Some Old Guy Can't Come Up With Any New Ideas; So He Says There Are No New Ideas & It's Twitter's Fault

from the is-this-crap-worth-publishing? dept

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.

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Comments on “Some Old Guy Can't Come Up With Any New Ideas; So He Says There Are No New Ideas & It's Twitter's Fault”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Nothing new here

Seriously. Vistited the mom and aunt yesterday. They are not stupid people, but they’ve become intrigued by Million Dollar Matchmaker woman and her (imo) gruesome excuse for a reality show, had to tell me all about it.

Oh god, and also the flipping Kardashians! Perhaps I should have them to the doctor. Or perhaps they’re just entertaining themselves.

On the other hand, I had a pretty deep conversation with my 19 yr. old niece, a former cheerleader, about politics and education methods.

People aren’t ON POINT all the time about everything. Otherwise we’d bore each other, I guess.

Anonymous Coward says:

you whipersnappers.

Back then we were really able to THINK, you know. No one ever gave a spare moment to who Clark Gable was sleeping with or what was going on at Fatty Arbuckle’s parties. Now it’s all “tweet” this and “toot” that. In my day when I sat down to listen to Louella Parson’s weekly radio program I could be certain that she would quiz the movie stars about the latest news in physics.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: you whipersnappers.

Gran Torino quote:
Duke: What you lookin’ at old man?
Walt Kowalski: Ever notice how you come across somebody once in a while you shouldn’t have fucked with? That’s me.

Walt Kowalski: [sneering and aiming his gun] Get off my lawn!

“Everybody wonders why I continue working at this stage. I keep working because there’s always new stories. … And as long as people want me to tell them, I’ll be there doing them.”
?Eastwood, reflecting on his later career

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: you whipersnappers.

Jesus… I used to play hide and seek. What the heck I had in my head that I wasn’t trying to figure the great mystery of the Big Bang! I’m depressed now on how useless of a kid I were. Oh, and like this last week I spent a few hours with my friends relaxing and cleaning my head by talking all sorts of weird and nasty stuff.. I should have been thinking of how to solve the hunger problem in Africa!

That’s it, I’m gonna ask one of those scientists and the ppl who fight hunger in Africa how they spend their free time. I bet they never talk about futile and funny stuff. Certainly the scientists think of hunger in Africa in their free time. And the guys fighting hunger in Africa thing about the Big Bang.

Ima Fish (profile) says:

Rob Levine’s silly screed about the internet killing off a bunch of industries that are actually thriving

Don’t get bogged down arguing the facts. Even if the internet has killed off industries, it does not fricken matter.

The internet is merely an information distribution system. If industries cannot survive the transition to a new distribution system, they should be killed off!

Ian (profile) says:

See, when I search the internet or read Twitter posts or the like, I get a lot of insightful and challenging commentary on a variety of subjects.

Why? That’s what I look for. If someone’s Twitter feed is nothing but “My cat ate its sick today”, I stop following that person.

The internet has a huge variety of content. Anything and everything you might (or might not) want can be found there. What you get from it is what you seek out.

The fact that he thinks it’s all sandwich reports and TV show blabbing says a lot more about him than it does about the internet.

out_of_the_blue says:

14 year old girls always think that their interests are vital.

But it ain’t so. Even the idea for this article is OLD, OLD, going back to Roman times at the least.

If by 30 you haven’t admitted that nearly all of everything is crap and your parents and their parents actually did have a grasp on what’s important, then you’re still a child.

Marcus Carab (profile) says:

Re: 14 year old girls always think that their interests are vital.

If by 30 you haven’t admitted that nearly all of everything is crap and your parents and their parents actually did have a grasp on what’s important, then you’re still a child.

Wait, does that apply to every generation? Like, have we been spiraling deeper and deeper into the pit of crap for millennia, with each new wave coming of age only to discover that the world is objectively crappier than it was thirty years before?

AG (profile) says:

1) 20 years of text messaging should have already accomplished what he thinks Twitter is about to. Not going to happen. The garbage that generates ridiculous amounts of revenue for phone companies has just (partially) shifted to Twitter. All that garbage was always present.

