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. While we continue to make giant technological advances, we may be the first generation to have turned back the epochal clock — to have gone backward intellectually from advanced modes of thinking into old modes of belief. But post-Enlightenment and post-idea, while related, are not exactly the same.
Post-Enlightenment refers to a style of thinking that no longer deploys the techniques of rational thought. Post-idea refers to thinking that is no longer done, regardless of the style.
The post-idea world has been a long time coming, and many factors have contributed to it. There is the retreat in universities from the real world, and an encouragement of and reward for the narrowest specialization rather than for daring — for tending potted plants rather than planting forests.
There is the eclipse of the public intellectual in the general media by the pundit who substitutes outrageousness for thoughtfulness, and the concomitant decline of the essay in general-interest magazines. And there is the rise of an increasingly visual culture, especially among the young — a form in which ideas are more difficult to express.
But these factors, which began decades ago, were more likely harbingers of an approaching post-idea world than the chief causes of it. The real cause may be information itself. It may seem counterintuitive that at a time when we know more than we have ever known, we think about it less.
We live in the much vaunted Age of Information. Courtesy of the Internet, we seem to have immediate access to anything that anyone could ever want to know. We are certainly the most informed generation in history, at least quantitatively. There are trillions upon trillions of bytes out there in the ether — so much to gather and to think about.
And that’s just the point. In the past, we collected information not simply to know things. That was only the beginning. We also collected information to convert it into something larger than facts and ultimately more useful — into ideas that made sense of the information. We sought not just to apprehend the world but to truly comprehend it, which is the primary function of ideas. Great ideas explain the world and one another to us.
Marx pointed out the relationship between the means of production and our social and political systems. taught us to explore our minds as a way of understanding our emotions and behaviors. Einstein rewrote physics. More recently, McLuhan theorized about the nature of modern communication and its effect on modern life. These ideas enabled us to get our minds around our existence and attempt to answer the big, daunting questions of our lives.
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.
The collection itself is exhausting: what each of our friends is doing at that particular moment and then the next moment and the next one; who is dating right now; which video is going viral on this hour; what Princess Letizia or Kate Middleton is wearing that day. In effect, we are living within the nimbus of an informational Gresham’s law in which trivial information pushes out significant information, but it is also an ideational Gresham’s law in which information, trivial or not, pushes out ideas.
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.
It is certainly no accident that the post-idea world has sprung up alongside the social networking world. Even though there are sites and blogs dedicated to ideas, , , Myspace, Flickr, etc., the most popular sites on the Web, are basically information exchanges, designed to feed the insatiable information hunger, though this is hardly the kind of information that generates ideas. It is largely useless except insofar as it makes the possessor of the information feel, well, informed. Of course, one could argue that these sites are no different than conversation was for previous generations, and that conversation seldom generated big ideas either, and one would be right.
BUT the analogy isn’t perfect. For one thing, social networking sites are the primary form of communication among young people, and they are supplanting print, which is where ideas have typically gestated. For another, social networking sites engender habits of mind that are inimical to the kind of deliberate discourse that gives rise to ideas. Instead of theories, hypotheses and grand arguments, we get instant 140-character tweets about eating a sandwich or watching a TV show. While social networking may enlarge one’s circle and even introduce one to strangers, this is not the same thing as enlarging one’s intellectual universe. Indeed, the gab of social networking tends to shrink one’s universe to oneself and one’s friends, while thoughts organized in words, whether online or on the page, enlarge one’s focus.
To paraphrase the famous dictum, often attributed to , that you can’t think and hit at the same time, you can’t think and tweet at the same time either, not because it is impossible to multitask but because tweeting, which is largely a burst of either brief, unsupported opinions or brief descriptions of your own prosaic activities, is a form of distraction or anti-thinking.
The implications of a society that no longer thinks big are enormous. Ideas aren’t just intellectual playthings. They have practical effects.
