What’s the Big Idea?

Larry David on "Curb Your Enthusiasm"

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….

"Seinfeld "The Red Dot"

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?
Elaine: Nothing.

Seinfeld, “The Red Dot,” Season 3, Episode 12, 1991


2 Responses to “What’s the Big Idea?”

  1. 1 AKH August 18, 2011 at 9:34 am

    “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. E…veryone talks information, usually personal information. Where are you going? What are you doing? Whom are you seeing? These are today’s big questions.” (from Gabler’s commentary.

    To be honest, I do not think this has changed all that much from 25000 years ago. Ideas are not meaningful unless they are meaningful to us as persons and they have no equity until we can successfully convey them to another. If they do not resonate within the context of the human condition they don’t survive, grow and get passed around. Until we assess and stake out our place in an interaction or a relationship, we are not going to be able to share what we value most, our ideas, feelings and beliefs. Ideas can be very intimate and human beings do not naturally expend the energy it takes to convey an idea, as in “Do not cast your pearls…..” Personal information has always been the starting gate for more profound and thoughtful communication. It is the way our brains are made.

    Regarding information, it is a consumer staple. There is good information that has improved our lives dramatically, that is converged with other information that grows into knowledge, wisdom, and rarely, vision. The media through which knowledge is conveyed will only become more intrusive and indiscriminate. The best we can hope is to become good critics and consumers of information and teach our children the same. It is one’s decision how information rules one’s life and one’s time, as always there is a lot of junk. We do get to pick!

    There is no shortage of ideas; most of them are not good ideas. But again, someone’s good idea or bad idea just ends up being more information about whether you appreciate the individual conveying that idea…

  2. 2 Rick Devereux August 18, 2011 at 2:49 pm

    TV’s is a desert for meaningful talk of ideas (or perhaps a jungle where ideas are slain by predators from every direction as soon as they come into existence) – those who want that go to radio, also a desert for the most part, except for NPR affiliates. On Point’s second hour guest this morning was David Deutsch from Oxford talking about his book, ‘The Beginning of Infinity.’ His conversation with Tom Ashbrook was about nothing but ideas and their meaning and generated callers sharing their ideas:


    Here’s a bit (from the NYT book review Aug. 12) that begins to capture the essence of what I heard Deutsch saying today – place this kind of thinking in opposition the the ‘intellectual’ forces [a joke] which have shaped the creationist/anti-Enlightenment thinking of Michelle Bachmann, as listed in her own ‘reading list’ (according to the NYer article of Aug. 15 and 22), and marvel at what a Bachmann presidency might mean for the world:

    “The thought to which Deutsch’s conversation most often returns is that the European Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries, or something like it, may turn out to have been the pivotal event not merely of the history of the West, or of human beings, or of the earth, but (literally, physically) of the universe as a whole.

    Here’s the sort of thing he has in mind: The topographical shape and the material constitution of the upper surface of the island of Manhattan, as it exists today, is much less a matter of geology than it is of economics and politics and human psychology. The effects of geological forces were trumped (you might say) by other forces — forces that proved themselves, in the fullness of time, physically stronger. Deutsch thinks the same thing must in the long run be true of the universe as a whole. Stuff like gravitation and dark energy are the sorts of things that determine the shape of the cosmos only in its earliest, and most parochial, and least interesting stages. The rest is going to be a matter of our own intentional doing, or at any rate it’s going to be a matter of the intentional doings of what Deutsch calls “people,” by which he means not only human beings, and not all human beings, but whatever creatures, from whatever planets, in whatever circumstances, may have managed to absorb the lessons of the Scientific Revolution.

    There is a famous collection of arguments from the pioneering days of computer science to the effect that any device able to carry out every one of the entries on a certain relatively short list of elementary logical operations could, in some finite number of steps, calculate the value of any mathematical function that is calculable at all. Devices like that are called “universal computers.” And what interests Deutsch about these arguments is that they imply that there is a certain definite point, a certain definite moment, in the course of acquiring the capacity to perform more and more of the operations on that list, when such a machine will abruptly become as good a calculator as anything, in principle, can be.

    Deutsch thinks that such “jumps to universality” must occur not only in the capacity to calculate things, but also in the capacity to understand things, and in the closely related capacity to make things happen. And he thinks that it was precisely such a threshold that was crossed with the invention of the scientific method. There were plenty of things we humans could do, of course, prior to the invention of that method: agriculture, or the domestication of animals, or the design of sundials, or the construction of pyramids. But all of a sudden, with the introduction of that particular habit of concocting and evaluating new hypotheses, there was a sense in which we could do anything. The capacities of a community that has mastered that method to survive, and to learn, and to remake the world according to its inclinations, are (in the long run) literally, mathematically, infinite. And Deutsch is convinced that the tendency of the world to give rise to such communities, more than, say, the force of gravitation, or the second law of thermodynamics, or even the phenomenon of death, is what ultimately gives the world its shape, and what constitutes the genuine essence of nature.”


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