In defense of big ideas

August 16, 2011 in General

Here's a provocative opinion ("The Elusive Big Idea") in the NYT by Neal Gabler, who laments that "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."

Nabler's argument, while extreme, bears some weight. While I disagree that there are no modern "celebrity intellectuals" (and anyway I think it's always a losing game to compare contemporary to historical fame; the historical winners demonstrate not only massive selection bias but also their celebrity has had sufficient time to bake into our hindsight-aided view of pop culture), I completely agree -- and frequently write in these pages -- that the modern focus on sensational information as opposed to true knowledge is tragic. I do not at all believe, however, that this implies that the quest for knowledge is dead.

Nonetheless, I do find it very interesting that Nabler offers an argument that doesn't wind up immediately concluding that "people are just dumber now:"

The real cause [of the post-idea world] may be information itself. It may seem counterintuitive that at a time when we know more than we have ever known, we think about it less.

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. There are trillions upon trillions of bytes out there in the ether — so much to gather and to think about.

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.

This leads to two hypotheses: first, we are inundated by so much information that the act of thinking about it becomes exhausting. It is impossible to apply the same caliber of reasoning to all of the varied tidbits we are surrounded by, so we choose the path of least resistance and apply a constant level -- near zero -- to it all. Moreover, modern society incentivizes recency. As Nabler says, "We prefer knowing to thinking because knowing has more immediate value" and it's no surprise that the post-idea world coincides with the popularity of social networks.

A second culprit is a lack of motivation. Only recently has society emerged into a relatively "foolproof" state, where it isn't necessary to retain massive amounts of information, because the answers are just a phone call/tweet/web search away. This is actually an amazing achievement. But paradoxically, it implies that Wikipedia leads to the downfall of thinking. Why waste precious neurons remembering convoluted formulas or arguments when, with a few minutes notice, they can be reviewed on demand? The greatest ideas have always come from questioning the current state of knowledge, from testing its limits and finding that they give. If we don't question, we can't answer.

We rely on information curators to bring us the news, just as we have come to rely on highly -- even absurdly -- specialized products to take care of every other detail we no longer wish to be bothered by. We tell ourselves that these talking heads rose through a meritocracy and are qualified to tell us the news because they are the best at doing so. We ignore their true incentive -- the biggest audience for advertisers, the least effort for producers -- and believe the frequent sensationalist nonsense because the alternative -- thinking critically -- is hard.

Nabler concludes that the age of thinkers is dead, and that we are "information narcissists" accompanied by a "general media [that] have learned to service our narcissism." I don't think the situation is nearly so dire, nor (and this may surprise you) do I feel like this justifies an attack on social media. I lament that society no longer aspires toward intellectualism even as I cheer the reasons for which it is no longer necessary. I would choose this state over its alternative. The tragedy is not at all a lack of great thinkers; we have many of them, despite any claims to the contrary. The problem is simply that the more knowledge we have, the less we are incentivized to acquire more.

There will always be people who are dissatisfied, who seek to push the envelope and find a better explanation or method.  There have been times in history when such people have been praised, and times when they have been suppressed: Galileo certainly never got to enjoy his celebrity. It would be nice to think that we are more welcoming of such ideas today, but that's hardly a prerequisite for having them. I think there's a big gap between a non-intellectual society and an anti-intellectual one. I'm no fan of the former, but I won't be sounding any alarms until I am convinced we are moving toward the latter (Kansas Board of Ed, we're watching you!)

I'm sure that Nabler's argument could have been made equally convincingly 100, 200 or 500 years ago. The greatest reward goes to the ones who ignore it.

To see some of today's great thinkers in action, check out TED, an organization I've featured many times on this blog. TED invites prominent people from every discipline to give "TED Talks", in which they have 18 minutes to describe their work or research. As a result, the information is generally only an abstract, but it serves as a wonderful and entertaining introduction to some of the great work being done today. True, not every TED talk is interesting or inspiring, and some of them fall in the "pure entertainment" category, but frequently the caliber of presenter and presentation is extremely high.

Also, this seems an appropriate place for this SMBC comic from last week:

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