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The (actual) future of the Big Idea

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

                                   
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  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_KVENBUWVJS34A75QIFRGGXJGLA Blake

    “Thought is everywhere; new ideas are springing up every day…”

    What “thought” and “new ideas” are you referring to? Are they material or ideational? 

    I think Gabler convincingly argued that information glut, and the market’s desire to service that glut, has overwhelmed our ability to think… to render immaterial ideas. 

    We’re too busy trying to stay informed. Are we not?

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_KVENBUWVJS34A75QIFRGGXJGLA Blake

    “Thought is everywhere; new ideas are springing up every day…”

    What “thought” and “new ideas” are you referring to? Are they material or ideational? 

    I think Gabler convincingly argued that information glut, and the market’s desire to service that glut, has overwhelmed our ability to think… to render immaterial ideas. 

    We’re too busy trying to stay informed. Are we not?

  • http://www.niemanlab.org/ Megan Garber

    The new thoughts I’m thinking of are the ideas being exchanged on Twitter, the insights being reported in the Wall Street Journal, the code being shared on GitHub. Many of them are ideas in the traditional sense — notional, theoretical, etc. — but many others are ideas that are expressed, phenotypically, as material experiments. As in the case of GitHub, for example.

    And as to the notion of information itself: I think Gabler is confusing an abundance of information with a glut of information. To me, “information overload” is itself an idea — which is to say, a construct, a notion, a problem to be solved. It’s not, in other words, a permanent condition. Yes, the newfound plenty of information swirling around us — the “economics of abundance,” Clay Shirky calls it — is changing things, drastically. Ourselves included. But we’ll adjust, as we always do, and we’ll be the better for it. Because the abundance isn’t, of course, simply “overload”: It’s more ideas and better ideas and more diverse ideas that feed and fight and shape each other in ways that will point, ultimately, to progress. It’s a pretty bold thing to argue that more information is, in the aggregate, detrimental to those who are exposed to it, and I have yet to see anyone make that argument convincingly. Gabler certainly included. 

  • kw

    Nice piece

  • http://www.friiq.com Advisor at Friiq.com

    Check out http://www.friiq.com and their concept around InternetofThings reporting as well as their plans for Global freelance network. I think these guys will end up doing something interesting for the future of journalism.

  • Anonymous

    Megan,

    I really enjoyed reading Gabler’s piece – almost as much as yours! I do think that he is onto something (the fragmented attention, the reactivity of our actions dictated by the medium) but his thesis is largely disconnected from these useful vignettes. 

    You could not be more right, however, as far as your incremental, collective and iterative representation of the Big Idea goes. One of the most inspiring contemporary manifestations of this is surely OpenIDEO: http://openideo.com/. Not to mention that some ideas, as you mention (twitter, facebook) have become so ingrained that we’ve stopped even thinking of them as ideas at all. 

    Greg

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=628233825 Trevor Butterworth

    I am utterly baffled by the conceptual distinctions made in this piece. It has no analytical rigor. I think you might benefit by spending more time in Harvard’s philosophy department and less time on the Internet.

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  • http://spasticarex.com Robert G. Valiant

    Did you write this for a freshman comp class at a community college? Sounds like it.

  • http://www.niemanlab.org/ Megan Garber

    Thanks, Greg! I’ll check out OpenIDEO; looks really interesting.

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  • Iago storgaard

    Thanks for the thinking. Couldn’t agree more. 

    I

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  • http://www.facebook.com/juliegabrielli Julie Gabrielli

    This in Gabler’s essay struck me: “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. While we continue to make giant technological advances, we may be the first generation to have turned back the epochal clock — to have gone backward intellectually from advanced modes of thinking into old modes of belief. But post-Enlightenment and post-idea, while related, are not exactly the same.”
    It’s a mistake to lump all non-rational ways of knowing and/or processing information into superstition, faith and opinion. Here, it seems, Gabler reveals his own cultural bias as a child of the Enlightment (as are we all). Going back into human history and picking up techniques and practices that have been lost or repressed is not regression. It is the best form of conscious evolution we have. The complex problems we face today will never be solved with strictly rational approaches. 

  • http://twitter.com/georgelouisalt George Altshuler

    I enjoyed your piece, and I agree that Gabler lacks an understanding of how ideas work over the internet.  I was especially interested to read your analysis of how ideas are more collaborative and less rooted in one individual person.  This is an important point to make. 

    That being said, I think your critique, and some of the other critiques I’ve read, miss Gabler’s important central point: big ideas aren’t valued by our contemporary society.  In addition to (incorrectly) blaming the internet, Gabler claims that this devaluing of ideas comes as a result of the way our society has evolved: people generally don’t see ideas that aren’t immediately practical and can’t be profitable as useful.   This is an important point that extends beyond the Internet, and I believe those invested in the Internet should address. 

    Next, Gabler’s definition of ideas as that which makes sense of the world around us is also valuable.  How can you call Google an idea under this definition?  This isn’t what Gabler has in mind. 

    Finally, I’m unconvinced by your argument that ideas in the Internet age can’t be “big” because of the medium of decimation.  If good ideas are truly good, shouldn’t the networks of the Internet share them?

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  • Waugh Rachel

    Amazing piece. Thank you.

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  • cecilia wong

    Thanks Megan for putting it so well.

    The Enlightenment idea of ’I think, therefore I am’ is now better
    expressed as ‘I am, therefore I think’.

    Neuro-biologists now agree that we
    think because we have a living body – which includes the brain. Our body and all its cells
    and molecules do as much  memorizing, organizing and communicating as our
    brain, if not more, and much of it  beneath our consciousness. This is simply because the brain is just an organ of the body. And  the brain’s  capacity for rational thought depends on input from the rest of the  body.

    So  top-down linearity of rational thought
    has given way to allow for the ‘bottom-up’ welling of our bodily consciousness –
    something many Eastern cultures have never neglected.

    The internet and social media make
    possible an extension of that consciousness.

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