The Disappearance of Big Ideas

Neal Gabler bemoans in the following New York Times article the demise of the “big idea.” He is on to something, but occasionally shows his own biases. Some relevant quotes:

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.

The post-idea world has been a long time coming, and many factors have contributed to it. There is the retreat in universities from the real world, and an encouragement of and reward for the narrowest specialization rather than for daring — for tending potted plants rather than planting forests.

But these factors, which began decades ago, were more likely harbingers of an approaching post-idea world than the chief causes of it. The real cause 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.

But in the following quote, the author is showing his bias:

It is no secret, especially here in America, that we live in a post-Enlightenment age in which rationality, science, evidence, logical argument and debate have lost the battle in many sectors, and perhaps even in society generally, to superstition, faith, opinion and orthodoxy.

OK, I get it, he doesn’t like faith. The thing is, as he correctly diagnoses information overload and thinking in sound bites (or, nowadays, increasingly in tweet-bites), I would argue that it is precisely faith and ritual that has the potential to create the space needed for big ideas.

The Jewish Shabbat, with its profoundly inflexible prohibition on performing creative *acts* is second to none in creating space (actually, time) for creative *ideas*.

Many religion (definitely Judaism) are focussed on big ideas: selfless loving-kindness even when not reciprocated, principled morality even when inconvenient, forgiveness, justice, redemption are all basic ingredients of Big Ideas.

So yes, we miss big ideas. For the sake of humanity and us individuals’ sake, let’s step back and reassess. I for one am starting to think about how to reduce my information overload (but no, I haven’t found the magic bullet yet ;-)).

One Response to The Disappearance of Big Ideas

  1. Nicolai v. N. says:

    There is another reason, who is surely also responsible for the lack of big ideas.
    It is neoliberalism, who does see ratio applicated to society as a sure way to barbarity and fascism. Hayek was very sure about that and the thought is to be found in all his text, even in his Nobel price lecture (who is quite short and online available, what is the reason for mentioning it in particular.).
    As neoliberalism is seen as a system of believe (again Hayek) it may become a real everyday competition to religion.

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