A recent article in the NYT titled The Elusive Big Idea laments for a long-passed Age of Ideas. Writer Neal Gabler knows how to rub salt into our collective iPads: he believes that in our digital age, information itself has become the finish line, not the starting point; the development of big ideas has taken a back seat to knowing facts; pushing boundaries has been replaced by being liked; complex debate has been replaced by 140-character bursts of expression; dreams have been replaced by video; speed has surpassed quality.
Like any complex debate, I think the writer is definitely onto something. He’s not wrong, but he’s also screaming at kids to get off his lawn. When I first read this over a week ago, I didn’t agree with all his points, and immediately began this blog post about it. Then I checked my Twitter feed, had a few emails I had to get out, got working on a big project that was due the next day, downloaded Lion, and before long, a week goes by. Whether or not we have more ideas than other generations is debatable; that we are a very distracted generation cannot be questioned.
Blanket statements like “ideas seem smaller today” are designed to get a reaction, so I won’t go there. Goggle’s quest to digitize every book every printed? I can read a few pages of Ovid’s Metamorphoses on my iPhone during my morning commute and that’s not big enough? How about OXO’s can opener? Toms Shoes? The High Line? Guinness’s Pub Can? Bitcoin? Or the obvious: if the rise of the internet and all things digital itself isn’t a big enough idea for one generation to hold up and say, “look what we have,” then we’ll never get past the idea that big ideas start with Einstein and end with a man on the moon. If anyone is looking for ideas, I recommend spending time here. Or here. Or here. Or here. Or here.
And I know many of us have been to these sites, so there doesn’t seem to be a lack of smart people focused on hearing new ideas. The bigger question is: is the concept of a “where are the big ideas” even the right question to ask? Just maybe, the reason there are so few big ideas is because big ideas are extremely rare, and what makes life better are the thousands of very small ideas, a handful of medium size ideas, and one or two really big ideas. Once the Romans realized an arch can hold more weight than straight columns, boom, that problem was solved, and it was onto figuring out what to do with technology. Blaming digital media consumption for a perceived lack of ideas is a little like blaming Gutenberg for the death of penmanship; at the end of the day, all this stuff, social media, three-screening, iEverything, they’re only platforms and tools and in many cases, harmless diversions, modern day picket fences where people meet and shoot the breeze and connect. Yes, the scale has increased tremendously; people in NYC who were on Twitter yesterday around 1.30pm knew about the earthquake in DC—get this—before the earthquake even hit NYC. That’s some cool stuff. And if you spend all day online, sure, your productivity will probably decrease. But wasting time out by the end of the internet doesn’t equal an end of ideas, nor does it offer so much more information that people will have more ideas. It’s just information, and as always, it’s up to the individual to decide what to do with it. When all these platforms start decreasing productivity, anyone can log off, place feet squarely on desk, and get some thinking done. Libraries have always been stuffed with information; the secret is what an individual does with the same facts that are available to everyone, and that has always been true.
The way people consume media and communicate has obviously changed significantly. We connect in new ways and how we connect has changed, so let’s just move on. Morse Code to Radio to TV to Twitter. It’s called progress. But on a day where The Arab Spring—probably the biggest idea in 2011– is again in full force, it’s hard to say we lack for big ideas. The fact is, ideas are hard things to come by. They require work, and I’m not even cancer-curing ideas. I’m talking about everyday ideas, about coming up with a great line that will hopefully sell some product, or leveraging a new technology to engage with consumers in a new way. The vast majority of people, since the days before those Roman arches were built, simply went about their business unplagued by ideas, which is just how the world is. Most of us look at the sky and see sky. Einstein looked at the sky and wondered where the light comes from. That doesn’t mean the rest of us are slackers; it means we like looking at the sky and the idea didn’t hit us to try to figure out how it all works. To paraphrase Will Rogers, we can’t all be heroes because someone has to sit on the curb and clap as they go by.
But I also agree with some of this article. We do live in the age of the individual. Every tweet broadcasts our thoughts, every check-in documents our movements, every photo captures our activities. The individual is empowered, and frankly, not every individual has a lot of interesting things to say. But that’s just clutter, not an indictment of society. Another issue I agree with is the downside of speed. While it was great to find out why the Empire State Building was shaking yesterday minutes before any network had the story, the speed of things isn’t always for the better. As a society we have gotten used to getting what we want as fast as our broadband connection allows, and unfortunately, ideas take time. Thinking about things requires research, perspective, going down wrong tracks, trying different approaches, getting outside opinions, time to let everything marinate. We are fast becoming a society that is so used to Wikipedia, to finding the fact we want and not probing deeper, that we don’t punch holes in the information. Knowing the answer is fine; knowing why that’s the right answer is a much more interesting pursuit.
About ten years ago, while on vacation, I was lucky enough to make friends with the owner of a fabulous agriturismo farmhouse outside the town of Radda in Chianti. The owner, Guido, had a word that defined the cooking in his region. He never boasted it was “superior” or “great” or even “better” than other regions. Simply, the cooking in Chianti was “correct.” Of course he used fresh ingredients; the whole country does. And of course, everything was kept simple. (Simplicity is another virtue too often overlooked.) But his modesty was so honest, his pursuit of “correctness” over all was so perfect in its perspective, I’ve hijacked his phrase and use it daily. In advertising, “good is the enemy of great,” but “correct” sometimes trumps all. Good ideas have their place, but usually serve as little more than a mark that indicates exactly when the thinking stopped, like a line on a building after a flood. The pursuit of great is always the goal, but great can lead to overreaching, overcomplicating, overthinking a relatively simply business goal. But correct ideas, especially when they are highly creative, correct ideas make me happy. Give me a correct idea that’s simple, that’s original, that solves the business problem, give me that any day and we all sleep well at night. Even if the kids are on my lawn.
Do you agree this is an age of Big Ideas? Let me know some of your favorites.