What’s the Big Idea?

By Jim Miller

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