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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  • Alex J.

    This strikes me as an effect of narrow “channels” of ideas and information before versus more dispersed ideas and information now. Now we have the internet, with OB, Mencius Moldbug, every academic or lay person can put his own papers on the web and if the keywords and the links are there they can get out. 30 years ago, serious conversations existed on the couches of late night television shows existed, not because of the demand for serious conversations was higher, but because they couldn’t get supplied to the masses any other way. Perhaps the tonight show is less serious now, but now we have bloggingheads and econtalk and the like. Consumption of big ideas is higher, but the ideas are less “big” because they aren’t glommed into 3 network channels plus PBS.

  • Thursday

    A lot of the ideas that used to be bandied about seem to have been pretty utopian and utopianism is sexy, so they captured the attention of people in the media. There are lots of quite interesting ideas about these days, but utopianism has been destroyed, so the ideas aren’t quite as sexy and thus don’t have much popular appeal.

  • Robert Koslover

    It is essential to remember that most ideas are either bad and/or mistaken ideas. This includes most “grand” ideas, both past and present. In many (unfortunately not all) cases, bad/mistaken ideas are exposed and discredited somewhat earlier nowadays, due to the nature of our rapid-communication / high-information-availability age. This is a good thing.

  • I think the trend is real and the “too much information” idea is not correct.

    The number of big ideas is not getting smaller. The number is very likely increasing with the number of people who can have big ideas. Unfortunately the number of people who can and do suppress big ideas is increasing even faster. Someone who has generated a lot of big ideas which have been suppressed is:

    The problem is that big correct ideas are suppressed by those who profit by their suppression.

    It is always the status quo that suppresses new ideas, big or small.

    Big ideas always start out small, being thought up by a single person. If a big idea threatens an old idea, and the old idea has the opportunity to kill the big idea when it is small, the old idea will and the new big idea will be lost, even if it is better.

    This is what old ideas do, they kill new ideas. Same as old money, same as old power, same as old fashions, same as old religions, same as old customs, same as old monopolies, same as old anything.

    That is the essence of Conservatism, to prioritize the way that things have always been done, to prioritize old everything, even when it is wrong.

    This is what happens when ideas develop a “brand”, where to support or even think about an idea that your “tribe” has rejected is to be disloyal to your “tribe”. When a fraction of the population rejects ideas not because they are wrong, but because they conflict with their “tribe”, that tribe is not capable of even thinking about new big ideas, let alone come up with them.

    If you can’t find new big ideas, and can’t generate them yourself, then you are doing something badly wrong and are unable to recognize it.

    • Ilya Shpitser

      Do you know the standard definition of a fanatic?

    • Wonks Anonymous

      Taleb is relatively famous and his ideas have gotten press. How has he been suppressed?

      • I didn’t say he was suppressed, I said it was his ideas that have been suppressed.

        The “financial thinking” that led up to the financial crisis has been shown to be spectacularly wrong by the financial crisis it caused. Why are there no “big ideas” that explain how and why that “financial thinking” was wrong? I think because those who make money from the status quo don’t want the faulty thinking on which they make money to be exposed.

        Why can’t the correct ideas as to what caused the financial crisis be written into legislation to prevent future financial crises?

        Why is the correct big idea of global warming having such a hard time? Why can’t policies be adopted to mitigate the harm that global warming is going to cause?

        Why is the idea of evolution having such a hard time being taught in Texas?

        Why is the big idea of Keynesian economics having such a hard time?

        Why is the big idea of single-payer universal health care having such a hard time?

        Why is the big (and correct) idea that the economy need more stimulus to grow being suppressed, and instead the wrong idea that inflation is just around the corner dominating policy? Why, if worries about US debt are such a concern, have the bond markets driven US treasury yields to 60 year lows?

        How is what Krugman has been saying for years wrong?

        The fact is, what Krugman has been saying all along isn’t wrong, the big ideas he and others like him have been talking about have been suppressed because others profit more by different ideas which happen to be wrong.

      • Wonks Anonymous

        Not as many people may buy into your favored ideas as you’d like, but that doesn’t mean they’re “suppressed”. It’s actually (and I would say INDISPUTABLY) the teaching of creationism that has been suppressed. I’m a big proponent of Darwinism and an atheist to boot, so I view “Expelled“* as a bit of a “framing a guilty man” deal. And within climate science AGW is the mainstream position and such researchers receive plenty of funding. If you’re a Post-Keynesian you can take comfort in heterodoxy, but the mainstream in macroeconomics is “brackish” New Keynesianism.
        *Haven’t actually seen the movie, but my priors are so heavily against creationism that I would dismiss evidence in favor even if it happened to be serious without closely examining.

