Neal Gabler laments:
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 […]
We have become information narcissists, so uninterested in anything outside ourselves and our friendship circles or in any tidbit we cannot share with those friends that if a Marx or a Nietzsche were suddenly to appear, blasting his ideas, no one would pay the slightest attention, certainly not the general media, which have learned to service our narcissism.
What the future portends is more and more information — Everests of it. There won’t be anything we won’t know. But there will be no one thinking about it.
He, like others, puts part of the blame on the rise of social media:
Social networking sites engender habits of mind that are inimical to the kind of deliberate discourse that gives rise to ideas. Instead of theories, hypotheses and grand arguments, we get instant 140-character tweets about eating a sandwich or watching a TV show […] Indeed, the gab of social networking tends to shrink one’s universe to oneself and one’s friends, while thoughts organized in words, whether online or on the page, enlarge one’s focus.
I’m inclined to agree with Mr. Gabler that social networks breed a smaller type of thinking, centered more on mundane personal details and less on broad ideation. On the other hand, social technologies also make it possible to share and popularize big ideas – via TED talks, for instance.
It’s also possible that, living in an increasingly fast-paced world and accustomed to a rapid rate of (technological) innovation, we underestimate the time scale of ideas. The grand ideas of previous generations did not spread overnight; like all fruits, they ripened only in season. Perhaps we, products of an electronic age, have simply forgotten how to appreciate the growth of big ideas over long stretches of time.
Or perhaps our problem is due in part not to a lack of big ideas, but to the vast amount of lip service paid to such ideas. Everywhere there is talk of innovation, of change, of progress – so much so that big ideas have become confused with trendy ones, so much so that we no longer have need of truly disruptive thinking, when embracing the big ideas of our predecessors – environmentalism, minimalism, spiritualism, conservatism, liberalism – without questioning their underpinnings or genuinely seeking to improve upon them, is considered fashionable enough to soothe our collective ego. We have, as a society, sated ourselves on the wine of grand ideas, and are now content to castigate holdouts and feel superior in our own certainty that the big ideas have already been discovered for us. And as we do so, we forget how to recognize the new, fragile ideas springing up around us, lost in a whirl of cheap information.