Monday, August 15, 2011

Idea deficiency syndrome


Neal Gabler's opinion article, "The Elusive Big Idea," in The New York Times on Sunday provided a stark insight into our information-rich and -- he asserts -- idea-poor era. Much of the discussion I read about our Internet- / digital-mediated environment focuses on the opposition of "information vs. attention." The deluge of information available to us presents the communicator with a challenge of unprecedented proportion: getting the audience's attention. But from Gabler's perspective, I think this "information vs. attention" discussion misses the whole point. The intellectual challenge, the communicator's challenge, is that we increasingly live in a "post-idea" world ("Post-idea refers to thinking that is no longer done, regardless of the style.") Gabler writes, " . . . at a time when we know more than we have ever known, we think about it less." It's hard to dismiss Gabler as a Luddite or Eeyore. Ideas are not the stuff that updates, tweets, talk radio, MSNBC/Fox, reality TV are made of. Those are all items. An idea requires time, re-consideration, testing, fullness.

On the other hand, I'm reading Sarah Bakewell's award-winning 2010 biography of Michel de Montaigne, How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer (Other Press, 2010). In middle age, Montaigne "retired" from public life (politics) to focus on his property, his family, and answering the question: how to live. His Essais grew to a 1,200+ page answer that remains compelling despite the unfamiliarity of his time and place for most of us. (The success of Bakewell's biography is, if there's any doubt, testimony to Montaigne's interest for us.) The Essais are a textscape of rare sensitivity and comprehensiveness that tempt us to hope that maybe we don't live in a post-idea world. Maybe we're just momentarily (in historical context) distracted.