A culture antithetical to ideas?

14 08 2011

An interesting opinion piece┬áby Neal Gabler in the NY Times today, proposing that our culture is not conducive to generation or dissemination of “big ideas.” The thesis is that popular media and social networking do not promote the kind of discourse that is useful in the identification and development of important, revolutionary ideas. He says it’s particularly tough for social scientists:

because they are scientists and empiricists rather than generalists in the humanities, the place from which ideas were customarily popularized, they suffer a double whammy: not only the whammy against ideas generally but the whammy against science, which is typically regarded in the media as mystifying at best, incomprehensible at worst.

I am sympathetic to the idea (pun intended) that the 140-character tweet is not useful for development of integrative idea generation. And I am also in agreement that we sometimes confuse gathering information with knowledge. But I am not sure I am ready to make a wholesale condemnation of new media for the decline. I would be more interested in the ways educational systems emphasize knowledge (as evidenced in standardized multiple-choice tests) over critical inquiry and exploring ideas.

I am also interested in how 2 factors may be important in idea versus knowledge generation. One is the large number of researchers generating data, and another is the contingencies imposed on academics by tenure systems may contribute to the generation of knowledge over ideas. For example, the competition to publish in a top-tier journal is intense partly as a product of more data being generated, and so the best strategy is to generate lots of experimental data, and hope that one of those experimental lines might be good enough to make it into a journal. This may be at odds with a more considered approach that emphasizes taking an idea and following it to its conclusion (be it productive or non-productive) or following tangents that emerge later in the process, rather than abandoning it because we need to move onto the “next big thing” which might be publishable.

That’s not to say that there aren’t important integrative publications, but rather that those kinds of big ideas are harder to come by, take longer to develop and explore fully, and don’t fit well into the typical tenure clock.

Caveat: I do not know about the development and changes in the tenure and publication system over the last several decades, so these are mostly uninformed opinions. I do not have the time to gather the data, so I’ll leave it up to someone else to take the idea and run with it, if it fits into their schedule.