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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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  • Ah yes (Score:4, Insightful)

    by rodrigoandrade ( 713371 ) on Tuesday August 16, 2011 @08:16AM (#37105602)

    Because Graham Bell, Thomas Edison and others were interested in "thought-provoking ideas" and NEVER wanted to instantly monetize on them...

    • ...and absolutely nobody is working on completely pie-in-the-shy ideas like, eg., space elevators, SETI, etc.

      • ...and absolutely nobody is working on completely pie-in-the-shy ideas like, eg., space elevators, SETI, etc.

        That's not really true. There are people working on those things, but nobody cares because most people don't have any money.

        I can't even imagine what it's like for a 22 year old graduate hoping for a future.

        • by Wovel ( 964431 )

          Most people have not cared about new big ideas throughout history.

          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by Anonymus ( 2267354 )

            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.

          • by catchblue22 ( 1004569 ) on Tuesday August 16, 2011 @01:57PM (#37109432) Homepage

            Most people have not cared about new big ideas throughout history.

            Well, maybe, and maybe not. I think you might be surprised at how widespread Enlightenment ideas were in Europe. Faraday used to give public scientific demonstrations that were widely attended. However, what matters I think more is that the elites of our society, those who make the important decisions are increasingly seeing the world through dollar signs. The Public Interest is less important to them, and private interest is their dominant concern. They backhandedly acknowledge the Public Interest by saying that it is served by everyone acting in their own private interests. This is a profound shift from the Enlightenment approach, that led to the rise of our modern democratic systems. Enlightenment philosophes like Locke, Rousseau, and Voltaire tried to balance the Public and private interests; they believed in liberty and justice for all members of society. Today, politics seems to be an exercise in maximizing the gross national product.

        • by geekoid ( 135745 )

          It's not nearly as bad as it was in the early 80's.

      • I have no idea what the author is talking about. Here he is posting to an ideas forum on how we're running out of ideas. Bad form. BTW, not all big ideas are good ideas, especially in implementation and outcome: eugenics for one; racism; National Socialism; Marxism; shall we go on? Favorite Huxley quote: "The great tragedy of science -- a beautiful hypothesis slain by an ugly fact!"
        • When the context is greed, then the author is unwittingly lamenting the fact that he/she can make no cash from their own ideas.

          Others are doing very well, even when the ideas are not their own. The fact that the author hasn't the zeal, tenacity, luck, mettle, or whatever else it takes to put his/her brain into zenith mode seems a problem. Ideas, you see, are cheap currency; everyone has them. The actual beneficiaries are the ones that can take a big idea and put it into practice or process. Monetizing is a

          • by Qzukk ( 229616 )

            Monetizing is a goal for those that need to get rich; not all of us need to get rich at all. "Rich" has its own problems.

            I've got a few ideas on how to take care of those problems, but I'm going to need a few million dollars to test them...

    • Re:Ah yes (Score:4, Informative)

      by zoom-ping ( 905112 ) on Tuesday August 16, 2011 @08:37AM (#37105782)
      That's because they were more into patenting others ideas rather than coming up with their own.
      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        That's because, even if you have a genuine idea, and especially if it is a profitable idea, you will be sued by all the big apples, and at the end you will be happy if you are not under the water, or not in jail....

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Edison mostly monetized the ideas of his employees. (I see you got the same discount scratch-and-dent education I did.)

      • Edison was a dick. A completely foul man.

        Must. Teach. World. About. Tesla.

