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Aug. 15, 2011, 11 a.m.

The (actual) future of the Big Idea

Neal Gabler’s New York Times piece gets something wrong: Big ideas don’t need big media.

The critics are right: Neal Gabler’s essay in yesterday’s New York Times — the one proclaiming the death of the big idea at the hands of Twitter and Facebook and the Internet in general — is wrong. And we should probably, after giving the thing a slow clap for its bold attempt to transform the Death of the Big Idea into a Big Idea of its own, just dismiss it as so much linkbaitery, and then get on with our (ever more trivial, ever more egotistical, ever more tweet-addled) lives.

But the essay’s wrong, actually, in an interesting way. Gabler is making a big assumption: that the Big Idea is Big precisely because it is, actually, big — largely acknowledged, largely apprehended, largely accepted. “Once upon a time,” Gabler writes, ideas “could ignite fires of debate, stimulate other thoughts, incite revolutions and fundamentally change the ways we look at and think about the world.”

And ideas’ ability to effect that change — their bigness that gives way to Bigness — comes, obviously and necessarily, by way of the media. To get “ideational” influence, Gabler suggests, your idea needs to be featured on the pages of Time magazine, within the segments of 60 Minutes, on the cover of, ideally, The New York Times’ Sunday Review. (The argument makes no mention of the new digital powerbrokers — aggregators and news portals and the like: Nostalgia doesn’t tend to appreciate facts that contradict the need for its own existence.) In the Gablerian information environment, the Big Idea is a function of Big Media: The two both purify and amplify each other, entwined so tightly that it’s hard to tell where the one ends and the other begins.

So it’s a problem, for Gabler, that Big Media is becoming, steadily, less big. There are (again, again) obvious exceptions to the trend of the increasingly long long tail, which Gabler doesn’t name and quite possibly doesn’t acknowledge…but, in general, in this framework, more media choice for consumers means a more fractured media environment for everyone means a more idea-hostile media environment for the culture at large. The logic goes something like this: Internet —> information overload —> informational filters —> media fragmentation —> less collective cognition —> more echo chambers —> more self-absorption —> fewer Big Ideas —> more wanton triviality —> even fewer Big Ideas —> even more wanton triviality —> a “post-idea world.”

In other words, duh-pocalypse is at hand.

Which would all be very alarming and unfortunate, were it not for the flaw in Gabler’s premise: Ideas don’t need the media any more than the media need ideas. They’ve relied on each other in the past, true enough — media as the gatekeepers, ideas as the floods — but the present media moment is characterized above all by the fact that ideas, Big and otherwise, can be amplified independently of traditional media filters. The public, online, is empowered to decide for itself which ideas are worthy of changing the world. The same mechanisms that make a meme a meme can transform a plain old idea into a Big Idea, regardless of what 60 Minutes has to say about it.

And! They can hone ideas collectively — so collectively, indeed, and so gradually, that the biggest ideas can cease to seem like ideas at all. Gabler assumes that ideas are individual things: discrete, definable, the products of individual genius and inspiration. It’s not the theory of relativity; it’s Einstein’s theory of relativity. McLuhan’s notion of the medium. Marx’s economics. Freud’s psychology. Etc. In the past, Gabler notes, wistfully, ideas were empowered not only to “penetrate the general culture,” but also to “make celebrities out of thinkers.” Ideas, in that framing, aren’t just glorified media events; they’re also personal creations that can be directly, and conveniently, associated with the creators in question.

Increasingly, though, the ideas that spark progress are collective, diffusive endeavors rather than the result (to the extent they ever were) of individual inspiration. Ideas increasingly resist branding. The idea of the idea is evolving. We don’t treat Google like a Big Idea — though, of course, that’s most definitely what it is; we treat it like Google. Ditto Facebook, ditto Twitter, ditto Reddit and Wikipedia. Those new infrastructures merge idea and practice, ars and tecnica, so seamlessly that it’s easy to forget how big (and how Big) the ideas that inform them actually are. Increasingly, the ultimate upshot of the Big Idea — the changed world, the bettered world — is bypassing the idea stage altogether. As we build new tools and, with them, a new environment, blueprints are byproducts rather than guideposts. We’re playing progress, increasingly, by ear. And, in the process, we’re becoming less self-conscious about change itself — and about our role in effecting it.

Far from living in a post-idea world, we’re creating a world so thoroughly saturated with new ideas that we’re shedding the need to distinguish them as ideas in the first place. Thought is everywhere; new ideas are springing up every day, and getting tested and tapered and honed; and they are, far from inculcating apathy, inciting revolutions both literal and figurative, around the world and across the web. That’s what Gabler forgets: Ideas don’t need to be branded as such to change the course of history.

Image by Will Hastings used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Aug. 15, 2011, 11 a.m.
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