Are we really living in a Post-Ideas world?

Spring 2011

"We are living in an increasingly post-idea world, a world ... [where] Bold ideas are almost passe." - Neal Gabler The Elusive Big Idea The New York Times.

I think Neiman Labs have probably already nailed the qualified response (i.e. "the essay's wrong, actually, in an interesting way. Gabler is making a big assumption: that the Big Idea is Big precisely because it is, actually, big largely acknowledged, largely apprehended, largely accepted") but what interests me is the connection Gabler has made between the end of the big idea and the rise of the internet.

After all the internet was born out of the big ideas that fueled post-modernism. A cultural revolution that dealt in the currency of collage, chance, anarchy, repetition (see Prospect Magazine's Postmodernism is dead). So perhaps simply because of its DNA (i.e. the great grand child of Dadaism) the internet was never really going to be a forum for exploring big ideas? maybe it was always going to be about collage, chance, anarchy and repetition of existing ideas (i.e. From Dada to Gaga)?

So perhaps the biggest idea we have today (i.e the Internet) is in reality just a hyper connected mash-up of all our yesterdays reconstructed as tomorrows? The intellectual equivalent of Dorian Gray if you like.

For the internet to qualify as a big idea it has to take us to places we have never been before.

The question is has it done that? Has the internet delivered to us a hyper-yesterday or a new tomorrow?

Take Web 2.0 or what I like to call the So.Me for example. Here is a post-post-modern (i.e. Modern Rococo: MoRoCo) mash-up of old ideas about the value of networks, influence, conversations and listening wrapped up into a compelling story of self organising communities. A virtual world where social actions speak louder than words and pictures.

In reality we haven't so much as created a new social construct for tomorrow but a mirror of our fractured reality today. A virtual scrapbook of post modern life's hopes, fears and discontents. More a frenzy of activity sans thought than a global forum for exploring big ideas.

"If you listen first, and write later, then whatever you write will have had time to filter through your brain, and you'll be in what you say. This is what makes you exist. If you are only a reflector of information, are you really there?" - Jarad Lanier quoted in the New Yorker article The Visionary

The same goes for the future of the software industry. For all Marc Anderssen rhetoric in the WSJ today (Think Why software is eating the world) the stark reality is the software industry today is now facing the same "Analog Dollars = Digital Pennies" commercial pressures that the media industry failed to address 10-15 years ago. These new technology start-ups that Anderssen so vigorously claims are disrupting the real world are in most cases merely disrupting the established players in the software market by offering niche application and/or data mash-ups in the cloud for free or at a fraction of the price. Not so much a new way of doing business. Just a new way of distributing and connecting to the information that invariably drives down the costs of doing business (at least once you remove the transport costs and the bi-annual investment in new gadgets out of the equation).

So we are not seeing wholesale innovation or renewal in the software sector. Just the inevitable maturity in the product cycle driving the shelf price of COTS to zero.

Here again is an industry that is surprisingly running on empty when it comes to big, bold innovative ideas at the moment. Even Facebook reads more like "CRM for the rest of us" than some revolutionary new global communications platform.

Take a quick look at this archival piece from the Information Design Lab that Business Insider dug up earlier this week. A video of a Tablet Newspaper from 1994. What the video illustrates is just how little our thinking has evolved over the past 17 years. this was the future of media (i.e. the iPad) two decades before it became a mainstream hit. Which leads us to the question did Apple really revolutionise media with the iPad or did it just pick up all the pieces of the jigsaw after everybody else gave up on the idea? In reality it didn't have an epiphany or game changing idea. It just executed the mash-up better than anyone else who had tried to deliver this idea to market over the past two decades.

The quote that struck us as most impressive for the time? "We may still use the computer to create information, but we'll use the tablet to interact with information." - Business Insider Tablet Predictions

What the explosion of sales of the iPad and the drop off in PC sales also suggests (as do the failure of the earlier efforts to create a tablet that was more like a computer than a TV) is that there is a global trend is towards idea navigation and consumption of ideas rather than idea creation.

This transition from interactivity as creation to interactivity as consumption and mash-up (i.e. Productivity to Gaming) is a trend worth considering within the context of the future of ideas.

Within the context of the modern world new ideas were created by the simple equation 1+1=3. So theoretically access to the internet in a post, post modern world should expand our ability to create new ideas exponentially (i.e. (1+1=3)^n).

Theoretically the internet should be the greatest ideas and innovation engine the world has even known.

If we are living in a post ideas world then it is largely because the internet has failed to take us to these new places. And if that is the case then perhaps it is simply because the internet makes it easier to explore yesterday and share today rather than to help us to create tomorrow.

Perhaps, largely thanks to the internet, we find ourselves simply more adept at discovery (i.e. creating endless lists of likes and navigating the hyperlinks) and curation rather than experimentation and creation. More adept at generating patterns and searching for insights within these patterns than engaging in the battle of smashing disparate ideas together to create bold new ideas. More interested in exploring variations and mash-ups of old tunes than making the mistake of playing some new tunes we have never heard before.

In the end, as Picasso said, "all artists are thieves". The new feeds off the old. But in reality things only really get exciting when the new rejects the old and tries to rediscover the world through new eyes and then goes on to reconstruct (as opposed to deconstruct) the world in its own image.

Perhaps here then is the seed of the next big idea that may yet come out of Gabler's musings. The need to discover a new type of thinking that is more about experimentation and creation than discovery and curation. A revolutionary new type thinking that isn't interested in accumulating Traffic, Page Views, Fans and Likes but in breaking all the rules. Being bold enough to believe that what we are trying today with the internet just isn't working and if the internet is to deliver on its early promise we need to start thinking and doing things differently.

After all, if the future of the internet is just about converting paper into bits (e.g. Money) and personal memories into databases (e.g. Social), haven't we already been there and done that?

In the end, and at the risk of doing a Marshall McLuhan, perhaps the big idea that is the internet isn't to be found in the nodes or the connections scattered across the Zipf Curve but in the yet to be explored negative space of the network. What we may come to think of as the holes in the landscape or the "antipattern".

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