Are Big Ideas dead? Here’s one to watch out for

Photo Credit: QisurIf a philosopher announced a Theory of Everything in the forest, but nobody was around to hear it, would it still be a Theory of Everything? Just asking.

In “The Elusive Big Idea,” Neal Gabler tells us that if there were a Big Thinker alive in America today that it’s quite possible few people would even learn her or his name. He writes:

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 like the cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, who has theorized on everything from the source of language to the role of genetics in human nature, or the biologist Richard Dawkins, who has had big and controversial ideas on everything from selfishness to God, or the psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who has been analyzing different moral systems and drawing fascinating conclusions about the relationship of morality to political beliefs. But 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….

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.

Gabler’s analysis is astute, but some say it may be just another example of narcissism.

Megan Garber on the narcissism of media elites

Megan Garber makes an excellent point: the article has an unstated premise about what constitutes a Big Idea. She writes:

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.

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.

Doh! She had me until the end. She is correct that the measure of an idea’s importance is at least in part relative and subjective, and then she virtually replaces the arbiter of bigness from the New York Times to Digg, Twitter, and StumbleUpon. Hers like Garber’s is a point of view sharing some of the characteristics typical of postmodernism: a relativization of truth, a democratization of values (“Who needs ‘Big’ Ideas anyway?”), and a suspicion of elite knowledge.

These articles got me thinking today about proposing a different, more integral, definition of an idea’s bigness: what is its uptake by individuals at the highest levels of ego-development, leadership maturity, stage of faith, psychological structure, or altitude of consciousness that a culture has yet produced.

An alternative proposal for measuring the Big Ideas

In other words, let’s take all the developmental models that have ever been created from Aurobindo to James Mark Baldwin, Jean Piaget to Terri O’Fallon, Carol Gilligan to Ken Wilber, Abraham Maslow to Robert Kegan, James Fowler to Michael Lerner, Jane Loevinger to Susanne Cook-Greuter, and so on, and then ask the individuals scoring highest whose ideas have been the most influential? Which living thinker’s ideas have the most ability to transform not only what people think about, but how people think?

The answer they’d likely arrive at by majority if not consensus: the “most important living philosopher you’ve never heard of.”

Surely it is objectionable that this would be an obviously elitist measure of importance. Why not just measure, say, IQ, and get the ranking of importance according to the highest IQ individuals? Why not just poll tenured faculty at Ivy League universities? Those are perfectly fine measurements as well.

Let’s ask all those groups which thinkers qualify as having the Biggest Ideas … and compare the results from all of these avenues and Gabler’s index of thinkers frequently mentioned on page one of the New York Times and Garber’s list of thinkers with the most Twitter followers. If we did so, they would each tell us interesting data points about today’s intellectual climate.

However, I suspect only the survey of highly self-realized and evolved individuals would actually provide insights that could really transform culture … because only such a survey could shed light on how other individuals might evolve, and how our culture might evolve, and how our social systems might evolve.

Ideas with or without brands: thinking in a post-idea world

Now it may convincingly be objected that even if all these surveys of Big Idea Thinkers were conducted, the news would be a trending hashtag on Twitter for about 30 seconds (if that), hit page A8 of the New York Times, and just as quickly be forgotten.

Garber writes:

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…. 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…. Ideas don’t need to be branded as such to change the course of history.

She makes some interesting points, but I’m not at all convinced about her central one. She says that the idea of the idea is evolving, but she never says what idea it is evolving into. Instead, she points to Google and Wikipedia as if this answer were “most definitely” self-explanatory. But it is not.

Saying that Google is a Big Idea in the 21st century is no more convincing than saying that the toga and sandal were the Big Ideas of ancient Greece. She is confusing technology for the intellectual theory-and-practice that generates the technology. She acknowledges that Google is “informed by” big ideas, but what is she speaking of? C+? Java? The semiconductor? Or philosophers of modernity like Rene Descartes or American pragmatism like William James? It’s not clear.

I am also wondering why she lists mainly cool, fun social media technologies in a world rife with famine, disease, warfare, and poverty. She also doesn’t mention any poets, artists, or musicians as having Big Ideas. Hers is so partial and biased a list it’s worrisome. But then that’s the thing: when she doesn’t have any Big Ideas giving her a comprehensive framework of reference, she doesn’t seem to notice that the technologies dominating her awareness are just one part of a much bigger picture.

Big thoughts return in a post-post-idea world

I think there is a Big Idea in the air that isn’t mentioned in Neal Gabler’s short list of ideas from comprehensive thinkers. The idea of the idea is evolving into a complex set of interactions of ontology, epistemology, and methodology. It is this set of interwoven interactions that is capable of making sense of today’s complexity and diversity: how our world exists in many stratums of development in natural, cultural, sociological, and psychological levels, and how such development can be mapped in an integral view that can help us to manage the complexity.

Contra Garber, Google and so forth are not the Big Ideas. They are technological outputs largely created at the intersection of individuals at autonomous or post-autonomous levels of development in a substantially modern-to-postmodern culture in a post-industrial economy. The world is much bigger than Facebook and Reddit, requiring far more comprehensive and inclusive perspectives. What it needs are frameworks capable of grasping the interdisciplinary interactions of ideas and practices in as many domains of knowledge and practice possible.

That’s not exactly a message that’s easy to convey in 140 characters or less … but it does say something about our time that there are millions of people going about their business working on just such integral approaches as I’ve described without a lot of attention by the New York Times and never trending on Twitter.

I agree that ideas don’t need to be branded as such to change the course of history. Sometimes they can sneak up on you, great ideas that were there all along that you just didn’t pay attention to because they didn’t get the page A1 treatment by our media barons. One such brand to watch out for is Integral.

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