“The Elusive Big Idea,” an opinion piece by Neal Gabler, published in 2011 (Aug. 14), in The New York Times, offers up plenty of food for thought. For example, early in the piece, Gabler states:
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. In effect, we are living in an increasingly post-idea world — a world in which big, thought-provoking ideas that can’t instantly be monetized are of so little intrinsic value that fewer people are generating them and fewer outlets are disseminating them, the Internet notwithstanding. Bold ideas are almost passe.
That’s an intriguing thought. But Gabler also walks us through why he suspects we live in a post-idea age. He mentions some of the factors that he believes are contributing to this. Things like Twitter and the internet, for example, may limit interaction and even thinking itself in ways not conducive to germinating big ideas.
Gabler also contends that we live in a post-Enlightenment age, as well. An age “in which rationality, science, evidence, logical argument and debate have lost the battle in many sectors, and perhaps even in society generally, to superstition, faith, opinion and orthodoxy.” “While we continue to make giant technological advances,” Gabler asserts, “we may be the first generation to have turned back the epochal clock — to have gone backward intellectually from advanced modes of thinking into old modes of belief.”
Post-Enlightenment and post-idea are two different things. As Gabler explains: “Post-Enlightenment refers to a style of thinking that no longer deploys the techniques of rational thought. Post-idea refers to thinking that is no longer done, regardless of the style.”
How did we get to this point? Gabler posits that the culprit “may be information itself.” “If information was once grist for ideas,” Gabler writes, ” over the last decade it has become competition for them.”
One characteristic of this Information Age is the ceaseless flow of information streaming towards us. And so much of that information is highly trivial. But it doesn’t stop there. This has serious real world consequences. As Gabler states:
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.
These words ring especially true in this age of Trump. It seems I can’t turn to the Times’s op-ed pages these days without witnessing at least one headline featuring the word “Trump.” Seeing this repeated anew, day after day, suggests this: There is also now a post-2016 presidential election Gresham’s law in which endless reportage about Trump pushes out both significant information and ideas. It is sad but true. Countless column and op-ed space is continually being wasted now on addressing all the stupid nonsense that’s going on, daily. On the one hand, it’s necessary to report on what Trump’s doing; because he’s steering the ship. But on the other hand, we need to rise above all the nonsense and focus ever more intently on how best to wring every drop of advantage from every column inch of newspaper space that is available. Think about all the future generations that are now counting on us! We need to be having much deeper, richer discussions concerning what specifically most needs to be done — and we need to think big!
But getting back to this rich “post-idea” topic. In 2014, Frank Bruni wrote an op-ed column (“A Quiet Cheer for Solitude,” Jun 10) — published in The Times — in which he brings up Susan Cain’s 2012 best seller Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. In describing Cain’s book, Bruni writes:
Cain’s book focuses on introverts, making the case that they have a kind of intellectual advantage. And their edge stems largely from greater amounts of solitude, from the degree to which they’ve swapped motion for stillness, chatter for calm. They’ve carved out space for reflection that’s sustained and deep.
Bruni also states that “It’s in solitude that much of the sharpest thinking is done and many of the best ideas are hatched.”
Bruni uses the fact that Hillary Clinton had just released  a book of her own, Hard Choices), as a means of setting up discussion of Cain’s book and its subject matter. He also weaves in how lessons learned from reading a book like Quiet might suggest that our nation would be better served if our government officials spent more time immersed in quiet reflection and focused thought. However, according to Bruni, “Action is the preferred pose of our era’s politicians.” They “want to be photographed on the go or leaning in,” and we evaluate them “in terms of their sociability, their zest for interaction.”
“Shaking hands, trumps reading books, mulling problems, probing one’s soul,” Bruni writes. “Is it any wonder that our rulers as a class, and we as a country, are bereft of big ideas?” As a society, we tend not to value solitude as much as we should. But if we do indeed live in a post-idea age, as Neal Gabler contends, Bruni might well be on to something in suggesting that politicians make more room for quiet reflection and rumination.