2) 25% of tweets contain links. I don’t know what percentage of traffic this site generates through twitter links, but for many tech focused sites, Twitter is a major source of page views. So, actually, Twitter is being used by many people to connect with the same sort of “big ideas” which use lots of “words” that he thinks are dying out.

He is scared of Twitter for some reason and using any ridiculous argument to justify his personal prejudice.

Killer_Tofu (profile) says:

Sounds like

I must say I very rarely read actual frustration or anger when reading an article by Mike, but here it did sound like there was some.

As the phrase goes these days: “Haters gonna hate”. There are people who will refuse to adapt long into their own obscurity. They are just old or won’t comprehend changes in technology for any one of many various reasons.

I think really that our best response is to keep on forging ahead (provided they aren’t trying to make laws to maintain the past, which is never a smart move for anyone). They can either wake up and adapt or be left behind. Either or really doesn’t matter to me.

Gwiz (profile) says:

Re: Well, I am suitably chastened...

I’m off to Twitter to talk about nothing but what I ate for lunch for the next unspecified amount of time.

Me too. And cats, going to talk about cats too. But since I don’t have a Twitter account, I’m gonna decrease my intelligence (and productive work time) the old fashioned way – by sitting around and yapping with my co-workers.

John Doe says:

How famous was Einstein?

Before the atomic bomb, did the average Joe even know who Einstein was? Had it not been for the atomic bomb, would the average Joe know who he was?

If there was ever a chance that millions of people could come together and press forth ideas, hypothesis and theories, it is now. It sure couldn’t have been done over the telegraph.

Donny (profile) says:


“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.”

No, man, NO. One would be horribly wrong to argue that. Conversation is where a GREAT number of big ideas are born. From the Parisian cafes of Sartre and Camus, to the English coffeehouses in the 17th century, to pubs, gelaterias, salons – where people met, ideas came about.

How could you want less conversation, and give your reason as being for the sake of more ideas??

Cris Noble (profile) says:

Internet Acid Test

When I want to see if someone “gets the internet” I ask them if Wikipedia is accurate. If they say “what is Wikipedia?” I know they don’t get the internet.

If they say “No way, anyone can edit that stuff” I sigh and wonder if it is worth explaining to them that yes you can edit it but it is also peer reviewed by EVERYONE and if you still don’t believe it you can always go back to the original citation, which if it doesn’t exist you should do some fact checking before claiming it to be a fact.

If they say “It’s a good starting point” I smile and think there is hope for us all.

Pickle Monger (profile) says:

Since I have nothing intelligent of my own to add to the debate, I would like to quote my favourite band instead:

Gogol Bordello, “Ultimate”:
There were never any good old days
They are today, they are tomorrow
It’s a stupid thing we say
Cursing tomorrow with sorrow

By denying the value of communications tools such as Twitter, people can only devalue the overall communication and proverbally “curse tomorrow with sorrow” of diminished exchange of ideas.

DOlz (profile) says:

I don’t have a twitter account and probably never will. Do I think it is causing the impediment of human knowledge and progress? No more than the telephone, gossip, or sitting around the fire bullshitting about the mammoth that got away. Just because something doesn’t appeal to you doesn’t make it bad. And just to add to the quotes in this comment section;

“Ninety percent of everything is crap”

Sturgeon’s Law

Personally I’ve always thought Mr. Sturgeon was being overly generous.

Anonymous Coward says:

DNA got it

Douglas Adams nailed it in this, by now famous, quote:

“Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things”

Fushta (profile) says:

The Mind's Ability to Filter

I think one major insight that Neal Gabler underestimates is the human mind’s ability to filter “noise.” As DOtz pointed out above, “Ninty percent of everything is crap,” and our eyes/minds filter that crap out. It’s like banner ads on websites. I don’t even notice them, unless it’s something that my mind thinks I need, then I look at the ad.
If nothing else, the Age of the Internet/Information or whatever you want to call it, has given us the ability to quickly, mentally sort what is relevant, and what is noise.
Sure, there are thousands of tweets, wall postings, and blog entries every day, so much so that we couldn’t possibly read them all. Our filter kicks in and we only see what we need to see.