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. Another friend made a similar argument about politics. While the parties debate how much to cut the budget, he wondered where were the John Rawlses and Robert Nozicks who could elevate our politics.
One could certainly make the same argument about economics, where remains the center of debate nearly 80 years after propounding his theory of government pump priming. This isn’t to say that the successors of Rosenberg, Rawls and Keynes don’t exist, only that if they do, they are not likely to get traction in a culture that has so little use for ideas, especially big, exciting, dangerous ones, and that’s true whether the ideas come from academics or others who are not part of elite organizations and who challenge the conventional wisdom. 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 , who has theorized on everything from the source of language to the role of in human nature, or the biologist , 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.
No doubt there will be those who say that the big ideas have migrated to the marketplace, but there is a vast difference between profit-making inventions and intellectually challenging thoughts. Entrepreneurs have plenty of ideas, and some, like of , have come up with some brilliant ideas in the “inventional” sense of the word.
Still, while these ideas may change the way we live, they rarely transform the way we think. They are material, not ideational. It is thinkers who are in short supply, and the situation probably isn’t going to change anytime soon.
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.
What the future portends is more and more information — Everests of it. There won’t be anything we won’t know. But there will be no one thinking about it.
Think about that.Continue reading the main story
The “Sponsor” is The New York Times Company, 620 8th Avenue, New York, NY 10018.
The New York Times Modern Love College Essay Contest (“the Contest”) is a skillbased competition in which participants will compete to be selected as author of the top essay, as selected by Sponsor. The author of the winning entry will be awarded $1,000.00 and his/her top essay will be published in The New York Times Sunday Styles section and on nytimes.com.
Participants will be invited to submit essays, which will be voted on and rated by Sponsor. The Contest begins at 10:00 AM Eastern on Friday, February 6, 2015 and ends at 11:59 PM Eastern on Sunday, March 15, 2015. The Contest will be conducted in two phases. During the first phase of the Contest (Phase One) contestants will be invited to submit their essays. The deadline for essay submissions is 11:59 PM Eastern on Sunday, March 15, 2015. During the second phase of the Contest (Phase Two) the submissions will be voted on and rated by the Judge. The voting will begin at 10:00 AM Eastern on Monday, March 16, 2015 and end at 11:59 PM Eastern on Monday, April 13, 2015. Daniel Jones, Editor, Modern Love, will serve as judge (“Judge”). Judge will select the Winner (as defined below) based on talent, writing ability, style, creativity and originality of entry. Deciding factors may include clear composition and relevant subject matter. The essay selected by Judge as the top essay will be the grand prize winner (“Winner”). Whether any essay is eligible at any stage shall be at Sponsor’s sole and absolute discretion at all times, including, without limitation, whether any such essay meets Sponsor’s standards of overall quality, as such quality standards are determined by Sponsor, in its sole and absolute discretion. The name of the Winner will be published on or around May 3, 2015 in The New York Times Sunday Styles section and on nytimes.com. Odds of winning depend on the number of eligible entries received.
As a condition of Contest entry, each Contest Entrant (as defined below) acknowledges and agrees that: (a) Sponsor has access to and/or may create or have created literary, visual and/or other materials, ideas and concepts which may be similar or identical to the Contest Entry Materials in theme and/or other respects; (b) the Contest Entrant will not be entitled to any compensation or other consideration because of the use by Sponsor of any such similar or identical material, ideas and/or concepts; and (c) Sponsor’s use of material containing elements similar to or identical with those contained in the Contest Entry Materials or any essay shall not obligate Sponsor to negotiate with nor entitle Contest Entrant to any compensation or other claim.
