Neal Gabler in The Elusive Big Idea thinks online connectedness implies a “post-idea world”:
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.
But big ideas have always rested on some sort of social connection across people and they haven’t always required the written word. Big ideas don’t issue forth from the head of one really smart person, working alone, reading, reading, reading then Eureka! No, they arise from the synthesis of multiple ideas and practical knowledge that together are greater than the sum of their parts. What’s required for this? That people be in some sort of social connection with each other.
Big idea: Cliff dwelling
Last weekend, we visited Mesa Verde, an archeological site and national park that shows how the Ancestral Puebloans lived in the time period from roughly 550 to 1300 A.D. While the cliff dwellings themselves inspired awe (and sometimes required special tickets and patience to tour), it was more interesting to me to see the progression of architecture at sites along the Mesa Top Loop Road. Here’s where you could see the Puebloans build towards the big idea of cliff dwellings. From 550 to 750 A.D., they mostly lived in pithouses on top of mesas but sometimes in cliff alcoves, then progressed to adobe houses clustered into villages. By 1000 A.D. they had developed stone masonry techniques for constructing buildings two or three stories high with 50 or more rooms. It was about 1200 A.D. that they moved their buildings into cliff alcoves, a spectacular form of architecture with practical and aesthetic benefits.
Who came up with the big idea to build a multi-story stone dwelling in the shaded and protected alcove of a rocky cliff? It certainly wasn’t one person acting in isolation and doing a lot of reading and writing. This big idea did not rest upon the written word and lots of deep thought but rather on social knowledge and practice of stone masonry construction and on ideas and experience about where the best place to live was (mesa top or cliff alcove?). If the Ancestral Puebloans did have Twitter, I could imagine them using it share tips about how best to construct a beautiful and sturdy multi-story dwelling, sited for protection and convenience. Most big ideas rest upon a wealth of little bits of knowledge that don’t need to be written up as a journal article or book.
Many ways to connect
How we connect differs depending on where the people we want to connect with are. In the 17th and 18th centuries, French intellectuals gathered in salons. In the 20th century in the U.S. and other western countries, connecting through higher education channels and journal articles and at government-funded research centers was a good bet. Now, some people connect online using tools like Twitter and Facebook and Google+. This doesn’t necessarily replace long-form writing but it does complement it — making the generation of big ideas more, not less, likely.