Anonymous Coward says:

I’ve never been to twitter. That doesn’t mean there isn’t info out there I am interested in. It just means I don’t find it there.

From the tone of the article this guy doesn’t know how to find his way around the net and is stuck in one little area that just gets his goat and he doesn’t know where to search to find that lost critter.

I would hazard the guess that he doesn’t have a fence nor close line to pass the daily gossip. Maybe there is a town crier he can go pester for the news of the day.

Or maybe he missed the party lines with telephones where you could pick up the receiver and find out what was going on with your neighbors and the local busy body.

Every generation has their version of the ‘new generation going to hell in a hand basket’. Looks like he’s found his version of it. He can keep that version, I don’t like it.

I’ve always had faith that the younger generation will find their own way, just as we did, and our father’s generation before us.

I guess this yoyo thinks an Einstein should be born every year and we should just look out and he’ll jump up and slap us in the face. Most of the folk that have strange ideas usually get slapped down from the likes of him before they ever get started.

Steve says:'re ALL wrong

Gabler is yet another journalist (that never took Logic 101) who had his central thesis in hand and never bothered to find the evidence to back it up. Although his supposition that we aren’t aware of who the Big Thinkers are of our generation is, I suspect, correct. Only, perhaps because the general population lacks the mental acumen to appreciate their work (universities & colleges have turned into tech schools for the most part, so that is to be expected).

At the same time, those who wax onanastically about Twitter and its simplistic 140 limit who reminded me of those who thought the beeper was the bee’s knees…

cybernia (profile) says:

I agree with Neal.

I think you guys are missing his point. It’s not that the internet has killed, “big ideas,” although it is the latest in a decades long march toward that end. The internet is a massive information dump where people think they are informed simply by the amount of information they get. They don’t think beyond that information.

“It may seem counterintuitive that at a time when we know more than we have ever known, we think about it less.”

He’s absolutely right.

The kids don’t want detailed discussions about various issues/topics or the bigger picture. Do you know the acronym, “tldr?” It is very common on boards where someone links to a lengthy article/essay. It stands for “Too long. Didn’t read.”

I write a column for an online site and the editorial guidelines say the rule of thumb for length should be 200-400 words because you don’t want to lose the “attention of your readers.” How on earth can you flesh out an idea or issue in any meaningful way in 400 words?

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: I agree with Neal.

“They don’t think beyond that information.”

Before the internet, most people didn’t think much beyond what they were told on the TV, or by headlines, or by a friend in the pub. Trying to pin this on new tech is not insightful, and it is misleading.

“The kids don’t want detailed discussions about various issues/topics or the bigger picture.”

Nice generalisation. Doesn’t sound like you’re looking at the “big picture” there yourself.

“Do you know the acronym, “tldr?””

Yep. In my experience it’s used mostly in jest when someone posts a darryl-like rant or pastes the whole article instead of linking. Also, people can be busy. If you want to point out something in a article, and just post a link to a 2000-word essay, many people won’t read it for varying reasons.

Expecting people to read an in-depth article before continuing a conversation with you will get that kind of reaction, and this again is nothing new. If you get that response a lot, maybe you should start summarising or quoting the relevant information with a link to the whole article for those who can/wish to read it.

“the editorial guidelines say the rule of thumb for length should be 200-400 words because you don’t want to lose the “attention of your readers.””

Out of interest, what kind of site is it? That sounds more like a content farm, or a site that likes to split articles into several sections to leech more ad revenue and they think that having more than 4 pages will put people off. It certainly sounds like an organisation more interested in ad hits than the quality of its content, even if they present their reasons as something different.

It’s also a question of the subject. Sure, a short news article or technical often has no real business being much more than that, but scientific analysis or anything offering real insight? That’s too short. Either you’re writing for hyperactive 10 year olds, or you’re working for people who don’t understand that a good article can be both longer and compelling.

Paul says:

Twitter = Telephone

Twitter and the entire Internet is a communications tool.

Just because teenage girls only ever talk about trivia on a telephone doesn’t make the telephone a device that can only be used for trivial talk. The president of the USA still uses a telephone to call a head of another nation to discuss a mater… “is-this-crap-worth-publishing” is exactly right!!!

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