        • Probably if you become too big a fanboy of anyone other than yourself, you are going to be disappointed.
        • Tesla was extremely famous in his day. Then he wasted all his time and money on Wardenclyffe Tower, even though that at the time had no experimental or theoretical evidence to suggest it was ever going to work and now has bundles of theoretical and experemental results that prove that it was never going to. Funny how betting everything on something that is so wrong tends to ruin your reputation. I think he has gained in stature a lot over the last 20 years relative to Edison as incandecent lights and phonog
  • Actually... (Score:3, Funny)

    by moozey ( 2437812 ) on Tuesday August 16, 2011 @08:17AM (#37105604)
    It's because we've thought of everything.
    • Re:Actually... (Score:4, Insightful)

      by EnderDom ( 1934586 ) on Tuesday August 16, 2011 @08:48AM (#37105898)
      Yeah, this article's basically of the "Everything that can be invented has been invented." ilk.

      IMO this mentality is usually due to the fact that the authors are far abstracted from the realms of innovation within science, business and general subcultures of society. All sorts of amazing things are being thought of, written about, developed and researched, but are out of sight of the main stream New York Times journalism.
  • by WrongSizeGlass ( 838941 ) on Tuesday August 16, 2011 @08:17AM (#37105606)
    Our forefathers dreamed of things we take for granted today. Electricity, transportation, communication, etc. Our ideas are about making things more efficient (smaller, faster, etc) or serving our corporate masters by making them cheaper or more profitable.

    We have plenty of ideas, just not all of them serve mankind - they server our technological or cultural needs. Looking back, our forefathers' ideas were about their place in time as well.
    • Re:Wrong (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Dunbal ( 464142 ) * on Tuesday August 16, 2011 @08:32AM (#37105742)
      In way way does cheaper, smaller, faster not serve mankind? Efficiency is important for all of us - in fact it's what is keeping our bloated population alive. We're not going to get more resources through magic!
      • by Xugumad ( 39311 )

        I'd particularly like to point out, as someone working on making something expensive (education) more efficient/cheaper, that part of the point is to enable everyone to partake of these things.

    • I agree, however, there needs to be a more focused attempt towards moving technology forward, not just towards smaller faster and better version of their previous...

      The invention of the radio, tv, microwave, etc....seems to have pushed us forward, however, bringing about smaller and smaller iphones servers no one in the end, except the big companies selling their products...i hope the world will start to push innovation a little more, else we will never make it to the day where teleportation exists!

      • by Wovel ( 964431 )

        So you believe moving from vacuum tubes to transistors was not a step forward? Many people now walk around with more computing power in their pocket then you could fit in a large building 50 years ago. That is at least as much a leap forward as the invention of television.

        It is also not the only thing people are working on. Improving the broom did not hinder the development of the vacuum cleaner.

  • Nah (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Intrepid imaginaut ( 1970940 ) on Tuesday August 16, 2011 @08:17AM (#37105612)

    The difference is people expect instant feedback/results from their new ideas in the same way they get instant results from almost everything else these days. The bottom line is it takes a lot of hard work and convincing to get an even vaguely new idea into circulation - exactly the same as it always did. Also it depends on the field, in technology new ideas are constantly being tried out and adopted or discarded.

    • by Eivind ( 15695 )

      I can't agree with the premise at all. There are plenty of big ideas currently, and people work diligently for decades to further those ideas they believe in.

      How about this for a vision ? "To provide the sum total of human knowledge to every human being, in all languages, for free." That a radical enough or "big" enough idea to count ?

      Ownership and control over the machines and data that make up the information-world less relevant than the same over the factories a century earlier ?

  • by Anrego ( 830717 ) *

    I think we care, we just don't have the framework in place to explore big ideas any more.

    We have become very good at improving existing technology. Release product, take user feedback, make improvements, sell update product.. rinse and repeat.

    The magic word of the day has become ROI.

    We don't have Bell labs doing hard core research any more, and no one will invest in anything which doesn't have a clear pathway to profit.

    • And worse, people trying to make it alone often can't get the new ideas out there because it costs so much to do it. Especially if patents are involved.

      • by Anrego ( 830717 ) *


        The best argument against patents is to apply their use today to innovation of the past. You can't just go out and invent something these days.. without violating a patent on soldering a copper wire to a metal pin or something stupid (ok, I know.. hyperbole.. but you get the point).

