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Editorial Science

The Post-Idea World 368

An anonymous reader sends this quote from an opinion piece in the NY Times: "If our ideas seem smaller nowadays, it's not because we are dumber than our forebears but because we just don't care as much about ideas as they did. In effect, we are living in an increasingly post-idea world — 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. Bold ideas are almost passé. ... 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. But these factors, which began decades ago, were more likely harbingers of an approaching post-idea world than the chief causes of it."
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The Post-Idea World

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  • by tdp252 ( 519328 ) on Tuesday August 16, 2011 @08:30AM (#37105716)
  • by IamTheRealMike ( 537420 ) on Tuesday August 16, 2011 @10:08AM (#37106660)

    The debates didn't disappear, they just moved. Real debates now take place on forums like Slashdot (yes scary I know). These are much better suited to the critical exchange of ideas because they're structured as a conversation rather than an essay from just one person who may or may not have anything useful/worthwhile to say. I've encountered more new ideas on Slashdot than all the newspapers I've ever read, and I've seen plenty of ideas that initially sounded good be debunked as well.

    I have to say, I've always wondered why the Slashcode type format hasn't been more successful on other non-tech sites. I suspect the user interface, especially the partially hidden tree structure, isn't very easy to handle for many people. I also suspect the very wide and huge space devoted to comments wouldn't mesh well with many sites pre-existing designs. Sadly the result is that too often the comments are just a long list of unmoderated, artificially shortened blurbs with no reward system in place for producing something worth reading.

  • Same thing (Score:4, Interesting)

    by bussdriver ( 620565 ) on Tuesday August 16, 2011 @12:01PM (#37107988)

    The changes in culture and the rise of extreme consumerism are having very similar changes to ideas AND imagination. (they are not the same but are close enough to be equally harmed.) My mother was an art teacher, she's seen the huge plunge in imagination over the decades -- you don't get that many good ideas without imagination; in fact, all studies show that students with art education (the old kind) do better in other topics-- the well rounded mind does do better.

    However, we are now undermining that as well. Art is being turned into a standards testing gig and a cover for helping do the other subjects; they've taken art out of art. Soon, money and lack of peripheral benefits will eliminate art programs. People won't be clever enough to realize why it changed; even more likely, they'll just assume it has always been that way and never investigate if it was any different.

    We have increasing numbers of entering college students who do not even have the elementary skill of discriminating between fact and opinion! How is such a person going to even START to investigate anything further? Its like trying to get a Rush or Fox viewer to read...

    Customization technology is giving us the ability to live inside a bubble where all unpleasant thoughts are filtered out. Just the hint of some disruptive idea and it gets filtered out and the mind's defenses are deployed. The geometry problem that starts to look like it will undermine your belief in a FLAT earth is just a trick for some crazy liberal with their round earth conspiracy promoting their disturbing opinions so they can change your way of live (which is better than theirs.) Oh, and its politically incorrect to upset anybody...

    Good ideas should shake things up a bit; they require some imagination to even realize the possibilities involved-- which are often upsetting in many ways; the more touchy you are the sooner your ego will jump in to defend you with mindless rationalizations (and if you can't tell fact from opinion you'll have a hell of a time defeating your natural illogical defenses.)

    This is also why democracy does not work. The culture has to be healthy for its democracy to be healthy; essentially, the democratic government reflects the people and rather than see it as some removed mythical creation (as many do today) it should be seen as a manifestation of the social development of the society. A really complex survey/study in people's collective decision making. (yeah, today's system is broken; it is our collective fault... the reasons Americans are so big on responsibility and accountability is because they are over compensating for their lack of it. They are in denial.)

  • by Animats ( 122034 ) on Tuesday August 16, 2011 @01:20PM (#37108954) Homepage

    From the article

    "It is no secret, especially here in America, that we live in a post-Enlightenment age in which rationality, science, evidence, logical argument and debate have lost the battle in many sectors, and perhaps even in society generally, to superstition, faith, opinion and orthodoxy."

    They have a point. And it's a real problem, because when some new problem comes along, society seems unable to deal with it.

    Consider the current messes. Nobody in public life expresses a good understanding of the current economic situation. The political consensus is "it's just a big recession". It might be a permanent situation. (Japan had a real estate crash in 1989, and neither real estate nor the stock market ever came back. To some extent, the current US model of capitalism is broken, yet nobody is proposing a better model. (Should we have a tax model that doesn't favor debt so much? The US taxes companies' dividends but not interest paid on debt, stock buybacks, or executive compensation. As a result, most companies don't pay dividends and borrow too much.)

    In the 1930s, it was very different. All sorts of big ideas were proposed to deal with the Great Depression. Some of them were nutty, like Technocracy. Some of them were implemented, like the Works Progress Administration. It was a tough time, but the problems were discussed and solutions tried.

    There's a fundamental assumption that economic growth will continue. That may be incorrect. Looking ahead, we have big issues. Some major natural resources run out in the next few decades. There's no cheap source of energy even being seriously talked about. No new source of energy has been developed in the last 50 years. (Nuclear reactors and solar cells are now more than 50 years old.) Demand is going up as China modernizes. Now what? We have no clue how to run a post-oil world with 6 billion people. World oil production peaked in 2005. []

    At venture capital conferences, I'm not seeing new great ideas. More like endless me-too presentations. (Way too much "social networking". I've seen a pitch for a social network for cats.)

    We're seeing regression in developed countries. Israel used to be a modern country dominated by kibbutzim with a strong work ethic, the people who "made the desert bloom". Now, Israeli politics is dominated by the religious right (the "ultra-orthodox"), who are a welfare-supported dead weight on the country. The Islamic world's religious right is at least as bad. (It's amusing to observe how much the Jewish and Islamic right wings resemble each other. Oppress women, check. Anti-education, check. Anti-progress, check. Old Testament mindset, check. Old guys in black with beards in charge, check.)

  • Re:Ah yes (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymus ( 2267354 ) on Tuesday August 16, 2011 @01:22PM (#37108994)

    Most people have not cared as much about massive quantities of cash throughout history.

    Money has always been a motivating factor certainly, but without the American get-rich-quick, your-life-is-meaningless-if-you're-poor culture, there were a lot more people who did things "just because", regardless of profitability.

  • Re:A counter-example (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 16, 2011 @01:53PM (#37109378)

    "Don't confused TED talks with actual new ideas. I suppose it is possible to be ignorant enough to learn something from a TED talk, but ... probably unlikely."

    Not only are you kind of being a dick - but you're flat wrong. Many speakers come and speak about research they are actively doing (new ideas) and certainly not every speech is some kind of hollow Save the Planet/Children/etc. Go to, and click ...Ingenious. Every single one of the talks that come up are about an idea and each of these is very likely to be a new idea to most people that watch them.

    "here's a popular fuzzy idea that no one politically correct or socially acceptable could possibly dislike, now let me sharpen my sophistry skills upon it for less than 18 minutes"

    What's politically correct or socially acceptable about this talk?: Sam Harris - Science and Moral Values []
    This is basically as opposite of politically correct as I can imagine. There are many other controversial talks on TED as well, so it's just silly to say this.

The unfacts, did we have them, are too imprecisely few to warrant our certitude.