What’s the big idea?
Neal Gabler has a piece just brimming over with nostalgia in the New York Times. Here’s his takeaway:
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.
Funny how things look when we have the perspective of time to rosy our glasses. More often than not, a big idea or discovery isn’t fully understood to be truly big or impacting until…well, until the impact of the big idea has been thoroughly felt. I find the entire – deeply conservative – piece frankly baffling. For instance:
In the past, we collected information not simply to know things. That was only the beginning. We also collected information to convert it into something larger than facts and ultimately more useful — into ideas that made sense of the information. We sought not just to apprehend the world but to truly comprehend it, which is the primary function of ideas. Great ideas explain the world and one another to us.
Oh I see. Now, in the present, we collect information not to understand the world but to…what? To gossip about it? I’m not sure. Apparently it’s exhausting, though:
The collection itself is exhausting:
See I told you it was exhausting…
what each of our friends is doing at that particular moment and then the next moment and the next one; who Jennifer Aniston is dating right now; which video is going viral on YouTube this hour; what Princess Letizia or Kate Middleton is wearing that day. In effect, we are living within the nimbus of an informational Gresham’s law in which trivial information pushes out significant information, but it is also an ideational Gresham’s law in which information, trivial or not, pushes out ideas.
I’m sure Mr. Gabler exempts himself from these trivial pursuits, however. I doubt he checks to see which Youtube is viral this hour (do people do this? “Hey honey, can you go check to see which Youtube video went viral this hour? Thanks.”) Or, at least I suspect he exempts himself, given the clichéd nature of his list of information-gathering. Yes, all the modern ape cares about is Jennifer Aniston and what our friends are doing “at that particular moment and then the next moment” which is all anybody really uses social media for after all.
I think I understand what Gabler is doing here. He’s lamenting the death of elite circles of ideas and the decentralization of literary and art criticism, the fall of the columnist and the demise of the informational and analytical gatekeepers. He claims that what he’s worried about is the transference of ideas from the realm of the idea-makers to the free market: “No doubt there will be those who say that the big ideas have migrated to the marketplace, but there is a vast difference between profit-making inventions and intellectually challenging thoughts.” Yet, if anything, old market players have been incapable of keeping up with demand, and the price of ideas and the wages of idea-makers has dropped dramatically. Perhaps supply and demand have both risen dramatically…?
Here’s the thing. I think Will Wilkinson is basically right. Big idea-making has been decentralized. It’s not a factory model, it’s an open-source, bottom-up model. The process of thinking about emergent philosophical ideas, or emerging political coalitions, or whatever – this is starting to enter the domain of the commoner. 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!
Kevin Drum notes that in the past we knew exactly where to turn to find our Big Ideas. We knew which institutions mattered.
We’ve also changed the way we perceive big ideas. In the past maybe a few old professors would go smoke their pipes over cups of hot English tea and talk for hours in a romantic little cottage overlooking the sea and then ten years later we’d suddenly be subjected to the Big Ideas they came up with in the privacy of their little seaside chats. A journal would publish something about their Big Idea, and then a Big Newspaper or an Important Columnist would champion the Big Idea. Soon Important Professors would be teaching it, and stoned college kids would be debating it, and politicians would be plugging some bastardized version of it, and then it would find its way into a movie or a radio broadcast and then, finally then, the plebes would have access to it, and the smug information cartels would be on to the Next Big Idea and not a moment too soon.
There is nothing wrong with ideas created in this model. But we have a new model now, and it’s not the closed-door model (or at least it’s not only the closed door model). Information is a brushfire, decentralized but also highly exposed. The Twitter/blog/newspaper/magazine/television/book process is all jumbled up. Old guard players like professors are bloggers now, also, but they battle out ideas with schmucks like me. It’s top-down and bottom-up. We don’t know where to look so we suspect that all anyone cares about is the things we find aesthetically displeasing.
Now you can read books or magazine articles and almost trace back some of the thinking to blog posts you read a month or two or a year prior. Julian Sanchez coins some catchy phrase and six months later Paul Krugman’s writing about it in an Op/Ed. That’s not an example of a Big Idea, it’s an example of the process changing. The six old dudes drinking tea and smoking pipes in the English countryside have become six thousand people (sixty thousand, six hundred thousand!) on Twitter, the blogs, at coffee shops, in classrooms, in countries all across the world. The ideas come from the top and the bottom and they meet and converge and pound up against one another in the violent, visible ‘marketplace’ of thought and maybe if some Big Idea does emerge we don’t even notice because we watched it grow, like someone you see every day, you just don’t notice how they’ve changed until suddenly one day…
“What the future portends is more and more information — Everests of it,” writes Gabler. “There won’t be anything we won’t know. But there will be no one thinking about it.”
I will submit to you, dear reader, that this is pure nonsense; that it requires a view of the world and of one’s fellow man so cynical, so detached from reality, that the critique relies more on a myth than on a solid grasp of the truth.
There was never a time when everyone was really that interested in big ideas. Most people don’t really care that much, and throughout human history most people never really did. Now that there’s so much more media, so many more opportunities to trade in the currency of ideas, of course a lot of people are just going to resort to the lowest common denominator. But the fact that so many people really do care to engage one another about important issues – so many, in fact, that it has people like Gabler worried – that should be a testament to humanity’s hunger for ideas, for our social curiosity, not fodder for yet another End Times reproach.
The world is changing. It was ever thus. If that’s all you can think about maybe it’s not the stars you should look to, Brutus.