What’s the Big Idea?

by on August 29, 2011 · 14 comments

in Popular, Under the Perfect Sun

Information Overload and the “Post Idea Age”

In a recent New York Times opinion piece, “The Elusive Big Idea,” Neal Gabler makes the case that we are living in a “post-idea” age where mundane observations have taken the place of big ideas.  We have left behind the Einsteins for entrepreneurs.  As he puts it:

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.

This might seem like an odd argument to make in the midst of a booming information age where we have more text and data available to us via a mouse click than ever before. For Gabler, however, it makes perfect sense—information glut does not provide illumination; it stands in opposition to careful analysis:

But if information was once grist for ideas, over the last decade it has become competition for them. We are like the farmer who has too much wheat to make flour. We are inundated with so much information that we wouldn’t have time to process it even if we wanted to, and most of us don’t want to.

Indeed, as someone who works in higher education, hardly a day goes by when I am not reminded by some pundit that my job should be helping students gain the skills needed to make them “competitive in the global market place.”  The assumption behind this line of thinking is that only “monetized” ideas are worthwhile.  Rather than clinging to my notion of myself as a “professor” with my worthless attachment to the inherent value of ideas and other outmoded notions, I need to be transformed into a happy member of the information delivery personnel, inextricably linked to a data system that can show “quantifiable measured outcomes.”  Translation: if you can’t measure something, it either does not exist or is of no value.  Education is not a practice; it is a process that should emphasize efficiency and material output.  The fact that schools don’t produce commodities is a problem rather than a virtue.  Only the monetized outcome is of value.

In this way, the Bill Gates’s of the world are bent on substituting knowing for thinking.  In their business model, students collect facts and utilize them, period.    As Gabler notes:

We prefer knowing to thinking because knowing has more immediate value. It keeps us in the loop, keeps us connected to our friends and our cohort. Ideas are too airy, too impractical, too much work for too little reward. Few talk ideas. Everyone talks information, usually personal information. Where are you going? What are you doing? Whom are you seeing? These are today’s big questions . . .

It is certainly no accident that the post-idea world has sprung up alongside the social networking world. Even though there are sites and blogs dedicated to ideas, Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, Flickr, etc., the most popular sites on the Web, are basically information exchanges, designed to feed the insatiable information hunger, though this is hardly the kind of information that generates ideas. It is largely useless except insofar as it makes the possessor of the information feel, well, informed. Of course, one could argue that these sites are no different than conversation was for previous generations, and that conversation seldom generated big ideas either, and one would be right. BUT the analogy isn’t perfect.

For one thing, social networking sites are the primary form of communication among young people, and they are supplanting print, which is where ideas have typically gestated. For another, social networking sites engender habits of mind that are inimical to the kind of deliberate discourse that gives rise to ideas. Instead of theories, hypotheses and grand arguments, 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. Indeed, the gab of social networking tends to shrink one’s universe to oneself and one’s friends, while thoughts organized in words, whether online or on the page, enlarge one’s focus.

What we end up with as a result is a new kind of discourse that is a form of prolonged distraction or anti-thinking.  Consequently, we valorize the lords of the global marketplace rather than intellectuals in the traditional sense.  This, Gabler argues, is a huge mistake:  “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.”   Indeed, the market marginalizes thought in favor of calculation.

Gabler says that the consequences of this phenomenon will be huge but he doesn’t delve into them.  I think some of them are clear. As the Noam Chomsky piece posted everywhere on the net just a few weeks ago pointed out, this unfortunate turn in American culture has gone hand in hand with the defunding and gradual privatization of American higher education.  Left unchecked, this will lead to a two-tier educational system and the intellectual pauperization of middle and working class students who will be given training in how to be good processors of information, but not much encouragement to actually think about anything.  This intellectual poverty will lead to a profound poverty of experience.