    • I think if you look back I'm not sure we ever had big ideas at any time. Everything is small steps. Give me an example of something that was a genuine big idea that wasn't done without lots of small tiny increments.
      Man on the moon: ever greater size rockets. Ever greater rockets, small steps of improvements over earlier ones. The original rocket, was built in someone's shed.
      The first working airplane: built by a pair of bicycle builders in their spare time.
      Telephone: preceded by speaking tubes, and micropho

      • by Anrego ( 830717 ) *

        Things like the transistor, which from my understanding came out of basic fundemental research vice trying to make a profitable end product, are mostly what I was talking about. Seems like we arn't doing this any more (or maybe I just don't notice because it's subtile). People do R&D .. but it always seems specific goal oriented, rather than "give some smart people some money and see what we get" oriented.

        I do generally agree with your point, and my post was poorly worded in that regard. Innovation is a

    • Has everyone forgotten there are hundreds of universities out there doing pie in the sky research every day that will most likely take decades to monetize, if ever?

      What about our national research labs? Sandia, Fermilab, Los Alamos... amazing things have come out of these places and they're still doing great work that again, won't readily be monetized. How about NASA's mars missions, both past and future?

      And for crying out loud.... CERN? How much more pie in the sky can you get? The LHC cost $9billion and w

    • The magic word of the day has become ROI.

      We don't have Bell labs doing hard core research any more

      I think it's pretty clear that private industry has let us down in a big way. From Pharma to energy and telecommunications. Manufacturing.

      And they deflect responsibility by saying it's all the fault of "big government" for giving them what they want.

  • Timeless BS (Score:5, Insightful)

    by paiute ( 550198 ) on Tuesday August 16, 2011 @08:19AM (#37105630)
    My big idea is that I do not even have to RTFA to know that this is one of those pieces which is all about the world going to hell in a handbasket, no, this time for real. We are always less smart/less moral/less disciplined/less tough than our imaginary forefathers and apparently always will be.
    • by mooingyak ( 720677 ) on Tuesday August 16, 2011 @08:32AM (#37105746)

      My favorite response to this is "Nostalgia isn't what it used to be."

    • Re:Timeless BS (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Wovel ( 964431 ) on Tuesday August 16, 2011 @09:07AM (#37106080) Homepage

      These articles are silly. They are nostalgic for a time that never was. They don't understand that history is a highlight reel. The big ideas happen once, maybe twice in a generation and few people actually contribute to them. "Public intellectuals" are no less or more important today then they were 100 years ago. What big ideas does the author think are being ignored?

      SETI is still operating, that is about as big as ideas get. Quantum Physic/Mechanicss is still widely researched and very well funded. Neither of these subjects has any immediate commercial value.

      My big idea is that TFA was written by a moron that fancies himself an intellectual. Oh shoot, does that make me a pundit?

      • by Wovel ( 964431 )

        I now respond to my own punditry. I was wrong to expect an intelligent well-reasoned opinion-piece in the New York Times.

    • Chillax, gramps. The NY Times wasn't even on your lawn!

  • by petes_PoV ( 912422 ) on Tuesday August 16, 2011 @08:19AM (#37105634)
    All the good ideas have already been patented. Try doing anything innovative and some lawyer, somewhere will tie you up in litigation until the sun goes cold or you run out of money.
  • Ideas seem not so important is because today's society is based on GREED.Instant wealth and power over the new item or it doesn't get to the people.Sounds a lot like Apple and their i(fill in the blank) whatevers.

    • Ideas seem not so important is because today's society is based on GREED.Instant wealth and power

      Try reading a history book. Every important society in the whole of history was based on exactly those principles.

      The only examples I can think of where that wasn't true are societies where there's nothing much to steal from each other, eg. the Bushmen of the Kalahari.

