Information Overlord

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In in a commentary on the recent announcement of the “The 14 Biggest Ideas of the Year”,[1] Neal Gabler points out the hidden category mistake of this title: “In fact, none of them are ideas.” He says, “[W]e live 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.”[2]

It’s become commonplace to worry about the effect that all our texting and tweeting is having on our ability to think. But brevity does not in and of itself beget banality. Pascal had it right when he said, “If I had had more time I would have written you a shorter letter.” It’s not the conciseness of the letter that crowds out the important ideas, but rather the lack of time to ponder and refine them. (Even so, I doubt that Pascal’s ideas would be so well remembered if he had delivered them solely in tweets.)

The real issue here is whether we as a society are losing interest in big ideas. The marketplace loves the stimulation of new inventions and entertainment, but has little use for new ideas unless some adventurous entrepreneur or promoter can figure out how to make money off them.

Given our fascination with the entertainment value of staying constantly in touch with friends, fans and idols, it’s easy to see how the information glut can overwhelm the limited bandwidth of our attention spans. There might be no harm in non-stop communicating and information surfing if these activities reliably added value to our greater purposes as a society. Unfortunately, the opposite effect seems more common. Political rhetoric for example seems to have been driven to the least common denominator of sound-bites.  “Yes, we can!” and “No new taxes!” make great fight songs, but they are no substitute for the kind of considered wisdom we will need to judge the trade-offs required to balance the budget and generate growth in human capital. To make progress on these fronts we must move beyond the polemical piling-on of spin-controlled projections, and take time to question their underlying presumptions.

The same pressures are at work in academia also. Especially in a business school, the need to stay current can tilt the curriculum in the direction of studying the latest trends, in order to graduate students with immediately profitable knowledge and skills. There is merit in this aspect of a business education, yet it should not obscure or obliterate deeper thinking upon the classical ideas of morality, justice and human nature.

This is what incites my passion to teach classes on big ideas like the spirit of capitalism and the modern moral imaginary. We need leaders who have thought about these things. We need managers who have developed a robust context in which to make trade-offs affecting people’s lives as human beings, and not merely as workers and consumers. We need economists and legislators who weigh the stewardship of resources in the balance of the transcendent. Business is not just a matter of keeping up with the latest consumer trends, or speeding up the time-to-market for the newest technologies. Business is for doers, yes. But what we do, and how we do it, depends upon the ideas which inspire us. Gabler says it well: “The implications of a society that no longer thinks big are enormous. Ideas aren’t just intellectual playthings. They have practical effects.”

Big ideas inform the choices we make regarding how to invest our time and our capital—both financial capital and human capital.

Here’s an idea: when business is driven as much by the transcendent ideas which inspire the human soul as it is by the ideas which monetize the newest information, then business will truly be a boon to human flourishing, and the “invisible hand” will be guided by the wisdom of moral sentiments.


[1] The Atlantic Monthly, July/August 2011.
[2] Gabler, “The Elusive Big Idea”, NY Times, August 14, 2011.