In a recent episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm (“The Hero,” Season 8, Episode 6), Larry David attends a dinner party with a hot date and is peeved when the hostess tells him couples are being seated apart. What’s worse, he is relegated to the very end of the table, next to a stranger named Hank (SNL alum Chris Parnell), who remarks, “You know, when I first saw you I guessed you for a Spaniard.” We’ve all been in Larry’s shoes; assigned seating can spark a lively dialogue, even kindle a new friendship, but sometimes it’s heavy sledding. As always, the fictional Larry mines the comic gold in an uncomfortable situation by flouting social convention, asking his new acquaintance, “How’s your marriage?” When Hank takes offense, Larry explains he’s merely “trying to elevate small talk to medium talk.”
Leave it to Larry to say aloud what no one else dares: small talk is, by definition, superficial and shallow, greasing the conversational wheel but not moving the vehicle forward. Larry is being disingenuous, of course, to feign impatience with small talk. After all, in both Curb and in real life, he owes his fame and fortune to the success of an entire series “about nothing.” Inane small talk, whether by a “low talker” or a “close talker,” is his bread and butter. Yet, just imagine how the real Larry David must cringe when strangers quote chapter and verse from favorite Seinfeld episodes. Yada, yada, yada!
Larry’s feigned desire to fast-forward through small talk brings to mind a recent New York Times op-ed piece called “The Elusive Big Idea” in which writer Neal Gabler declares, “we are living in an increasingly post-idea world.” Gabler picks up from where Nicholas Carr left off with his much-discussed 2008 piece in The Atlantic (“Is Google Making Us Stupid?”), which posits that the Internet is rewiring our neural circuitry and endangering our capacity for abstract thought. Like Carr, Gabler asserts that the vaunted Age of Information has, paradoxically, eroded our ability to engage with the Big Ideas that have advanced intellectual thought through the ages. The 20st century’s “Is God dead?” has devolved into today’s “What would Jesus say?”
Gabler lays some of the blame for the ascendance of knowing over thinking on the Internet and the relentless triviality of social media (“You can’t think and tweet at the same time.”). Gabler also faults the dominance of sound bite punditry over serious intellectual discourse in the political sphere, and the concomitant rise of a visual culture and decline of the long-form essay. More than ever, a picture or a video (keep it under three minutes, please!) is worth a thousand words. Google and the Internet may not be making us stupid, but they are making us lazy – all while fooling us into thinking that we are busy, busy, busy.
Gabler observes, “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….We prefer knowing to thinking because knowing has more immediate value. It keeps us in the loop, keeps us connected to our friends and our cohort. Ideas are too airy, too impractical, too much work for too little reward. Few talk ideas. Everyone talks information, usually personal information. Where are you going? What are you doing? Whom are you seeing? These are today’s big questions.” These very questions sound like the framework for an episode of Seinfeld or Curb.
I’m as guilty as anyone of treading water in the conversational shallows much of the time. After all, progressing from small talk to medium talk takes effort and can be off-putting. It’s easier to talk about what happened at work or school, or what our friends or children are doing. I remember watching my musician-husband squirm when my mother tried to draw him into discussing the philosophy of music, a rather rarified subject she was studying at the time. We are at our fittest, intellectually, as students, but mental muscles go soft without regular exercise, and even if we continue to try to engage deeply with ideas through reading or writing, many of us get too few opportunities to discuss them outside of a classroom setting. Anyone in a book club knows that most discussions skim along the surface of plot summary and personal reactions and rarely dive deeper into themes – and that’s assuming everyone finishes the book. Not that there’s anything wrong with that!
Gabler concludes, “We have become information narcissists, so uninterested in anything outside ourselves and our friendship circles or in any tidbit we cannot share with those friends that if a Marx or a Nietzsche were suddenly to appear, blasting his ideas, no one would pay the slightest attention, certainly not the general media, which have learned to service our narcissism.” For the apotheosis of narcissistic navel-gazing one need look no further than the characters on Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, which is why the shows are such brilliant and biting satires of our culture. Of course, Seinfeld predated the rise of the Internet and social media, so maybe it’s Larry David, not Google, that’s making us stupid….
Jerry: What are you saying?
Elaine: I’m not saying anything.
Jerry: You’re saying something.
Elaine: What could I be saying?
Jerry: Well, you’re not saying nothing, so you must be saying something.
Elaine: If I were saying something, I would have said it.
Jerry: So why don’t you say it?
Elaine: I said it.
Jerry: What did you say?
Seinfeld, “The Red Dot,” Season 3, Episode 12, 1991