The “Elusive Big Idea”: the problem is not a lack of ideas, but a lack of interest

In a New York Times op-ed, Neal Gabler argues that “big ideas” have been supplanted by an abundance of information. He writes, “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.” Now, “We just don’t care as much about ideas as [our forebears] did.” Over the last decade, says Gabler, information has become competition for ideas: “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.” We are preoccupied with an endless supply of inconsequential information, with being connected and “in the loop”, and conceptual ideas suffer.

Gabler says we are 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,” with “thinking that is no longer done, regardless of the style.” This is the argument he distinctly presents, which I would disagree with, but the underlying argument seems to be more about us being distracted and uninterested in conceptual thinking and big ideas, not about their disappearance.

His observations are mostly accurate:

  • “There is the eclipse of the public intellectual in the general media by the pundit who substitutes outrageousness for thoughtfulness, and the concomitant decline of the essay in general-interest magazines. And there is the rise of an increasingly visual culture, especially among the young — a form in which ideas are more difficult to express.”
  • “We live in the much vaunted Age of Information. Courtesy of the Internet, we seem to have immediate access to anything that anyone could ever want to know. We are certainly the most informed generation in history, at least quantitatively.”
  • “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.” (this is only true for a certain subset of the use of these sites. There is also plenty of idea generating and sharing going on)
  • “All thinkers are victims of information glut, and the ideas of today’s thinkers are also victims of that glut.”
  • “Entrepreneurs have plenty of ideas, and some, like Steven P. Jobs of Apple, have come up with some brilliant ideas in the “inventional” sense of the word. Still, while these ideas may change the way we live, they rarely transform the way we think. They are material, not ideational.”
  • “We have become information narcissists, so uninterested in anything outside ourselves and our friendship circles or in any tidbit we cannot share with those friends that if a Marx or a Nietzsche were suddenly to appear, blasting his ideas, no one would pay the slightest attention, certainly not the general media, which have learned to service our narcissism.”

But, as I said, they all point to a culture that is distracted and uninterested, not to a lack of ideas. I would say there are more ideas, but more spread out and hidden, and most of the increase in ideas has happened in the realm of little ideas, material ideas, practical ideas. The generation of big ideas has not decreased, they’ve just been buried by information, distractions, and little ideas.

And not only are big ideas less apparent, but people’s apathy towards them is more pronounced. Such disinterest was never as visible as it is now, with social networking and the tools for anyone to broadcast anything to the world. On top of that, information and endless distractions have never been so available and invasive.

But again, that many people are too distracted to be intrigued by big ideas does not mean that they no longer exist.

Perhaps another issue is not the lack of ideas, but a lack of execution. “History is littered with inventors who had ‘great’ ideas but kept them quiet and then poorly executed them”, says Seth Godin, “And history is lit up with do-ers who took ideas that were floating around in the ether and actually made something happen.” Perhaps the balance is shifting away from “do-ers.” The explosion of startups would initially seem to point away from this conclusion. But most startups are focused on specific problems, or innovating in already established areas. Less tackle the kind of “big ideas” that Gabler says are missing.

I don’t believe that big ideas no longer exist as they used to, only that they are no longer treated with the same interest and determination. This seems to be the argument Gabler is getting at, overshadowed by a less accurate — even distracting — focus on a decline in big ideas. What we need is more attention and recognition on the big ideas that already exist. Change needs to come not in the realm of big ideas and big thinkers, but from everyone not paying attention — and not thinking.

[via Richard MacManus/ReadWriteWeb]

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