The New York Times, “The Elusive Big Idea”, and The Information vs. Knowledge Debate

Some food for thought from The New York Times on Sunday: “The Elusive Big Idea” openly questions societal priorities and with a certain professorial tone concludes that perhaps “ideas just aren’t what they used to be.”

We all know that the basis of the critique itself is nothing new (one example — and not even a very good one — might be the high/low culture debates popularized from Matthew Arnold’s “Culture and Anarchy”). But the fact that this is an old question in a new form should make it more, not less, suitable for discussion in the here and now. Wither the big, grand, epoch-defining ideas?

“The ideas themselves could even be made famous: for instance, for “the end of ideology,” “the medium is the message,” “the feminine mystique,” “the Big Bang theory,” “the end of history.” A big idea could capture the cover of Time — “Is God Dead?” — “

I don’t personally buy into the notion of a “post-idea world”, but it gets the point across, and there’s nothing wrong with a little panache in a column about ideas. How did this happen? Many fingers could be pointed in many directions. Example, higher education: “There is the retreat in universities from the real world … tending potted plants rather than planting forests.” But that itself seems to be more symptom than actual cause. Rather: “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.”

Now, this does some raise interesting things work additional thought. I’d have to wonder — is our definition of what “information” is changing? I think it is. When questions like the ones in this NYT column are raised, it certainly provides at least some evidence of a growing split between what we mean by information, and knowledge, between being informed and being knowledgeable.

“And that’s just the point. In the past, we collected information not simply to know things. That was only the beginning. We also collected information to convert it into something larger than facts and ultimately more useful — into ideas that made sense of the information. We sought not just to apprehend the world but to truly comprehend it, which is the primary function of ideas. Great ideas explain the world and one another to us”

Are we, collectively, as a culture overly engrossed in the excesses of infoporn, spending too much time on the day to day and too little time on the bigger, existential questions that really matter?

“We prefer knowing to thinking because knowing has more immediate value. It keeps us in the loop, keeps us connected to our friends and our cohort. Ideas are too airy, too impractical, too much work for too little reward. Few talk ideas. Everyone talks information, usually personal information. Where are you going? What are you doing? Whom are you seeing? These are today’s big questions.”

I’m certainly one of those people that believes the debates about might be called ‘information overload’ are from merely academic. It’s a very real thing: “We are inundated with so much information that we wouldn’t have time to process it even if we wanted to, and most of us don’t want to.”

More information means more choices (at least, in theory), which means consumers of information need to make more informed decisions about what information is consumed. It’s not much of a reach to make an analogy between healthy eating habits and healthy information consumption. I think tehre is a hierarchy of information-usefulness. Information — capital “I” — is a notion perhaps in need of collective revising; after all, all information isn’t the same thing as Information.

Social information is sort of thing taking on a life of its own. Like with just about everything else, it can either be a useful tool, or a means of enabling less useful behavior:

“While social networking may enlarge one’s circle and even introduce one to strangers, this is not the same thing as enlarging one’s intellectual universe. Indeed, the gab of social networking tends to shrink one’s universe to oneself and one’s friends, while thoughts organized in words, whether online or on the page, enlarge one’s focus.”

The point is well-made. The picture it paints for a possible future isn’t exactly a good one, nor should it be. It should be something for us to think deeply and seriously about:

“We have become information narcissists, so uninterested in anything outside ourselves and our friendship circles or in any tidbit we cannot share with those friends that if a Marx or a Nietzsche were suddenly to appear, blasting his ideas, no one would pay the slightest attention, certainly not the general media, which have learned to service our narcissism.”

Read the full article here.


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

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