Post-Idea America

Early in August, the author Neal Gabler wrote an article in The New York Times, in which he observed that “we are living in an increasingly post-idea world – a world in which big, thought-provoking ideas that can’t be instantly monetized are of so little intrinsic value that fewer people are generating them and fewer outlets are disseminating them, the Internet notwithstanding.”  He contends that this is largely so because we are drowning in information and that the informational version of Gresham’s Law is at work, in that the mass of trivial information pushes out significant information, and because, within that mass of trivia, there is so much that confirms what we think is so that most people do not look or quest beyond their conformational biases, each of us is actually living in a smaller universe than did previous generations, even though the amount of information is infinitely larger.  He concludes by pointing out that society has historically been changed by “big ideas,” such as those of Einstein, Keynes, Freud, and Darwin, and that while there are currently thinkers who offer equally “large” and provocative ideas, those ideas are being lost in the ocean of trivia… and that society is already suffering and will continue to do so.

I don’t dispute any of Gabler’s points, and, in fact, find his observations and assessments, if anything, far too moderate, but I also believe that he minimizes two other aspects of the problem – the fact that the total mass of information acts as insulation to keep people from having to come to grips with ideas and facts at variance with their beliefs and the equation of “profitable ideas” with great ones.

Because the mass of information is so great, its very volume encompasses a range of correct data, generalizations, beliefs, anecdotes, examples, falsehoods, misrepresentations, and inaccuracies, the sum total of which creates the impression that all points of view and all ideas on a subject have equal value… or that the individual has every right to pick that information with which he or she is comfortable.  In the past, when information channels and sources were much narrower, there was a far higher percentage of “new” ideas and information that challenged existing beliefs reaching the average person.  While, in many cases, even “correct” new information or ideas were initially rejected, out of those challenges and questions emerged new perspectives and often new ways of looking and society and even the universe. Now… the new ideas are still out there… more often than not, adrift in a sea of trivia and indifference.

And… there is indeed one new “great” idea in American society, although it’s actually anything but new, but has rather undergone a re-birth, and that is the thought that no idea is of great worth unless it can be monetized profitably.  This is a central theme of the right wing of American politics today, that the profitability of government and business are paramount. Unhappily, it’s also an idea that is at the core of the left wing as well, even as the liberal left denies it.  But when the liberals make the argument that the wars in the Middle East should be stopped on monetary grounds, they’re essentially agreeing with the conservatives, in that they’re stating that social programs should be monetized, and that their worth lies in the amount of money applied to such programs.  In underlying principles, that’s no different from saying that no product is good unless it’s profitable.

Yet Galileo certainly wasn’t wealthy, nor Copernicus, nor Socrates, nor Freud, nor Einstein, nor Darwin… nor the majority of great thinkers in history.  Very, very few of the great artists were wealthy, either.  Few of the founding fathers of the United States died wealthy, either, for all their great ideas… So why do we spend so much time today idolizing the rich and famous?

Have we forgotten what greatness and great ideas are?  Or have we just reached the point where we as a society either fear them or can comfortably ignore them?


7 thoughts on “Post-Idea America”

  1. Mayhem says:

    Interesting. This concept ties in rather well with the latest post from Adam Curtis on the role of Think Tanks in shaping modern opinions and ideas, and how most of them are really just fronts for particular ideologies. The especially scary idea is just how many of those organisations are pushing the exact same underlying ideas, but from seemingly opposing viewpoints. The populace is given the illusion of choice, while being forced into a particular mode of thought without even noticing.

  2. Mage says:

    “So why do we spend so much time today idolizing the rich and famous?”

    I would argue that it is a reflection of the Calvinist underpinnings of American culture coupled with the revival of interest in Ayn Rand in the 70’s to 80’s. Theses philosophical views tend to have great resonance in the US, since they reinforce the American, particularly western American, idea of the rugged individualist. Both points of view also appeal to the largely evangelical/fundamentalist American political right. A group which works to reinforce these concepts as a part of American capitalism as distinct from European or Asian capitalism.

  3. Hob says:

    Before a person can be wealthy with money, the Money must be made valuable.

  4. R. Hamilton says:

    No, profit does not equal great. But profit is measurable in a relatively short timeframe (although one might hope it would have some balance so as to be measured not just in timeframes as short as the quarterly report).

    Real greatness takes at least a generation to recognize, and then you’re dealing mostly with people that weren’t actually there, so unless your parents or grandparents share stories with you, you have no idea how much of it is real and how much is a postdated construction of people with an agenda (aka historians, or everyone, for that matter).

    So I suspect that something quantifiable (not to exclude profit) is useful within a timeframe sufficient to make decisions, while something intangible if not downright effable, er, I mean _in_effable, may be useful in creating a legend, but that and human nature to corrupt whatever truth there once was in it won’t even buy you a cup of coffee.

    As to some of the replies, I’ll take a fake rugged individualist over some “it takes a village idiot” (oops, close quote in the wrong place) any day. At least they _aspire_ to something other than being a tool, even if they’re just a tool of a different kind.

    (sorry folks, I’m in a bit of a mood just now, so bear with me if I’m being stranger than usual, to the point of suspecting that _all_ ideologies either start out as, or at least as often over time are transformed into a fraud perpetrated for the pursuit of power…which means that real rugged individualists don’t need to advertise themselves as such…)

  5. Idealogies may not start as “frauds,” but inevitably, once they become mass movements, they become fronts for power or tools of those seeking power of one sort or another.

  6. Joe says:

    I think it has to do with the financialization of the economy which prefers ever larger quarterly profit earnings to longer term success.

    Science is only a few hundred years old, but most of the low hanging fruit has been harvested. To invent something new requires significant resources. However great ideas take a long time to develop, and tend to be off the wall, involving a single maverick. For instance Darwin took 20 years to develop the theory of evolution — an idea that was heretical to most people of his time. Few modern scientists are independently wealthy, so must gather resources from others. Small short-term grants that must be shared between many competing institutions leads to work on trivial (short-term) and uninspired (everyone must agree) research.

    A second issue is the control of the media by a few large corporations that view articles as a cost to be minimized. The goal is to sell advertisements, not to disturb people by making them think. Indeed, the increasing polarization of the political discourse reveals increasing intolerance towards others’ ideas.

    I have to wonder how the increasing pace of disruption (high frequency trading, jobs automated away, climate change causing crop failures, peak-oil, peak-rare-earth production, etc) will affect society as more and more people start believing in non-reality based world views because contemplating reality is just too painful (no your job won’t be coming back, no God won’t help, no we’re not special, no gas won’t go back down to $2, no morality isn’t the end all and be all, no climate change isn’t a hoax, no evolution isn’t “just a theory”, no you can’t legislate PI to be 3, no reading-writing-rithmetic isn’t enough, no GMOs aren’t the same as breeding, no you won’t get the social security or retirement you thought you would). There will probably be many fewer of us by the end of this century, but just as barnacles evolved from more complex beings, it won’t necessarily be the most rational of us that survive, just those that happen to be best suited for or happen to be in the ecological niches that remain.

  7. I am a fan of most of what who you quoted said, and find myself very much in alignment with what you said in response. I don’t know why, but I strongly agree. We don’t need money to live well. However, most of the people who you sited all were either funded by wealthy people, married to wealthy people, are very respected in society… perhaps that is the richness that has begun to escape us?

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