Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Elusive Big Idea

Bruce Nauman, 1975, serigraph (copyright may apply).

My new friend Nina (who I met in Barcelona thanks to Facebook), writes to ask if I’ve read Sherry Turkle's Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other or Jeron Lanier's You are not a Gadget—which I haven’t, but I did read Neal Gabler’s “The Elusive Big Idea” in Sunday’s New York Times (which I found out about when it was posted on Facebook), where the author moans that the result of social technology is that we care more about bytes of information and daily trivia, and less about ideas than we once did. It’s yet another article about what we’re losing due to change, but I have news for him and all the other Chicken Littles out there—change happens! And with change, we both lose and gain, and I like to think we gain more than we lose. For instance, when I hear mothers complain that their daughters are going around dressed in “next to nothing,” I think teenagers have always wanted to show off their bods—and isn’t it great that society has advanced to the point that they can wear those teeny shorts without fear of the harassment and worse that would have been inevitable years ago? I do lament that writing in cursive is no longer being taught, and school playgrounds are being phased out, but change is not always permanent; maybe we need to build schools without playgrounds to learn how necessary they are.

The big thinkers Gabler cites as having been “crowded out by informational effluvium”—psychologist Steven Pinker and biologist Richard Dawkins—are hardly obscure, and he forgets the popularity in recent years of “idea” books by authors like Malcolm Gladwell and Alain de Botton.

The problem is actually more cultural than technological—Americans have always been suspicious of intelligence—and I’m here to tell you that ideas are alive and well and living in Europe (which also has the Internet and Facebook, BTW), specifically England and Spain from which I've recently returned. While I’m guessing that 999 out of a 1000 Americans (and I could be being generous here) can’t identify Jasper Johns, arguably our most famous living artist, in England every cabbie can name the winner of this year’s Turner Prize. Used as I am to the American media’s constant ridiculing of art and artists, I was blown away by the coverage of the exhibition I went to see in Spain of Àngels Ribé, a conceptual artist. Every day there was a major article in another publication, each more intelligent and respectful than the last, and while I don’t understand Catalan, the lengthy television news presentation I saw was so beautifully shot it could have been a documentary.

Just to prove my point, I offer this quote from de Tocqueville (found on Facebook in a discussion of this article):

The practice of Americans leads their minds to other habits, to fixing the standard of their judgment in themselves alone. As they perceive that they succeed in resolving without assistance all the little difficulties which their practical life presents, they readily conclude that everything in the world may be explained, and that nothing in it transcends the limits of the understanding. Thus they fall to denying what they cannot comprehend; which leaves them but little faith for whatever is extraordinary and an almost insurmountable distaste for whatever is supernatural.

---Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835

If Gabler thinks we don’t care about ideas anymore, maybe he just needs smarter Facebook friends.


Joanne Mattera said...

Culture? Here's your culture:
. American Idol
. The Karsdashians
. Celebrity marriages and breakups
. The game/playoff/championship
. Where's the remote?
. Disney World
. Frozen pizza
. Facebook
. James Patterson novels
. Do these iridescent spandex jeans make my size 18 butt look too big?
. What would Jesus do?

Anonymous said...

I think we are swamped with information now, and my students often display an alarming inability to filter or process much of what they take in, but I don't think thought is dead, at least I hope not. And it does occasionally work in my favor as they think I am really clever because I have stuff already in my head, that I memorized and know (and learned from a book - gasp!)I would add I am not that clever nor an expert in any field of knowledge.I wonder if technology and access to information will make it easier for us to work in specialized fields of knowledge or will only create a huge number of shallow end dabblers (like me)