Theory And Fashion

Ideas just aren’t what they used to be. Once upon a time, they could ignite fires of debate, stimulate other thoughts, incite revolutions and fundamentally change the ways we look at and think about the world.

They could penetrate the general culture and make celebrities out of thinkers — notably Albert Einstein, but also Reinhold Niebuhr, Daniel Bell, Betty Friedan, Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould, to name a few. 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?” — and intellectuals like Norman Mailer, William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal would even occasionally be invited to the couches of late-night talk shows. How long ago that was. 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. …

The real cause may be information itself. … In the past, we collected information … to convert it into … ideas that made sense of the information. … But if information was once grist for ideas, over the last decade it has become competition for them. We are like the farmer who has too much wheat to make flour. 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. … If a Marx or a Nietzsche were suddenly to appear, blasting his ideas, no one would pay the slightest attention. (more)

While this article adds little to the basic concept, it is a basic concept worth pondering: are big ideas actually less popular today, and if so why? This claim fits with my perception of idea fashion today vs. my memory of thirty years ago, but I have personally changed so much that I don’t trust such memory comparisons.

If this trend is real, I don’t find the “more information” explanation compelling. The amount of available information has been increasing relatively steady for centuries, yet this trend, if real, has only been going for a half century or less. I expect this is more just a long term cycle in intellectual fashion. Once the old established elites get really good at theory, new “young turks” can better make their mark via switching to a fashion where details matter most, and then once those folks are old established elites, there’s a new opening for a fashion favoring theory. Alas for me that, being more a theorist, I happen to reach my peak when theory is most out of fashion.

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