Big ideas aren't prevalent anymore, posited academic and author Neal Gabler in a New York Times op-ed. "We are living in an increasingly post-idea world," he wrote, "a world in which big, thought-provoking ideas that can't instantly be monetized are of so little intrinsic value that fewer people are generating them and fewer outlets are disseminating them, the Internet notwithstanding."

While this could be seen as just another variation of the "Internet makes you dumb" argument, a favorite of academics and contrarian technology writers, Gabler's article touched a nerve for me. As I look around at my own industry, tech news, there is certainly no shortage of content. But ideas... those we're bereft of. Tech media today is driven by deals and speculation. There are plenty of ideas-driven people, too, but you generally won't find them at the top of Techmeme anymore.

Neal Gabler lists several characteristics of his post-idea world:

"There is the eclipse of the public intellectual in the general media by the pundit who substitutes outrageousness for thoughtfulness, and the concomitant decline of the essay in general-interest magazines. And there is the rise of an increasingly visual culture, especially among the young - a form in which ideas are more difficult to express."

Information & Thinking

So: less intellectuals, more pundits; less essays, more posts; less text, more visuals. But Gabler is careful not to blame any of those factors for the lack of ideas. Rather, he notes that the huge increase in the availability of information has caused the post-idea era:

"The real cause may be information itself. It may seem counterintuitive that at a time when we know more than we have ever known, we think about it less."
(emphasis mine)

It's a valid argument, although one that futurist and author Bruce Sterling disagrees with. What Gabler is really lamenting, according to Sterling, "is how annoying it is to have the former-audience tweeting at each other instead of reading the New York Times."

There's some truth in that observation, in that the world of ideas is no longer limited to intellectual figureheads talking down to the rest of us.

However, I mostly think Gabler is right: we know a lot, but before we can think about it deeply we've moved onto the next thing. Certainly in the tech blogosphere, which has been my intellectual playground for the past decade, I've noticed a distinct downward spiral in ideas.

Deals & Rumors

Look at the story that is, as I write this, at the top of Techmeme:

The story, about renewed rumors of an LTE-enabled iPhone, is pretty interesting. It's about how the next version of the iPhone might support 4G cellphone technology. Engadget is an excellent tech blog and this was a nice scoop by them, so there is absolutely nothing wrong with this story.

Except that it's fairly useless knowledge for the vast majority of us. We'll tweet about it, discuss it on Google Plus, blog about it. Then we'll move onto the next such story, probably within a day, without having really learned anything.

The previous story on top of Techmeme was a much bigger one: Google acquiring Motorola. That led to hundreds of articles being written about the deal. A couple of them made it to the top of Techmeme: speculation on who else wanted to buy Motorola and discussion about the effect on Motorola rival RIM.

But again, what did we really learn from all of that discussion?

Ideas & Opinions

It would be easy to dismiss Gabler as an intellectual ivory tower type figure bemoaning the rise of tools that enable anyone (provided they live in countries that allow freedom of speech) to have a voice.

Likewise, perhaps I am just an old-school blogger wistfully wanting the 'good old days' of the tech blogosphere back. However, I'd argue that it was more about ideas back then: experimenting with RSS and pondering the ramifications, analyzing how the media industry was being disrupted, exploring the way YouTube was changing the way we interacted with video, and so on.

Nowadays, it's all about deals and rumors; and endless opinionating and speculation around that. While there are interesting blogs around that write thoughtful commentary about new ideas - Bruce Sterling's Wired blog is a great example - they don't tend to feature on Techmeme. That's not the fault of Techmeme, because it simply aggregates what tech media is writing about. Although I think Techmeme could do a better job of reducing the incentive for media sites and blogs to opinionate and bloviate around a particular deal or tech rumor.

Do you think there are enough big ideas in the blogosphere and social media these days? Or is your mind being stimulated enough by stories such as the Motorola acquisition and LTE rumors?

Photo credit: Will Hastings