      • steve

        LOL, did you just say keynesianism and Kruggeman are suppresed? Kruggeman is easily the most talked about economist in the world. And of course there is that hoary old quote from Nixon, “Were all Keynesians now.”

      • Steve, so when Rick Perry, the front runner in the GOP presidential race tells Ben Bernanke that any more quantitative easing before the 2012 election would be treasonous, that is not “suppression”?

        “If this guy prints more money between now and the election, I don’t know what you all would do to him in Iowa, but we would treat him pretty ugly down in Texas,” Perry said. “Printing more money to play politics at this particular time in American history is almost treacherous—or treasonous in my opinion.”

        That is not a suppression of Keynesian economic ideas? Just telling the guy that if he follows them, that he would find himself facing a Presidential candidate who considers him a traitor? And if he had his druthers would treat him “pretty ugly”? And would whip up his base to act “pretty ugly”?

      • Roger Sweeny

        No, it is not suppression. It is big talk, without any power. I can guarantee that neither Ben Bernanke nor Paul Krugman nor any Keynesian economist go to bed worrying that anti-Keynesians are going to do something “pretty ugly” to them. I also guarantee they will not start worrying if Rick Perry is elected president.

        You seem to be saying that some things you believe are so obviously true that if other people don’t believe them and act on them, then your ideas are being suppressed. I think the correct word for that is “disagreement.”

        Tolerance for disagreement is a liberal value.

      • No, tolerance for disagreement without making ugly threats is a liberal value. Making ugly threats to those you disagree with is a non-liberal value.

      • Roger Sweeny

        Do you really think Perry was making any sort of serious threat?

      • Yes, I do. Perry meant what he said to be intimidating. Maybe Perry didn’t plan to personally carry out ugly threats, but he wouldn’t have to. Unfortunately there are people who will use their “second amendment remedies” against politicians and political appointees they disagree with when encouraged to do so by people they consider to be their “leaders”. Unfortunately those individuals tend to be non-liberals and it is liberals that get targeted.

        When asked, the Perry campaign didn’t say that the statement was not an implied threat.

        To those of us paying attention, there are a lot of threatening metaphors being thrown out there by politicians. “Don’t retreat. RELOAD”, “Second amendment remedies”, and they really do seem to be coming from one side. What exactly is threatening and intimidating speech supposed to convey? Something other than threats and intimidation?

        There is a big issue now with death threats in science. Climate researchers receive death threats from AGW denialists, CFS researchers and virologists who found XMRV to be a contaminant receive death threats, anti-vaxers target vaccine researchers with death threats.

      • Roger Sweeny

        Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa Junior recently said,

        “And you see it everywhere, it is the Tea Party. …They’ve got a war, they got a war with us and there’s only going to be one winner. We’re going to win that war… Let’s take these sons of bitches out …”

        There are lots of Republicans running around now saying what an awful threat this is. It is certainly “uncivil” but it is no more a threat of actual physical violence than Rick Perry’s speech was.

        Now, if it was Jimmy Hoffa Senior, I’d be worried that somebody was going to get whacked 🙂

        Do you think Hoffa’s threat is more, less, or just as worrisome as Perry’s?

  • Sigivald

    “the end of ideology,” “the medium is the message,” “the feminine mystique,” “the Big Bang theory,” “the end of history.”

    So, in order:

    Wrong. Wrong. Meh. Right. Wrong.

    (Contra daedalus, show me these suppressed ideas?

    Sounds like excuse-making to me – every time someone tells me about such a great idea or invention “kept down by the elite” or “suppressed by big money”, it never holds up.

    I don’t think the incentives really even align as daedalus suggests.

    In the practical realm, results are what matters, and Great New Inventions are profit centers.

    In science, results are still what matters, and a demonstrable truth seems to always win – we’re all heliocentrists and quantum mechanists now, aren’t we?)

  • Michael Wengler

    I think big ideas are more popular than ever before, but they are also many more of them than there used to be and they are (almost) infinitely more accessible to more people than they used to be.

    For example, atheism. Instead of a few great thinkers dominating the extremely scarce resource of publication 50 years ago, we now have blogs and books and web pages and newsgroups all over the place. We have wikipedia articles on varieties of atheism and the Flying Spaghetti Monster appearing around the world on campuses to promote atheism.

