Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Yet Another Musing About Big Ideas

On Andrew Sullivan's The Daily Dish, Zoe Pollock provides a quick summation of reactions to the Neil Gabler essay that I discuss here.

Pollack quotes Will Wilkenson who contends that "more people read and discussed Kant last year than in 1950, or that the size of the class of people who study and produce ideas for a living is now much larger than it was in 1950."  She also quotes Megan Graber who contends that Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Wikipedia are big ideas.  Finally she quotes Kevin Drum who contends,
[B]ig ideas may or may not have been more common half a century ago than they are now, but at least back then we knew where to find them and we have a widely understood set of social conventions about how to discuss them. We haven't yet really figured that out for electronic media, and that makes the discussion of big ideas chaotic enough and inchoate enough that it can often seem as if the ideas themselves don't exist anymore. But I suspect they do. We just have to learn how to talk about them in a new language.
I'm going to play philosopher without a license and contend that  Drum, Graber, and Wilkenson are all missing the point.

First, the technological innovations that Graber and Drum discuss are technological innovations but not necessarily big ideas as Gabler or Wilkenson conceive the term.  More importantly, to use Wilkenson's Kant example, the technological innovations that Graber references have a result that is the complete opposite of Kant's categorical imperative.  Kant based his imperative on the fact that humans are autonomous beings who possess reason.  Wikipedia and Facebook do little to reaffirm a person's autonomy.  In fact, many people now use Wikipedia as a reason for humans to "know" less because everything that one may need to know and remember can be found on the site.  In short, humans should lessen their autonomy and depend on the machine or the cloud.  If the past 500 years have produced a  greater weapon of quiet compulsion than Facebook, I am unsure I want to know of it.

Second, Americans have not been blessed with leaders with the skills or desire to implement big ideas.  FDR created social security; subsequent administrations raided the trust to pay for other pet programs.  Ronald Reagan contended that government was the problem but those claiming to be his disciples grew the size and scope of government.  Further, during the past 60 years, Democrats have offered little except extend the New Deal; Republicans have countered with reduce spending and "starve the beast."  Most recent leaders lack George H.W. Bush's honesty.  At least he admitted he didn't get the vision thing.

Third, too many big ideas have had military or strategic implementations: the interstate highway system, the space program, or the Internet.  Perhaps looking for ideas that don't have military use would help thinkers produce a new set of big ideas.  While we're turning from military use as a source of big ideas, perhaps Americans should stop with the war metaphors.  The wars on drugs and poverty have produced neither ideas nor success.

Finally, the fault may lie in ourselves.  Big ideas take time and offer little immediate reward.  Although, Americans now lack the honesty to admit holding the attitude that "he who dies with the most toys wins," most of us spend far too much time "getting and spending" without acknowledging that such activity causes us to "waste our powers."

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