  • A counter-example (Score:5, Informative)

    by SirGarlon ( 845873 ) on Tuesday August 16, 2011 @08:20AM (#37105644)
    I think there are plenty of good ideas -- small, medium, and large -- today. For example, see TED [].
    • by gl4ss ( 559668 )

      those ideas are what are the ideas in "post ideas".

      "the shareable future", "finding planets around stars", "one day of peace"(really? is it the 60's? or '20s now?), "ending hunger now", "surprising math of cities and corporations","how algorithms shape our world","breakthrough touchscreen", "animal rescue".. see where I'm getting? it's not new stuff at all. there's some technical methods on some talks which sophisticate existing methods though, but that's more iterative.

      not only that, but if you pick up th

      • by Wovel ( 964431 )

        TED is maybe not the best example, but the world is still pursuing big ideas. I pointed out two earlier in this discussion as an example. You have to live in a bubble to believe he world is out of big ideas.

    • by vlm ( 69642 ) on Tuesday August 16, 2011 @09:12AM (#37106116)

      I like TED speeches, but they are just murmuring popular memes using great sophistry skills at each other. 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.

      Real new ideas are not a rehash of "lets try world peace", "lets all feel catholic style guilt at destroying the earth", "computers make pretty pictures".

      Real new ideas, historically, were the result of things like "what happens if I shine a UV light at a piece of metal in a vacuum, for no better reason than no one tried this before?" "what happens if I store a tank of double bonded fluorocarbons in a sorta catalytic environment for a long time, just because we can?" "what if we tried to simulate the orbit of an electron using discrete energy levels, just for the heck of it?"

      Not, "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"

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Anonymous Coward

        "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 v

    • TED is overrated. It present flashiness instead of real thought.

      The fact that one has to combine together 3 very different animals: technology, entertainment, design - into one proves the point of the NYT article: there was not enough ideas for technology alone, so one had to throw in design and entertainment.

      Take one of the most popular talks by the Swedish guy which rotates mainly about his graphic presentation. A graphic presentation is BIG idea? A graphic presentation, no matter how fresh for graphic pr

    • "Great minds discuss ideas;
      average minds discuss events;
      small minds discuss people."
      - Eleanor Roosevelt

      In many regards we have become the latter but it is likely due to the rise of available information in near real time. Not everyone can be a great mind, in fact I'd say we need a mixture of all 3.
  • Or perhaps the easiest ideas have already been thought of in previous generation and creating new ideas has become harder.
    On the other hand, even though the quantity of ideas has decreased, the quality (in absolute terms) has increased due to the exact same reasons.
    All of this has happened before and all of this will happen again.

    For example; I'm a programmer and have invented many algorithms. Most of these turned out to have been invented by other programmers before I was even born. There was a time when b

  • I think we generate more ideas .. I mean there are like decades that used to go by without a single new idea .. like say 2500 BC to 2900 BC .. how many new ideas? Writing was invented ... Pyramids .. the concept had been thought of .. maybe a mathematical concept or an improvement to writing happening but can we say new ideas in comparison to what we see nowadays over the past few years (faster CPUs, better phone user interfaces, social networking, etc) ? Doubtful.

  • by AntEater ( 16627 ) on Tuesday August 16, 2011 @08:28AM (#37105710) Homepage

    Evidence of our slow but inevitable descent towards Idiocracy.

    • Evidence of our slow but inevitable descent towards Idiocracy.

      I don't take a stupid op-ed as evidence of anything except that the NYT is unsurprisingly still shit

  • ...and he does not seem to understand a difference between an idea and a witty expression.

  • by SirGarlon ( 845873 ) on Tuesday August 16, 2011 @08:31AM (#37105726)

    TFA to me says more about the media failing their role as societal and intellectual catalysts, than about a shortage of ideas as such. There are big ideas out there, you just don't hear about them from the media.

