideas of the day are coming from the natural and social sciences? So maybe we have only changed in this way, while still distilling ideas down to cliches for mass consumption (for which some ideas are better suited than others).

  5. I think part of it is the increasing “risk aversion” of society. Many are increasingly willing to give up individual thought and liberty in exchange for “feeling” safe. This manifest in many ways, including being “hesitant to do bold, dangerous things.”

    Charting a new course, with new ideas, involves risks and the freedom to fail. Society has declared that they want no part of either.

  6. How many times have we seen someone make bold statements, come out with a big idea or challenge traditional thinking, only to be entangled in a lawsuit over defamation, patent infringment or copyright?

    I say it’s of our own doing! Those laws that are purported to be there to ‘protect’ inovation, are the very thing that is causing people to keep quiet when they have an idea.

  7. This is an odd comparison of ideas as things look very different in the past as in the present day.

    Sure, there were lots of Big Ideas from thinkers in the past, but what was the reception of those ideas at the time? I’m just guessing, but I’m pretty sure the creators weren’t invited onto late-night talk shows right away to explain them to the U.S. That takes time to percolate and be accepted.

    Side note: lots of authors are invited onto talk shows to talk about their books and explain their Big Ideas.

    When we look at the current economy of ideas today, there are tons to choose from. It will take some time for those ideas to reveal themselves as Really Big. Twitter wasn’t a Big Idea when it started, but it sure is now.

    This all likely because it’s not just the Big Idea, it’s the execution. The idea needs to be tried and vetted before we know it’s amazing.

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