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Neal Gabler: ‘We are living in a post ideas world where bold ideas are almost passé’

“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. (…)

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. (…)

We are certainly the most informed generation in history, at least quantitatively. There are trillions upon trillions of bytes out there in the ether — so much to gather and to think about.

And that’s just the point. In the past, we collected information not simply to know things. That was only the beginning. We also collected information to convert it into something larger than facts and ultimately more useful — into ideas that made sense of the information. We sought not just to apprehend the world but to truly comprehend it, which is the primary function of ideas. Great ideas explain the world and one another to us. (…)

We are inundated with so much information that we wouldn’t have time to process it even if we wanted to, and most of us don’t want to. (…) 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. (…) The most popular sites on the Web, are basically information exchanges, designed to feed the insatiable information hunger, though this is hardly the kind of information that generates ideas. (…)

This isn’t to say that the successors of Rosenberg, Rawls and Keynes don’t exist, only that if they do, they are not likely to get traction in a culture that has so little use for ideas, especially big, exciting, dangerous ones, and that’s true whether the ideas come from academics or others who are not part of elite organizations and who challenge the conventional wisdom. All thinkers are victims of information glut, and the ideas of today’s thinkers are also victims of that glut.

But it is especially true of big thinkers in the social sciences. (…) Because they are scientists and empiricists rather than generalists in the humanities, the place from which ideas were customarily popularized, they suffer a double whammy: not only the whammy against ideas generally but the whammy against science, which is typically regarded in the media as mystifying at best, incomprehensible at worst. A generation ago, these men would have made their way into popular magazines and onto television screens. Now they are crowded out by informational effluvium.

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. (…) Still, while these ideas may change the way we live, they rarely transform the way we think. They are material, not ideational.
Neal Gabler, a professor, journalist, author, film critic and political commentator, ☞ The Elusive Big Idea - ‘We are living in a post ideas world where bold ideas are almost passé’, The New York Times, August 14, 2011 (via amiquote)

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