    At the risk of opening up a political flame war, even the political parties here in the U.S. have big ideas built into their platforms. What level of service and what level of taxation do we really want from our government? How do we distribute the costs of government? Why is illegal immigration a problem and how do we address it? What are the costs of dealing with global warming, and what are the costs of not dealing with it?

    It's just that no one is having an intelligent discussion about these topics. They prefer to stake out a position on blind faith and then denounce everyone who disagrees. Seems to me more like a lack of discussion than a shortage of societal challenges or of ideas to deal with those challenges.

    • by Wovel ( 964431 )

      You are correct. NYT could have devoted that space to a survey of current theories in quantum mechanics, but they chose to print a piece that denies realit.

  • by CProgrammer98 ( 240351 ) on Tuesday August 16, 2011 @08:32AM (#37105736) Homepage

    Max Planck was told in 1874 when looking for a university course "it is hardly worth entering physics anymore because there is nothing important left to discover”

    This was long before the days of the atomic model, quantum mechanics, radiation, wave-particle duality etc. All that good stuff that brought us all our shiny electronics and the internet,.

    The same is still true - the more we know the more we realise that there's a lot more we still don;t know. Just in the last week I've read about gravity dipoles in qyuantum vacuum fluctuations, and discovery of very dark planets to name but two (ok the latter is a discovery rather than an idea, but we'll now need to work on explaining it, which may lead to new tech., or it may not). It just takes a very very long time for these esoteric ideas to turn into actual useful every day stuff.

  • This is why our vapid society has driven over the edge of the cliff and is in that moment of free fall as the ground rushes up to deliver us to our eventual fate. Big ideas don't matter to most of the population because they think we are flying so big ideas that solve problems just aren't relevant to them any more. Meanwhile stockmarkets oscillate wildly and politicians cannot come up with solutions to the most fundamental structural issues facing our society.

    Those who are coming up with those big ideas ar

  • by Qbertino ( 265505 ) <> on Tuesday August 16, 2011 @08:35AM (#37105766)

    I think the problem here is that good essays and insights get lost in the everyday noise and only show their value as they persist over time and more and more people get to see the ingenuity and foresight in them.

    I don't think Senecas letters were very famous back then or well know beyond a very small group of people (those he wrote them to). And I also am pretty sure that most citizens of the roman empire didn't care squat about a broad transcendent view on life beyond 'lets pray to jupiter as to win this racing bet'. It is only centuries latter that the quality stuff is still around whilst everyday drivel and non-sense go lost in time and replaced with todays everday drivel and non-sense. Thus we get the impression that back in Senecas time society was full of smart and witty politicians and philosophers making great speeches.

    When people in 200 years look at todays Inet Tech era and read Paul Grahams essays - which will still exist while every techcrunch feed will have gone the way of the dodo - people will get the same impression. Lot's of very smart and educated people back then, everything today is degenerated, grand old masters, blabla, jadajada ...

    My 2 cents.

  • Maybe that's because a lot of the good ideas have already been thought of, so the low hanging fruit is nearly gone. However, there's still a lot of low hanging fruit left (for example my own software project I'm currently working on which x?yy***yzzzzz%%%yyr***trvvrtv), and also that heatsink which rotates instead of the fan rotating. See the programme "Dragon's Den" for many more examples.

  • by fridaynightsmoke ( 1589903 ) on Tuesday August 16, 2011 @08:41AM (#37105828) Homepage

    Ideas are plentiful. With ~7,000,000,000 people in the world and a large & growing fraction of them having access to the internet, there are ideas everywhere. You're reading my ideas right now, along with those of hundreds of other people all on this one page.

    Ideas are easy. Any idiot can come up with ideas. World peace. Flying cars that run on dog poo. Cities on the moon. Ideas are substantially easier to come up with than they are to actually implement. People who come up with 'concepts' for residential towers with farms hanging off the sides; or city vehicles with odd numbers of wheels powered by unobtanium, or political systems where everyone just gets along and are happy are ten a penny, and the abundance of communication that the internet provides makes this painfully obvious.