Potential Winner will be tallied by or about Monday, April 13, 2015. Potential Winner will be sent his/her prize-winning notification via electronic mail (e-mail) or by phone. A potential Winner has seven (7) days from receipt of notification to claim his/her prize by responding via electronic mail (e-mail) or an alternate Winner will be selected. Noncompliance with these official rules or, if a selected potential Winner cannot be contacted, provides incorrect e-mail or mailing address, is ineligible, fails to claim a prize or if the prize notification or prize is returned as undeliverable, an alternate Winner will be selected. Acceptance of a prize constitutes permission for Sponsor to use Winner's essay, name and likeness for advertising and promotional purposes without compensation, unless otherwise prohibited by law.
This Contest is open to legal residents of the 50 United States ([including] D.C.) who are current undergraduate students at least 18 years of age and older, residing in the United States and enrolled in an American college or university. Employees and agents of Sponsor, its affiliates, subsidiaries, advertising and promotion agencies, any other prize sponsor, and any entity involved in the development, production, implementation, administration or fulfillment of the Contest and their immediate family members and/or close personal friends and/or those living in the same household of such persons, whether related or not, are not eligible to enter the Contest.
Employees, officers and directors of Sponsor (including Sponsor’s parent company, The New York Times Company (“NYTCO”)), their respective affiliates, subsidiaries, distributors, advertising, promotion, fulfillment and marketing agencies, their immediate families, (defined as spouse, child, sibling, parent, or grandparent) and those living in their same households are NOT eligible to participate in the Promotion. Each Winner will be required to execute a declaration of eligibility and liability release attesting that the Winner has complied with all the rules and that the Winner releases Sponsor(s) and all prize-supplier companies from all liability for damages or personal injury in connection with the Winner's use of the prize, and a publicity release consenting that the Sponsor and anyone they may authorize may, without compensation, use Winner's name, essay, photograph or other likeness, biographical information and statements concerning the Contest or the Sponsor for purposes of advertising and promotion.
HOW TO SUBMIT A CONTEST ENTRY
Any individual wishing to compete in the Contest must submit an essay of no more than 1700 words illustrating the current state of love and relationships, to firstname.lastname@example.org (participants submitting essays are referred to as “Contest Entrants”). Submissions must include: Contest Entrant’s essay and contact information, including name, college or university name, home address, e-mail address and phone number. Each Contest Entrant may submit one essay during the Contest (an “Essay”). Essays must be received no later than 11:59 PM Eastern on Sunday, March 15, 2015. Any elements appearing in submitted Essays must be entirely original, created by Contest Entrant, and must not have been altered in any way from the original. Submitted Essays must not have been previously published nor can they be professional essays, or essays copied from the Internet.
Use of any elements or other materials that are not original, or in the public domain may result in disqualification of Essay in Sponsor’s sole discretion. By entering, Contest Entrants accept and agree to be bound by these Official Rules, including the decisions of the Sponsor, which are final and binding in all respects. Limit one (1) entry per Contest Entrant and per email address. Any individual who attempts to enter, or in the sole discretion of Sponsor is suspected of entering more than once, by any means, including but not limited to submitting multiple Essays, will be disqualified from the Contest. In addition Sponsor reserves the right to reject any submission without explanation.
CONDITIONS OF CONTEST ENTRY
As conditions of entry into the Contest, each Contest Entrant:
- WARRANTS AND REPRESENTS THAT THE CONTEST ENTRANT OWNS ALL RIGHTS TO THE ESSAY HE/SHE IS SUBMITTING (COLLECTIVELY, THE “CONTEST ENTRY MATERIALS”).
SPONSOR’S RIGHT TO DISQUALIFY
At any time during the Contest, Sponsor reserves the right, in its sole and unfettered discretion, to disqualify and remove any Essay that it believes does not meet the spirit or requirements of the Official Rules. The decisions of the Sponsor on this and all matter relating to the Contest are final and binding.
WINNER SELECTION PROCESS
Entries will be rated from March 16, 2015 to April 13, 2015. Daniel Jones, Editor, Modern Love, will serve as judge (“Judge”). Judge will select the Winner based on talent, writing ability, style, creativity and originality of entry. Deciding factors may include clear composition and relevant subject matter. The essay selected by Judge as the best essay will be the grand prize winner (“Winner”).
