Painting by Katarina Countiss
Reading: Gabler, Neal. “The Elusive Idea.” The New York Times. 13 Aug. 2011.
Excerpts from the article:
“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…
…It is no secret, especially here in America, that we live in a post-Enlightenment age in which rationality, science, evidence, logical argument and debate have lost the battle in many sectors, and perhaps even in society generally, to superstition, faith, opinion and orthodoxy….
…An artist friend of mine recently lamented that he felt the art world was adrift because there were no longer great critics like Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg to provide theories of art that could fructify the art and energize it…
…All thinkers are victims of information glut, and the ideas of today’s thinkers are also victims of that glut.
But it is especially true of big thinkers in the social sciences like the cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, who has theorized on everything from the source of language to the role of genetics in human nature, or the biologist Richard Dawkins, who has had big and controversial ideas on everything from selfishness to God, or the psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who has been analyzing different moral systems and drawing fascinating conclusions about the relationship of morality to political beliefs. But 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. A generation ago, these men would have made their way into popular magazines and onto television screens. Now they are crowded out by informational effluvium…”
Artists and scientists must efficiently navigate the waters of the Internet before they are swallowed up, distracted, their visions obscured by an overflow of “cat-in-box” Youtube videos. Or the equivalent. Does all the access to information bloat scientists? We have always had renaissance men in the arts and sciences, those who transcended expectations and theorized about everything. The boon of information will empower many people. Some of them will transform the information into sweeping, bold and titillating ideas that will change their respective disciplines, while others will be overwhelmed and lack the integrative skills to make sense of the “informational effluvium.” I am not offering any solutions, but I will say that books have something to give to this world, still. The power of a sustained idea train, connecting information with anecdotes, I recommend the public library as a leading source to fuel big ideas. We gaze at the internet all day trying to drink it all in, thinking we’ll be smarter and better for it, but end up with sediment at the bottom of our cup. Scientists, the ones with any determination will always turn to books and journals and artists will participate in public spaces. They won’t die or even fade to a dull sheen because of the internet’s vast (and for now mostly unengaged) populace.
People can be inspired. There is a world of followers encouraged by the internet. Consumers see the amount of people sharing their stories, their tidbits on social media. What did you paint today? Why did your milk turn green in the fridge? Real stories of people, transmitted by blogs, tweets, statuses, etc. Your community to be appreciated and debated has exploded in the past couple of decades. Online, we continue to grow and share and build communities in a way that high school and college has done in the past. We have teachers and peers and people to say “hey, you’re kind of good at that.” That will allow the scientist, the philosopher, the artist, the pundit to grow and excel in this new informative flux.