Ultimately, this trend in the culture is what laid the groundwork for the pervasive idiocy of our politics.  In a universe where Michele Bachmann can be taken seriously as a political figure, we seem to have demeaned the values of the enlightenment to such an extent that, in some circles, a penchant for critical inquiry and reliance on historical, economic, and political facts is enough to disqualify a person for public service.  You need to be raving loudly at the moon in the Iowa cornstalks to make it in the post-idea world.   It cuts through the glut.

Or you can reject bat shit nation and place your faith in the smug technocrats who have thrown all that useless thinking over for sophisticated processes and market-driven solutions to everything from how to educate children and feed the poor to whether or not your arts project deserves funding or your segment of the electorate buys mocha lattes.  You won’t find much wisdom here but you will certainly be able to think yourself clever and cutting edge.  You can embrace hip capitalism and still keep the tattoos you got back in your punk rock phase.  Take that, hippies!

All of it makes me yearn for something simple and true.  Maybe the Buddhists are right: when you can’t stop emailing, Facebooking, Tweeting, TV watching, iPod listening, shopping, texting, Internet surfing, video gaming, E-dating, multitasking, and manically running in place in an effort to escape yourself, maybe you are really, really afraid of something.  Maybe our suffering is so immense that we just can’t stand being in our own skins.  Maybe the perpetual distraction we’ve come to call “thinking” is something we’d be better to just stop doing.

As Henry David Thoreau once said of an earlier form of self-delusion: “We don’t ride the railroad, the railroad rides us.”

Read more of Jim Miller’s column, “Under the Perfect Sun

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Frank Gormlie August 29, 2011 at 11:44 am

Jim – excellent! Do not stop thinking!!!! thinksmart-at-batshitnation.com

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avatar scott August 29, 2011 at 12:52 pm

Here is an interesting article that builds elaborates upon the idea of turning education (especially post-secondary ed) into a business rather than learning and thinking institutions:

http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/magazine/septemberoctober_2011/features/administrators_ate_my_tuition031641.php?page=all&print=true

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avatar RB August 29, 2011 at 2:08 pm

Of course the solution to this hypothetical problem of too few big or bold ideas ideas versus monetized ones education already exist. Simple choose a liberal arts school.
http://colleges.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/best-colleges/rankings/national-liberal-arts-colleges
While touring Princeton this summer, their presentation promised that their school’s student focus was critical thinking and financial support for both profit and non profit student bold ideas. Not once was employment mentioned.

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avatar Frank Gormlie August 29, 2011 at 2:57 pm

Or could it be because thousands of college students became business administration majors over the last few years? At least most liberal arts courses teach people how to think.

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avatar RB August 29, 2011 at 3:49 pm

Of course, lawyers ‘OB ragging’ on other majors when discussing bold ideas vs mundane observations seems strange. Let’s have more liberal arts majors who can think critically and less business students and less lawyers who can’t.

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avatar Richard W. Symonds August 29, 2011 at 2:44 pm

“The unthinking age of the twitters” – RWS

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avatar Richard W. Symonds August 29, 2011 at 2:49 pm

“This illustrates the importance of a long-forgotten idea in the
Twitter culture: it’s useful to read, even beyond a title” – ANC

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avatar Outlaw August 29, 2011 at 3:34 pm

I used to have a youtube channel but I shut it down summer of last year.

I used to listen to a few song, and watch some videos. All was fine until I had Osama subscribe to my favorites, and Hitler come in my channel asking for my balls. WTF?!! then just decided to close it down.

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avatar Arthur Salm August 29, 2011 at 4:34 pm

The key line in the piece is “This intellectual poverty will lead to a profound poverty of experience.” Which in turn causes us to ask, Just what is education FOR? Churning out competent workers to feed into the economic maw surely can’t be its sole purpose; maybe simply enriching the lives of citizens has a place in there somewhere. Making life fuller, broader, more enjoyable, with a spinoff benefit of helping to foster a well-rounded, knowledgeable, just … hell, SANE populace just might come under the heading of “Promote the general welfare.”