    There are fewer 'good' big ideas left. With all the ideas that everyone has already had and are coming up with all the time, fewer new ideas are actually 'original'; and the originality of an idea can be quickly proved or disproved with 30 seconds on Google.

    Specialisation. With the bigger ideas aleady thought of and written about, the lions share of ideas these days is in specialised niches; the 'long tail' if you will. The problem is that such ideas cannot capture the imagination of people at large. There are people coming more ideas than ever, but it's hard to raise enthusiasm for big ideas in computer science or industrial management.

    "Good-old-fashioned nostalgia" History seems to be chock full of bold people with big ideas, but a lot of the time it's just dumb nostalgia. Sure, those Victorians wrote a lot of well-considered books and built a fair deal of physical and social infrastructure that persists to this day, but we're talking about 60-100 years here. The innovations and achievements of the past 60 years blow any other 60 year period in history into oblivion. Of course in the past everyone was more 'rational' (ignoring the bigger participation in and seriousness of religion then), was 'healthier' (ignoring the starvation), 'got on better' (ignoring the regular riots/wars/crime) blah blah blah. Probably back then concerned intellectuals railed against the talents of the world being wasted on arranging girders to support mechanical horses, or on the manufacture of cloth etc. No doubt in 100 years time people will be talking in hushed tones about those 'heroes' of the early 21st century, when there were big ideas, and people lived happily in peace without the nefarious influence of xx yy...

    • by vlm ( 69642 ) on Tuesday August 16, 2011 @09:03AM (#37106020)

      Of course in the past everyone was more 'rational' (ignoring the bigger participation in and seriousness of religion then)

      You're looking at the rewriting of history and thinking the rewrite is true. "The victorians" were much less constrained by religion than we currently are today. All of that "founded by christians" and "in god we trust" is a post WWII addition to the history books, mostly on a anti-commie trip.

      Your basic argument remains correct, that was just a bad example.

      One important point you missed is its too expensive to F around. For example, a large part of quantum mechanics was brought about by shining a UV light on a piece of metal and being surprised at the highly unexpected characteristics of the emitted electrons. Back then, a guy could F around in the lab and pretty much do what he wants without a PERT chart. Most time spent screwing around in the lab, was, of course, wasted, but some time developed into the field of quantum mechanics. Now a days, you're not going to be allowed to do blue sky experimentation at a billion dollar national lab, therefore, no progress will be made there. Whoops. The MBA manager points at the PERT chart and says, here is where you'll invent something on schedule and as planned. Or most likely not.

  • by ThosLives ( 686517 ) on Tuesday August 16, 2011 @08:41AM (#37105832) Journal

    Too many comments so far are missing the point: the article isn't about lack of new "things." The article is about a lack of critical thinking.

    It used to be that, in the past, magazines and newspapers and other "common-man" publications would have essays about heady topics. Now you just get articles about how to get rich quick, how some superstar or politician has done something, or some other essentially mundane topic.

    Even the "debates" on economics, social norms, climate change, or intellectual property are very sparse on respectful discourse and are instead filled with emotional responses. There's an interesting quote to which I cannot recall attribution, along the lines of "If you get angry when you're defending your topic, that's probably a sign that you don't feel it can stand on its own merits." The lack of temperance in such discussions - from all viewpoints - is fairly damning.

    Modern society seems to frown upon thought for thought's sake: if you can't monetize it, why bother? I'd say that "modern society" in this case has missed the point: earning wealth is not the only goal.

    • by Wovel ( 964431 )

      Isn't the best example of this the piece itself?

    • by ceoyoyo ( 59147 )

      No way. You're a stupid head. ;)

      As I remember, in the past there were fewer ads, business was a more respected profession, and people were more excited by changing the world than in money. Intelligent discourse was more common too. Read an Archie comic from the 50s... the characters talk about words, definitions, puns. Not so much now.

