Quite a week for the luddites out there. First we get Rob Levine's silly screed
about the internet killing off a bunch of industries that are actually thriving. And now we have the NY Times publishing absolute tripe from Neal Gabler, bizarrely and ridiculously claiming that the age of "big ideas" is over
, and it's all the fault of Twitter and Facebook. It's incredible that the NY Times would publish such absolute garbage. Nowhere does Gabler actually support his thesis.
It's yet another example of "back in the old days" mythological thinking, where someone, who only remembers the "highlights" of a bygone era, is upset that there's a lot of other stuff going on in the modern era as well. Gabler points to a bunch of "big thinkers" from the past -- Einstein, Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, Betty Friedan and others. And then insists that no one like that is showing up today -- or if they are, they're being ignored. This is, plainly speaking, ridiculous. He points to Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker and Jonathan Haidt as "big thinkers" of today who are mostly ignored. Really?!? All three are pretty widely known, and I'd bet are pretty much equally known in the world as his initial list at similar points in their life and career. Gabler just seems to have an arbitrary standard of how well known certain "big thinkers" are.
The real crux of Gabler's argument appears to be that we're all doing too much of that tweeting
and stuff, such that we no longer have time to think
. And his scientific evidence to back this up is... oh look, absolutely nothing
It is certainly no accident that the post-idea world has sprung up alongside the social networking world. Even though there are sites and blogs dedicated to ideas, Twitter, Facebook, Myspace, Flickr, etc., the most popular sites on the Web, are basically information exchanges, designed to feed the insatiable information hunger, though this is hardly the kind of information that generates ideas. It is largely useless except insofar as it makes the possessor of the information feel, well, informed. Of course, one could argue that these sites are no different than conversation was for previous generations, and that conversation seldom generated big ideas either, and one would be right.
BUT the analogy isn’t perfect. For one thing, social networking sites are the primary form of communication among young people, and they are supplanting print, which is where ideas have typically gestated. For another, 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. While social networking may enlarge one’s circle and even introduce one to strangers, this is not the same thing as enlarging one’s intellectual universe. 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.
Can't there just be a rule? If you ever
trash Twitter because someone tweets about eating a sandwich for lunch, we all just agree that person is too clueless to listen to any more? That tired old line has been used so often and the only thing it shows is one's ignorance of Twitter.
But more to the point, Gabler is reminiscing about a world that never existed. "Instead of theories, hypotheses and grand arguments, we get instant 140-character tweets about eating a sandwich or watching a TV show." And in what world did millions of people sit around and discuss theories, hypotheses and grand arguments? Sure there are some places where some people did that, and they still do. In fact, those "theories, hypotheses and grand arguments" appear to happen much more frequently, in much more detail and with a wider audience online these days. I often find out about them via the smart people I follow on Twitter
And while social media may not have enlarged Gabler's intellectual universe, it has massively enlarged mine. Thanks to Twitter specifically, I've been able to meet tons of fascinatingly smart people I never would have met otherwise. Sure, not all of it is brilliant talk, but Gabler seems to make the same fundamental error that so many "back in my day" people make: which is to assume that because a tool can be used for random conversation that somehow cancels out intelligent conversation. I can talk about the sandwich I ate for lunch and
I can discuss big intellectually stimulating ideas.
But Gabler seems to have this view that because some people discuss stuff he finds beneath him, they can't possibly also
be discussing important stuff. He also seems to ignore that back in his mythical "good old days" people discussed equally as ridiculous things:
The collection itself is exhausting: what each of our friends is doing at that particular moment and then the next moment and the next one; who Jennifer Aniston is dating right now; which video is going viral on YouTube this hour; what Princess Letizia or Kate Middleton is wearing that day. In effect, we are living within the nimbus of an informational Gresham’s law in which trivial information pushes out significant information, but it is also an ideational Gresham’s law in which information, trivial or not, pushes out ideas.
If Gabler thinks that there wasn't similar gossip and banal discussions back when he wasn't an old man screaming at kids on his lawn, he apparently wasn't paying very close attention to what the people around him were discussing. There are plenty of "big ideas" out there, contrary to Gabler's claim, but the only really stupid one I've seen lately is this one... from Gabler. With that I'm going back to reading some more interesting and thought provoking ideas... which I most likely found on Twitter.