What’s the Big Idea?

In this article by Neal Gabler in the August 13, 2011 New York Times, the author discusses his belief that ideas just aren’t what they used to be. In fact, he states,


“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.”

I think Gabler is onto something here. Just take a look at television programming. Now, I’m not about to get on some high-brow horse and lament the decline of television because of reality shows, blowhard pundits and the like. There have always been clowns on television, literally and figuratively. What we used to see more of, however, was programming that also appealed to the intellect. Even with the hundreds of channels available today, how much intellectual stimulation do you find around the dial?

As a pre-teen, in addition to heavy doses of reruns of Monty Python’s Flying Circus on PBS, I was often riveted to Firing Line. (Yes, I was a precocious child.) For any of you too young to remember it, Firing Line was hosted by conservative writer and thinker William F. Buckley, Jr., and it featured Buckley debating the issues of the day with leading intellectuals, politicians and other public figures. The pace was slow, the atmosphere, polite. Listening to, let alone reading Buckley, virtually required doing so with a dictionary in your hands.

Yes, I realize that Firing Line was on PBS and not network television, but still, I don’t believe it would even work on PBS today. No one in the public sphere seems to be interested in discussion and dissemination of ideas. Civility seems to be like some outdated Victorian notion. It’s all about the sound bite and one-upsmanship. Watch any news show anywhere on television tonight and listen for the raised voices, the constant interruption of one speaker by another, and the vitriol.

The Information Age has given us access to endless amounts of data, but that doesn’t translate into necessarily understanding that data. In essence, we possess trivia that makes for useful cocktail party conversation or 140 character tweet-sized bites. This isn’t inherently bad, mind you; it’s just ultimately unsatisfying if that’s where the inquiry end. It’s fast food information.

Don’t get me wrong. I love social media and I love that when some inane trivia question wakes me up in the middle of the night (Don’t laugh. This happens.), I’m almost 100% certain that with a few keystrokes, I can find the answer. But, aside from helping me go back to sleep, did learning the answer to that question add any tangible value to my life? Most likely, the answer is “no”. As Gabler concludes,

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. Think about that.”

I intend to think about it. What about you?