    • 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.

  • Weren't we JUST discussing space elevator technologies and personal fission generators that never needed refueling just a couple of days ago?

    End of ideas my ass. It's like those idiots in the late 1800's who thought they knew everything there was to know about the universe, and that all that was left was to "tie up the loose ends".
    • by gl4ss ( 559668 )

      uh, those ideas aren't exactly fresh.

      if you have an idea about how to actually do it and actually DID IT then personal fission and space elevators would be fresh - as it is, they're just on a slightly different theoretical level than a decade ago - or what they were in the 60's.

      which is a bit what causes the idea shortage - better knoweledge about previous ideas. you can't have the idea's that were used to push the communist revolution now and call them new ideas. you could do that in early 1900's though, e

      • by Wovel ( 964431 )

        Of course they are fresh until they are implemented proven impractical. It is easy to claim there are o big ideas by simply shrugging off the ones people have been thinking about for a while.

  • Communism
    Killing off all bothersome insects with DDT
    Endless suburbs
    A car in every garage
    The Atomic Bomb
    Perfect White Bread
    Cheap sweeteners
    Eliminating all infectious disease with antibiotics

    I know I don't trust big ideas because those ideas are usually the ones that lead to big problems.

    • Just a few added to your list...

      Corporations as People
      Spy Satellites
      Patented Seeds
      Farm Subsidies
      Corn Subsidies (cheap sweeteners)
      Sugar Tariffs
      Perpetual Copyright
      Soap Operas
      Fruit Roll Ups
      Nachos without onions...

      Though, I would point out that DDT is very effective in eliminating malaria-carrying mosquitoes in high malaria areas... The elimination of DDT has caused an unchecked increase in malaria throughout those areas affected by the disease. (It was almost wiped out.) Still, one pois

  • This guy seems to be wanting to coin the "idea" that "ideas are dead".

  • Now we have the Snuggie, dammit!
  • historical myopia

    the perception things are changing, only because you are forgetting how things really were

    people are not more or less susceptible to bad ideas, or outrageous propaganda, or visual aesthetic, than they were in 2011 BC as they are now. why? because sociology and psychology are constants. culture and civilization changes, not our basic mental weaknesses and strengths

    this idea that certain social phenomena are getting worse over time is a side effect of forgetting. when in truth, much of social

  • The Author of the article looks at todays popular culture and wonders where all the big ideas are... they had big ideas 100 years ago he says! But he's comparing today's popular culture to yesterdays underground subculture. If he were to look at the pop-culture of 100 years ago he'd see a plethora of paperback westerns in which Indians were evil savages. There's plenty of big ideas going on right now, all the author is revealing is the not-so-new trend of the media being too lazy to go look for it.
  • by Aceticon ( 140883 ) on Tuesday August 16, 2011 @09:15AM (#37106146)

    I would say that the dearth of grand-visions problem is twofold:
    - One one side, is the widespread, modern concept of the "hero", the one people others look up to. The "heroes" of today are sportsman and celebrities, not thinkers or explorers which both feeds and reflects a society that values luck, inherent ability and monetary success above all.
    - On the other side is the democratisation of culture, where everybody is supposed to have a voice and (unsurprisingly) those who think the least, react the fastest, use the shortest soundbites and shout the most drown out those who actually think about things.