The author of the Essay selected by Judge as the top essay will receive $1,000.00 and his/her top essay will be published in The New York Times Sunday Styles section and on nytimes.com. Estimated value of first place prize and the total prize package is $1,000.00.
Four runners-up will also be selected. Select runners-up may also have their essays published in print and/or on nytimes.com.
If Winner is unable to fulfill prize during time period specified, Winner forfeits the prize package. Winner must be 18 years of age or older. Prizes are non-transferable and shall be deemed to have no cash value. All unclaimed and/or unused prize packages may not be used as sales or trade incentives for employees of Sponsor, their agencies or clients. No prize substitution is permitted, except by Sponsor, which reserves the right to substitute any prize of equal or comparable value including cash in the event of prize unavailability. Prizes are non-transferable.
Prize consists of only the item specifically listed above. No substitution or transfer of prize is permitted, except that Sponsor reserves the right to substitute a prize of equal or greater value in the event that an offered prize is unavailable. All federal, state and local taxes on prizes are the sole responsibility of the Winner. Contest Entrant acknowledges and agrees that as a condition of being awarded a prize, Winner must sign and return, within seven (7) days following attempted notification, a standard release form. Noncompliance within this time period may result in disqualification and an alternate Winner may be selected.
Sponsor and its officers, directors, affiliates, related entities, partners, partnerships, principals, representatives, agents, licensees, sponsors, successors and assigns: (a) make no warranty, guaranty or representation of any kind concerning any prize; (b) disclaim any implied warranty; and (c) are not liable for injury, loss, or damage of any kind resulting from the acceptance or use of any prize, travel related thereto or from participation in this Contest.
If any activity relating to any prize is canceled or postponed for any reason, the balance of that prize will be awarded in full satisfaction of prize award.
All taxes, fees and surcharges on prizes won are the sole responsibility of the Winner.
The Contest is governed by and subject to the laws of the United States. All federal, state and local laws and regulations apply. Void where prohibited by law. All Winners will receive an IRS 1099 for the value of their prizes. By participating in the Contest and/or accepting any prize, Contest Entrants grant permission to Sponsor and its advertising and promotion agencies to use their name(s), likeness(es), essays and any other material submitted in connection with the Contest for purposes of advertising, publicity and promotion purposes, without further compensation to Contest Entrant, unless prohibited by law. By entering, the Contest Entrants agree to be bound by the Official Rules and the decisions of the Sponsor, which are final and binding on all matters relating to the Contest. Sponsor is not responsible for any typographical or other errors in the printing of the offer, administration of the Contest or the announcement of the prizes, or for lost, late, misdirected, damaged, incomplete or illegal entries.
Sponsor reserves the right at its sole discretion to disqualify the Contest Entry of any individual found to be: (a) tampering or attempting to tamper with the entry process or the operation of the Contest or any Sponsor website; (b) violating the Official Rules; (c) violating the terms of service, conditions of use and/or general rules or guidelines of any Sponsor property or service; or (d) acting in an unsportsmanlike or disruptive manner, or with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten or harass any other person. Further, Sponsor reserves the right to disqualify any entry which, in Sponsor’s sole opinion, is deemed to be offensive, libelous, slanderous, inflammatory, or otherwise inappropriate in any way for this Contest. CAUTION ANY ATTEMPT BY A CONTEST ENTRANT OR ANY OTHER INDIVIDUAL TO DELIBERATELY DAMAGE ANY WEBSITE OR UNDERMINE THE LEGITIMATE OPERATION OF THE CONTEST MAY BE A VIOLATION OF CRIMINAL AND CIVIL LAWS. SHOULD SUCH AN ATTEMPT BE MADE, SPONSOR RESERVES THE RIGHT TO SEEK DAMAGES FROM ANY SUCH PERSON TO THE FULLEST EXTENT PERMITTED BY LAW.