    I think the biggest trend is the de-eliting of great ideas. When the world was poor and had really expensive books as the primary means of communication, the means of communication were so expensive that elaborate infrastructure (monasteries, ancient universities) was in place to ration in what was a reasonably rational way access to the scarce books, both as readers and as writers.

    Well that part of human history is over, and within the last 50 years, heck within the last 25 years probably. My blog posts on losing weight are accessible to the better part of 6 billion people, no more so or less so than Robin’s analyses of everything, Yudkowsky’s musings on AI, or wall street journal, newsweek, time, the economist, or the Washington Post on whatever they want to write about.

    Big ideas aren’t less popular, they are more popular than ever. They are SO popular that they just LOOK small because there are so many of them.

  • Tyrrell McAllister

    … 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.

    How would we go about verifying that big ideas are less popular today? I don’t have the impression that they are, but I don’t consider myself to be very plugged into the zeitgeist.

    What objective metrics can we use to confirm that there really is something to be explained here? One such metric is how often Deep Thinkers are guests on TV shows. If this frequency is going down, then that’s a hint that something is changing in the public’s taste for big ideas. What are the corroborating metrics?

  • Faze

    Communism gave big ideas a bad name by its spectacular public failure in the early 1990s. The sexual revolution took the dangerous edge off of Freudianism. Younger people may have trouble grasping what an enormous and mainly unspoken effect the fall of communism and Freud had on intellectual life in the west. Marx and Freud and their grand overarching “big ideas” underpinned all serious thought for most of the 20th century, even that of their opponents. All thinkers had to define themselves for against Marx and Freud. For the greater part of the century, you’d constantly meet intellectuals who’d say “I’m a Marxist” the way they say “I’m a Democrat” or “Republican” today. But you had to look hard to find a Marxian or Freudian by 1999. Nothing has replaced them. This is undoubtedly a good thing.

  • mjgeddes

    What about this:

    Universal Terminal Values – Platonic aesthetic values (beauty) built into universe!,

    Overthrow of Bayesian Paradigm – Bayes forumla shown to be merely a special case of Categorization operating on a new kind of ‘fuzzy category theory’ math!

    New form of Math Consciousness – Conscious awareness s of Mathematical forms reveals Ontology of Everything – mathematical relationships appear in consciousness as an ‘ontology’ – or ‘theory of everything’. 27 universal mathematical forms/ontological categories!

    My 3 best big ideas man!

  • Wladimir

    I think that the problem is that most of the “big ideas” rely on simplification. These might work for a country, or certain groups, and become hugely popular there, but with everything being connected the complexity of the world quickly overtakes them and buries them (see also: memes).

    The argument of “too much information” might be related. Aren’t there similar problems in science? There are so much observations (or rather, too complex, matter of study difficult to isolate, information/noise levels too low, etc…) that it becomes very difficult to formulate sensible theories that aren’t immediately falsified. In many cases it is more effective to locally approximate the data (data-driven techniques) then try to come up with “general, big” theories.

  • Drewfus

    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…

    This is letting the young turks off the hook pretty lightly. Focusing on science in particular, what was the last big breakthrough, conceptual in nature, in any field? Major scientific advances seem to have dried up. Oh yes, we are certainly driving up Kurzweil’s exponential curves, but it often seems to me that that is all we are achieving. Forty years ago, big ideas had Americans walking on the moon. Now the big news is a portable phone with a high-def screen. Great, but no General AI (for example). Is life getting too easy? Humanity past it’s peak in some respects?

    Alas for me that, being more a theorist, I happen to reach my peak when theory is most out of fashion.

    Robin, are you planning a book?

  • JS Allen

    There is nothing of consequence riding on the ideas, because nobody is hungry anymore. So people choose ideas that fit their signaling preferences, like choosing items from a cafeteria.

  • steve

    I think those revolutions you are talking about may well happen. It has been argued that the invention of the printing press in Europe eventually resulted in the reformation. Essentially, the power of the elites of the day, the church and the king, were greatly reduced by exposing the fallacies in their indoctrination to the average man. Apparently, printing the bible in the local language exposed the preists teachings as self-serving.
    Could something similiar happen with the internet? Hard to say, it is still early days.

  • Roger Sweeny

    If you have lots of information, but don’t have big ideas to fit the information together, all you have is a blooming buzzing confusion. Perhaps we all have more big ideas, but they are largely unarticulated. They are the structure we use to make sense of the word.

    Previously, people had little enough information that they needed new big ideas to make sense of new information. There was a positive demand. It is now much more common for new big ideas to have to erase previously occupied mindspace. In which case, there is generally a negative demand.