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avatar Frank Gormlie August 29, 2011 at 5:01 pm

Arthur – welcome to the OB Rag! We missed your old column. Hey – here’s an idea: write for us! We offer splendid benefits such as vacations in paradise, food stamps, County Medical Services – and the list just goes on. Write us : obragblog@gmail.com

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avatar annagrace August 29, 2011 at 6:02 pm

Arthur- I second Frank’s sentiment! I have followed your commentaries most recently, but remember your thoughtful U-T book reviews and participation as a juror in the San Diego Local Author recognition at the library. Your voice is so welcome and equally necessary! It is good hearing from you!

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avatar annagrace August 29, 2011 at 7:17 pm

Jim- I think it has become harder to separate the big ideas from the constant chatter, but they are still there. It is interesting to me that the lingering thoughts I have had regarding the Economic Summit constantly return to the big ideas I heard there.

Richie Ross reminded us that the pledge of allegiance ends with the words “with liberty and justice for all.” He emphasized that there is an ongoing national tension regarding how we reconcile those two terms, which stand in absolute apposition to each other. The more you pursue unfettered liberty, the more justice suffers; the more you pursue justice, the more liberty becomes circumscribed. Ross clearly feels that this will be the dialogue that we must continue to address as a democracy. I think that is one helluva “Big Idea.” Libertarian Bill Thiel, the founder of PayPal, chooses freedom over democracy and is working on a start up company in the ocean (NO TAXES!!!) inspired by Ayn Rand. That’s a helluva big idea too http://www.details.com/culture-trends/critical-eye/201109/peter-thiel-billionaire-paypal-facebook-internet-success?printable=true

When Kelly Mayhew spoke about the need for a moral budget, which protects the weakest and most vulnerable of us by putting them at the center of that budget, she was emphasizing the need for the justice part of Ross’s equation. A moral budget is indeed a very big idea and it is worth speaking about at greater length.

On the other hand, The U-T ran its own big idea this morning in the form of an editorial about privatizing libraries. It was an editorial, so I probably should not be overly critical that there is no historical context nor even a straightforward pitch of the big idea, which is why should we have a public libraries and why do we need government. It pretty much assumed that there is no appreciable difference between a public library and a privately run library. http://www.signonsandiego.com/news/2011/aug/29/privatizing-public-libraries/

All “big ideas” are not equal.

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avatar Greg Olson August 30, 2011 at 8:08 am

Hi Jim,

I think it is true that most people (not all) are not deep thinkers anymore. I believe this to be especially true of the younger generations that can find all of the answers (right or wrong) on Google and text Mom, Dad, or a friend first and think for themselves second.

Our ipods and pads, crackberries and computers haven’t solved basic human problems that exist in families, the work place, and communities. While our devices and social networks can connect us to more people, across more geographies and across time, they are not a substitute for thinking, great conversation, and taking action.

With this in mind, we created the big idea toolkit to get you organized so you get more important stuff done and make a bigger impact, whether that is for you, your family, work, or your community.

The Toolkit gives you a place to capture ideas, get organized, and execute whether you work alone or in a group. It is intentionally designed to force dialogue and leverages the way our brains do their most innovative work.

Whether you have a small idea or a big idea if you want to get it done you need a better approach. Too many ideas are not fleshed out with good authentic dialogue and too many ideas are stillborn, never to take shape or have their impact felt in the world.

The Big Idea Toolkit provides a common big picture with a clear path forward and a playbook of what to do next that keeps everybody motivated and moving forward. Using it or something like it is your best chance to make an impact and realize the possibilities. If interested, you can the various components of the toolkit and how it works at the website.

Thanks for the great post Jim.

Regards,
Greg

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avatar Goofus & Gallantz August 30, 2011 at 7:18 pm

Hello,
A little off topic.
I like y0ur title “What’s the big Idea?” but does anybody
remember channel 24 the San Diego Public Access Channel that
played a weekly series called “What’s the Big Idea” here in
San Diego in the early eighties? I’m trying to find the name
of the theme song? Thanks

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