LIMITATIONS OF LIABILITY
Sponsor assumes no responsibility for any computer, online, telephone transmission or technical malfunctions that may occur during participation in the Contest (including, without limitation, the voting phases of the Contest), or theft, destruction or unauthorized access to, or alteration of, Contest Entry Materials. Sponsor is not responsible for any incorrect or inaccurate information, whether caused by website users, Contest Entrants, or any of the equipment or programming associated with or utilized in the Contest, or for any technical or human error which may occur in the processing of submissions or votes in the Contest. Sponsor assumes no responsibility for any error, omission, interruption, deletion, defect, delay in operation of transmission, failures or technical malfunction of any telephone network or lines, computer online systems, servers, providers, computer equipment, software, email, players or browsers, whether on account of technical problems, traffic congestion on the Internet or at any website, or on account of any combination of the foregoing (including but not limited to any such problems which may result in the inability to access the Contest website or to submit Contest Entry Materials in connection with the Contest). Sponsor is not responsible for any injury or damage to participants or to any computer related to or resulting from participating or downloading materials in this Contest. If, for any reason, the Contest is not capable of running as planned, including infection by computer virus, bugs, tampering, unauthorized intervention, fraud, technical failures, or any other causes beyond the control of Sponsor which corrupt or affect the administration, security, fairness, integrity or proper conduct of this Contest, Sponsor reserves the right at its sole discretion to cancel, terminate, modify or suspend the Contest and select Winners from among that portion of the Contest that has not been compromised, if any. Sponsor reserves the right to cancel this Contest at any time without obligation or prior notice.
Except where prohibited, as a condition of participating in this Contest, Contest Entrants agree that any and all disputes which cannot be resolved between the parties, claims and causes of action arising out of or connected with this Contest, any prize awarded, or the determination of Winners shall be resolved individually, without resort to any form of class action. Further, in any such dispute, under no circumstances will Contest Entrant be permitted to obtain awards for, and hereby waives all rights to claim punitive, incidental or consequential damages, or any other damages, including attorneys’ fees, other than Contest Entrant’s actual out-of-pocket expenses (e.g. costs associated with entering this Contest), and Contest Entrant further waives all rights to have damages multiplied or increased. In the event of a dispute as to the identity of a Winner based on email address, the winning entry will be declared made by the Authorized Account Holder of the email address submitted at time of entry. For purposes of these Official Rules, “Authorized Account Holder” is defined as the natural person who is assigned to an email address by an Internet access provider, online service provider or other organization (e.g. business, educational, institution, etc.) that is responsible for assigning email addresses for the domain associated with the submitted email address.
All issues and questions regarding rights and obligations of Contest Entrants in connection with this Contest shall be governed by, and construed in accordance with, the laws of the State of New York, U.S.A., without giving effect to the conflict of laws and rules thereof and any matters or proceedings which are not subject to arbitration as set forth in these Official Rules and/or for entering any judgment on an arbitration award, shall take place in the State of New York.
The parties waive rights to trial by jury in any action or proceeding instituted in connection with these Official Rules and/or this Contest. Any controversy or claim arising out of or relating to these Official Rules and/or this Contest shall be settled by binding arbitration in accordance with the commercial arbitration rules of the American Arbitration Association. Any such controversy or claim shall be arbitrated on an individual basis, and shall not be consolidated in any arbitration with any claim or controversy of any other party. The arbitration shall be conducted in the State of New York and judgment on the arbitration award may be entered into any court having jurisdiction thereof.
WINNER’S LIST/RULES REQUESTS
For a copy of the Official Rules or the Winners’ names, send a separate, stamped, selfaddressed envelope to:
The New York Times Modern Love College Essay Contest, 620 8th Avenue, New York, NY 10018.
Requests received after June 1, 2015 may not be honored.