What’s the big idea?

Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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17 Responses

  1. Hyena says:

    Big ideas look less so when you watch them being thought for the first time. I think this is good.

    Big ideas were once world-shattering intellectual asteroids careening towards us from the mysterious depths of darkest academe. And so many would oppose them which threatened to extinguish their way of life. But now that they are diffuse collections and we feel safe as they brighten our skies.Report

  2. Pyre says:

    I kinda side with Huxley on this. Yes, the ideas are out there but they are droplets in the sea of information, mostly trivial, that we are bombarded with. Often, to find a great idea, you must wade through an ocean of crap and you’re still largely relying on luck to stumble across the idea.

    There is also a number of theories that state that our ability to comprehend has diminished. The basic gist of these theories is that we bombard our brain with multitasking demands all day long. We type our tweets while talking on a cell phone with one ear and listening to our Ipod with the other. In order to be able to process all this, our brains assigns less actual comprehension to each individual task. Over time, while we become better multitaskers, we lose the ability to think deeply on any one subject.

    While those are theories, I think I believe in those theories. Just going off the political landscape, it seems that the number of people who are basing their information off sound bites seems to be increasing. While it is possible that it was always this way and I’m just being exposed to the fact that more people always felt this way, that wouldn’t explain the decline I’ve noticed in the political debate message boards, some of which I’ve been visiting for 9 years. On those boards, instead of presenting well-written arguments backed up by links to supporting evidence laid out in a scientific fashion, it seems that anything above a paragraph is increasingly thought of as TL;DR with the few remaining links going to horribly biased blogs for proof.

    And now, for the TL;DR version

    TL;DR version:Y’know, we do live in a country where Paris Hilton getting arrested made the front page and bumped stories about space shuttle launches/natural disasters off the front page.Report

    • E.D. Kain in reply to Pyre says:

      You use “we” a lot in this comment. I’m not sure that “we” exists the way you paint the picture. I think this is a perception of things more than it is a reality of things (though there is always a hint of truth in every perception).Report

    • James K in reply to Pyre says:

      Do you think there has ever been a point in history when this wasn’t true. Big ideas linger in history better than the trivia, which can give you a distorted view of the past if you’re not careful.Report

  3. Ryan says:

    And as that happens the grasp of the elites, the pundits, the academics has begun to slip. The barbarians are at the bloody gates. They won’t sack Rome, they just want access to the library, but for Zeus’s sakes keep them out!

    Not entirely sure this is true. The elites are still pretty firmly ensconced. For all its democratization, media outlets are pretty committed to orthodoxy. Just look at the discussion of Paul hereabouts: doesn’t matter that he did so well in the straw poll, the elites fear him, so he’s ignored.

    I think what’s really happening is that no one actually has to listen to the elites anymore, because there are now other things to do. People may never have been all that excited about sermons, but when a sermon was the only thing that passed for entertainment, pretty much the whole town would show up. Which is exactly what happened in many European and even American towns before the advent of mass media. Most people never really cared about ideas all that much, but they didn’t have any way of communicating their apathy and ennui, so the elites didn’t have to hear about it or be exposed to what most people actually wanted to watch: cat videos and celebrity gossip.

    What’s threatening about this is that the elites have always been a bit insecure about their project, and now the masses are implicitly saying that said project is boring as hell.

    The really scary thing is that the masses may be right.Report

    • E.D. Kain in reply to Ryan says:

      Well I’m not really saying anything differently than this, and I largely agree with your diagnosis, actually. Sure, the old guard still has a firm grasp on the old ways, but like you said people no longer have to listen as much. Freedom to exit exists in spades.Report

  4. MFarmer says:

    I agree with practically everything you wrote here. Regarding technological achievements, George Gilder wrote a book years back (I can’t remember the title), when decentralization first started big time, about the link of ideas which went into some of the great modern technological break-throughs — it was amazing to follow the trail of ideas. It really gives you a better, organic understanding of a relatively free market and emerging order.Report

  5. wardsmith says:

    @M. I think Connections came out before Gilder’s book (although now I’m curious which one you meant, he has so many). Confession, I know George, and it will be up to the future historians to place him with the “big” thinkers, at least for his future vision, which while not un-erring is pretty damn good.

