Neal Gabler, in Sunday’s New York Times:
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.
While this article has an intriguing title, and a nice photo, Gabler misses the mark. First, the article was written in the Sunday Opinion section of the New York Times, a platform for ideas like few others. The medium of the article (a big idea itself) subtly undermines its message. But besides for that, I fundamentally disagree with the premise that ideas are in short supply nowadays.
We live in an era of democratized ideation. I haven’t been deemed a “thinker,” nor am I a professor. But I have a blog, and I write my ideas on it. People actually read it. Go back just 15 years, and there’s no way I could’ve meaningfully responded to Gabler’s article. I’m one of millions of bloggers who create new ideas. The best ones bubble up through clever algorithms and social filtering.
It is true, as Gabler says, that we consume loads more information than ever before. But we aren’t passive consumers. We respond and we engage. That is the bedrock of social networking platforms. Share and discuss. Maybe these are micro ideas. Maybe 99.99% of them could never touch the intellectual highpoint of Norman Mailer. But why should idea creation be limited to those who have fancy titles?
And to say there are no big, groundbreaking ideas is ludicrous. I mean, look at how people interact today. It’s fundamentally different than it was a decade ago. The world is smaller. We can consume the arts from devices that fit in our pockets. Comedians can burst out one-liners to millions of subscribers.
But Gabler rejects the notion that entrepreneurs are today’s thinkers:
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. 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.
It’s crazy to discount world-changing technological achievements because people make money off of them. Speak to any of the entrepreneurs behind the most influential tech companies. Not one of them is motivated by his paycheck. They’re our generation’s Einsteins.
We’re in the middle of the Computer Revolution, and naturally our society’s biggest ideas will come from within it. Technology today is fundamentally rewriting the way we’ve lived for thousands of years. Doesn’t that warrant a new way of thinking?
And, since when do we look down on people for making their ideas happen? The article is written from an intellectual’s tell-and-don’t-do perspective.
This said, a trip to the dark world of Twitter’s top-trending list uncovers a world of mostly incoherent, grammatically-incorrect, petty banter. But here’s the thing: this kind of behavior isn’t new. We’re not getting dumber. It’s just that we’ve never encountered these people, and their thoughts, before. Social networks, and the internet, are a lens into the majority of the world who don’t have thinking jobs. To a seasoned intellectual, this could be frightening.
But to suggest that we lack ideas is to say that we aren’t changing as a society. And that’s as far from the truth as it can be. Never in the history of the world have we as a civilization moved so quickly. Our Zuckerbergs have influenced this world many times more than the white-haired “geniuses” of the past.