A famine of ideas?

Have we trained ourselves out of thinking about big ideas?

That’s the thesis behind a recent NYT editorial titled “The Elusive Big Idea” by Neal Gabler. While much has been written about the decline of attention spans and the distractions created by social media and the general motion towards shorter sound bytes at the expense of longer, thoughtful analysis, this article takes such criticism a step further.

“[W]e are living in an increasingly post-idea world,” writes Gabler. By “post-idea” he means a deliberate choice not to think! He argues that we’ve come to focus on collecting knowledge and given up on actually thinking about it.

“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.”

Information overload is not a new concept, but Gabler’s sketch of a society in which we are not only overwhelmed with information but we deliberately choose to continue glutting ourselves on it instead of taking the time to carefully chew over what we already have disturbs me in the way that only an idea with a kernel of truth can. Every time I glance at my RSS feed, I get that exact feeling: there is too much information, too much that is new and interesting and that I want to read, and nowhere near enough time to really think about it. This observation is exactly one of the reasons that I have this blog: a chance to stop and think about something, not just skim and nod and move onto the next nugget. This goes beyond a missed opportunity for reflection and increased insight. If Gabler is right, it could be habit-forming. Is there no room today for a Thoreau, an Emerson, a Twain? If they did appear, would they be systematically ignored, their essays too long, their ideas too musing, their observations demanding too much of the limited time any reader can bear to spend on any single source?

Gabler hints at the impact such a shift in priorities can have for society. How can we find space and time to incubate the next Big Ideas? How can we recognize and pay attention to these insights when they don’t fit into 140 characters? We have more people alive today than ever before, more thinking capacity at the ready — if we choose to engage it. This isn’t just about being an intellectual, engaging in some elite snobbery; it’s the chance to choose between cultivating what is new and exciting and valuable, the unique outcome of human cognitive capabilities, versus drowning in a vast, passive sea of trivia and unending distraction.

I thank Mr. Gabler for his timely essay and for giving me the inspiration to indulge in a moment of reflection myself. I’ve repeatedly come across advice about journaling in a work context, just taking 5-10 minutes every day to write down the thoughts bubbling in the back of your head. Every time I’ve made time to do this, I’ve had new ideas pop up or crystallize or point the way to some new direction. I won’t claim that these qualify as Big Ideas, but maybe they can guide the way. This is an activity I already hoped to indulge in more regularly during my sabbatical. After reading this essay, I’m all the more motivated to create a new habit, one dedicated against the post-idea slump.

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