Last summer The Atlantic featured “14 Biggest Ideas of the Year.” My response—as was almost everyone else’s I spoke to about that article—started out excited but quickly deflated. The “ideas” were more platitudinously ordinary than inspiring: “Wall Street: Same as it Ever Was”, or the number one choice, “The Rise of the Middle Class — Just Not Ours.”
Neal Gabler, scholar and author, wrote a response in the New York Times weeks later, extending his musings on what seems to be missing for us these days:
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…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.
Gabler points to our post-Enlightenment times when rational discourse has been replaced by a willful disregard for rational thought (incredulously for the rest of us, most Tea Party candidates believe that the earth is only 5,000 years old.) But the primary culprit is information itself:
It may seem counterintuitive that at a time when we know more than we have ever known, we think about it less…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…And that’s just the point. 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.
While information was once the grist used to create ideas, that is no longer the standard supply chain. We are so overloaded with information that most of us don’t have the bandwidth to process it even if we would like to. And the reality is that most of us don’t really want to go that extra mile anyway.
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…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.
What the future portends is more and more information — Everests of it. There won’t be anything we won’t know. But there will be no one thinking about it.