Are We Out of Big Ideas?

Are We Out of Big Ideas? August 18, 2011

In Sunday’s NYTime, Neal Gabler surmised that we’re out of big ideas.  Surprise, surprise, he blames social media and mobile technology for the sad state of how dumb we are:

The collection itself is exhausting: what each of our friends is doing at that particular moment and then the next moment and the next one; who Jennifer Aniston is dating right now; which video is going viral on YouTube this hour; what Princess Letizia or Kate Middleton is wearing that day. In effect, we are living within the nimbus of an informational Gresham’s law in which trivial information pushes out significant information, but it is also an ideational Gresham’s law in which information, trivial or not, pushes out ideas.

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. Where are you going? What are you doing? Whom are you seeing? These are today’s big questions.

Gabler is wrong.

As someone who is attempting to make an impact — and a living — as a public intellectual, (mostly) outside the walls of academia, I welcome our society’s changes.  This blog, for instance, is the platform for a pretty damn robust conversation around theological ideas.  And it’s open to anyone, not just those who are paying big bucks to a seminary.

And I’m all for that.

By the way, thanks for reading.

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  • In absolute terms I agree , he’s wrong. It isnt necesary & there are those of us who are talking about ideas. But I know what he is talkimg about & I see myself & others get caught up in this tyrany of the banal he is talking about. So, he is also right.

  • Karla Seyb-Stockton

    “Where are you going? What are you doing? Whom are you seeing? These are today’s big questions.” Seems to me like those questions aren’t just today’s big questions… They have always been big questions: they are the questions of relationship, and not that different from the questions posed by Jesus in the gospel of John.

  • Chuck

    Considering that Gabler would not know a big idea if he tripped over one…

  • Dan

    Gabler seems to be talking around his argument, in my estimation. He wants someone to be a Marx or Einstein or whatever. The fact is, there are people out there who serve this function (I’ve read Slavoj Zizek in numerous non-American, non-academic settings) and you can’t blame social media for it. He never says what he wants to say (yay Enlightenment! boo post-whatever!), and pretty much makes himself the case study of his argument. No big ideas here, just complaining that there are no big ideas from someone with no big ideas.

    Thanks for the conversation Tony, I greatly appreciate it.

  • Drew

    I have one acronym for Mr. Gabler: TED.

    They use their own site, Facebook, YouTube, and even Twitter to showcase the amazing talks–all based around big ideas–to the general public. And people even talk about it.

  • Jeff

    For some very high percentage of the web/blogosphere he is dead on…It is noise…Is there value/big ideas to be found? Yes. A bit like picking small bites of healthy food out of a swift flowing sewer…

  • Tarry

    Lately I’ve been wondering about the same things as Gabler. And the university faculty I know — put a quarter in them and they’ll go on for hours about how right Gabler is.

    And I’m not sure I’m right about this — but I watch my friends’ blogs, and it seems the comments are few and getting fewer. If they post cute, punchy things on facebook, they may get a couple dozen “likes.” If they post more thoughtful things like this — there are, predicably, just a few comments. And they may have hundreds, or thousands of subscribers or friends. So my question is — how big, exactly, is the phenomenon of intellectual engagement over social media. And are there now diminishing returns?

    • It’s true, Tarry. If I blog about Mark Driscoll and homophobia, I’m sure to get lots of comments. If I write a thoughtful series on Moltmann’s ecclesiology, it’s crickets.