    Bottom line, I’m much more of a technology guy than a “big idea” guy if those big ideas are merely philosophical in nature. They can make for interesting discussions (sometimes) but don’t seem to move the bar much in the big scheme of things. While the /supposedly/ big thinkers are coming up with bigger and more convoluted theories about man’s place in the universe, /my/ kind of big thinkers are coming up with the latest compounds, chips and photonics. Of course I’m biased coming from that world.Report

  6. DensityDuck says:

    The whole thing looks to me like a lament for the death of days when Argument By Authority was considered valid.Report

  7. Patrick Cahalan says:

    There are drawbacks to different approaches to Big Ideas.

    I think your description of the “old way” is a little off-base, Erik, but that’s a digression… there are still drawbacks to the “old way”.

    There are, however, big drawbacks to the approach of crowd-sourcing Big Ideas, too.

    Jenny McCarthy and Autism. Deepak Chopra and almost anything. I can go on.

    Crowdsourcing still relies on transitive trust, DD’s snark about Argument by Authority aside. And it’s just manifestly the case that lots of people have bad defaults for transitive trust placement, to ignore that is just magical thinking.

    Gatekeeping can be nefarious and it can be useful, at the same time. From 10 yards away, you can sometimes figure out which it is. From 1000 yards away, they look remarkably similar.Report

    • The autism thing was born out of a fraudulent scientist and crowd-sourcing the response to it is also a good use of bottom-up information distribution.

      I think what we’ve created now is more of a hybrid, not a full replacement of the old system. I suspect this will keep things a tiny bit more honest. Fewer barriers are a good thing, I think, in almost every arena.Report

      • Patrick Cahalan in reply to E.D. Kain says:

        In general, I agree… fewer barriers are indeed a good thing.

        Or, perhaps it’s most true to say I think that default-allow (barring nefarious) is a better policy than default-deny (barring “proof” of good intentions) when it comes to debate. Particularly about Big Ideas.

        I’m just pointing out that the big difficulty is in the exceptions.

        Assuming everyone is participating honestly, the first approach is more efficient because nobody needs to prove their bona fides to get in on the conversation.

        The flip side to that is if someone is *not* participating honestly, it’s hard to revoke their credentials in either case.

        But in the gatekeeper case, you’re less likely to have dishonest actors in the first place. You may have excluded honest players, too, which is bad.

        But Andrew Wakefield got his credentials revoked by the gatekeepers.

        In the no-gatekeeper case, you have to depend upon everyone involved to revoke dishonest players’ contributions to the discussions, which is hard.

        Which is why Jenny McCarthy still is out there talking about how bad vaccines are, even though Wakefield got his credentials revoked.

        There are no problem-free approaches. They’re just different problems.Report

      • Trumwill in reply to E.D. Kain says:

        How exactly do you characterize the anti-anti-vax movement as bottom-up? It seems to me that it was pretty top-down, from expert to layperson and then from layperson to layperson. It’s one of the things that fuels the anti-vax cause, that the opposition to it is so rooted in the medical establishment (or which Wakesfield was an opportunistic renegade).Report

  8. See Jurgen Habermas’s fake Twitter handle story for a mind-fuckingly ironic perspective on all this: http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2010/feb/02/jurgen-habermas-twitter-philosopher

    A relevant quote: “It’s true that the internet has reactivated the grass-roots of an egalitarian public sphere of writers and readers. It also counter­balances the deficits from the impersonal and asymmetrical character of broadcasting insofar as it reintroduces deliberative elements in communication. Besides that, it can undermine the censorship of authoritarian regimes. But the rise of millions of fragmented discussions across the world tend instead to lead to fragmentation of audiences into isolated publics.”

    I’m currently reading Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, which really puts a lot of this stuff in perspective in a much more cogent and coherent way than Gabler’s piece.

    Also check out this Gawker piece for a more hilarious perspective on this general crazy-stuff-happening-on-the-Internets motif: http://gawker.com/horsemaning/Report