  • by Dr. Spork ( 142693 ) on Tuesday August 16, 2011 @09:22AM (#37106204)

    People are just doing their own shit. There can't be era-defining ideas because all the different little conversations we're having don't even connect anymore. For an idea to make an impact on society, we first need a society that's more or less on the same page. That's what's missing. Sure, the internet makes everything easier, including the communication of ideas. Just look at or bigthink or TED. You can fill every free minute listening to brilliant people talk about some pretty deep ideas. But what you can't expect is that these ideas will be a part of some larger social conversation. They happen off to the side somewhere. My academic friends and I give a fuck, but not many other people do. Or maybe they do, but they have no idea that I do too, because nobody can assume anymore that the people standing around the watercooler read the same "ideas" books, saw the same "ideas" discussion - or even the same news program. Only events are a part of our common culture, so you can talk to anyone about Breivik, or dumping Bin Laden's body in the sea, or the future of the Euro. But there are very few ideas in general social circulation, apart from maybe stuff about Keynsian interventions and other macroeconimic stuff. These are big ideas for sure, but nobody I know (myself included) feels like they have any solid understanding of what's involved. Macroeconomics looks like voodoo, so it's hard to talk about while feeling like you're having an informed conversation.

    It's not just nostalgia or some historical distortion that things were different between the two world wars. There was relativity, Communism, anarchism, feminism/sufferage, the uncertainty principle, Bauhaus functionalism and a dozen other art "schools" organized around ideas, the incompleteness theorem, Freud, social Darwinism, logical positivism... and I really could go on and on. And cafes were abuzz with conversation about this very stuff. Not everyone had an opinion about all of it, but everyone did have an opinion about some of it, and it was in your face, because people took it as obvious that these aren't just ideas. Each one you accept gives you an obligation to act, and these actions were impossible to miss for anyone who lived in a major European or North American city. Things really are quite different now. Big ideas are still being thought, but somewhere out of sight. Which means that they don't get a chance to get "big" in the same way they used to be.

  • by gestalt_n_pepper ( 991155 ) on Tuesday August 16, 2011 @09:50AM (#37106478)

    Seriously. Most people are motivated by money. If corporate ownership of patents were outlawed tomorrow, and only individual flesh-and-blood humans could hold patents, you'd see a creativity explosion of "big" AND small ideas.

    Ideas are a dime a dozen, but if, in order to work, my company forces me to sign a contract whereby it owns anything I think up, why bother? I'd go to another company, but they all do the same thing. I'd start my own company if I had the capital, but I don't. If I get the capital from someone else, I'm right back where I started from, signing away my patent rights.

    And no offense, but I don't want to publish a $500 million idea and get a $5K bonus and a pat on the head for it. Fuck 'em.

  • Disillusionment with "ideas" permeates our culture and has lead to a lack of interest in pursuing and discussing new ideas. Despite all of the grand ideas of the past 125 years, our wealth gap is widening and for the first time we are losing ground financially, educationally and socially. All of the past ideas have not changed one thing about the realities we live with. As a matter of fact we could argue that many of those ideas got us into the mess we are facing today.

    People are tired of ideas. Ideas don't

  • There's plenty of ideas out there, but most of the good ones are ones that they NYTimes politburo disagrees with and ignores.. All of the 'great' State-embiggening social program ideas were already had, tried, and proved failures for the most part..

    As far as tech goes, plenty of ideas still get funded, and some of them are even good!

  • 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.)

  • by v(*_*)vvvv ( 233078 ) on Tuesday August 16, 2011 @02:02PM (#37109524)

    The way in which the author is comparing now with history gives history a huge advantage. The chances of today being as good as your best day is small, because the past contains more days. So on any day I could write a "today is dead" article as long as today isn't my best day ever, and I could do that for any day in the past.

    There is an elegant way around this skewing of perspective: Make the comparisons proportional. If we compare today with a day before, and then look ahead to a day after, today is rarely dead. It is usually much like yesterday, and most days are the same. No drama, no article.

    Now expand "day" to "50 years" for the purpose of this article. Comparing the big ideas between 1910 and 1960 with those between 1961 and 2010, and then looking ahead to the next 50 years, I find it is extremely difficult to be pessimistic. Rather, one could easily argue they are getting bigger. And that would be an article more worthy of a read.

"How many teamsters does it take to screw in a light bulb?" "FIFTEEN!! YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT?"