According to the Oxford Dictionary of Current English, an idea is “a thought or suggestion about a possible course of action, a mental impression, or a belief.” I will add to this the suggestion that ideas are a fundamental component of our intellect – a defining aspect of being human – and key to our past and present survival as a species.
So what’s bothering me? Their expression in the modern world. Yesterday, it was announced that celebrity Ashton Kutcher beat out CNN in number of followers on the newly popular facebook-ish website Twitter. In an interview, Ashton optimistically acknowledged that control over the media was shifting, from conglomerate media empires to individuals, and that websites like Twitter allow individuals’ voices to be heard in a way that was never before possible. So aside from offering yet another medium for electronic networking, let’s get this straight: 140 characters per ‘tweet’ allow individuals’ voices to be heard. Am I missing something here? How exactly do messages like “Off to bed” or “Heading to the grocery store” or, in the case of a celebrity, “I’m gonna be on QVC in just a few minutes!” offer people a platform from which their voices, their ideas, and their thoughts can be heard? If you ask me, such communication with “the world” is simply another form of self-indulgence, fueling a mass distraction from that which really matters. One’s voice can most certainly NOT be expressed in 140 characters.
Two theories have been offered to explain the occurrence of ideas: The Personalistic Theory maintains that progress and change are directly attributable to the ideas and actions of individuals who alone affect the course of history. In contrast, the Naturalistic Theory argues that the current intellectual climate or ‘zeitgeist’ makes the person, or at least makes possible the recognition of that person’s ideas and thoughts. Under the premise of the former, Darwin was the prime mover and shaper of the theory of evolution, while according to the latter, Darwin’s theories would have been developed by someone else had he died young (and indeed, similar theories of evolution were independently conceptualized around his time – see Lamarck). So which is it? I’m inclined to believe that it’s a combination of both, or that both are possible.
Nevertheless, if we side with a Naturalistic perspective, then what sorts of ideas are being fostered by our current zeitgeist? A new brand which must conform to a particular size or answer only a single question? Exactly what novel ideas are produced by the question, “What are you doing?” Perhaps some ideas can be born from mass electronic networking, shaped by the current Twitter climate. But perhaps the Personalistic stand is indeed more relevant to the discussion of ideas. Perhaps BIG ideas – those which affect change in the world and offer truly novel courses of action – are born in solitude, or in darkness, or in nations where one’s village represents the end of the line rather than one’s cyber network. I’m not sure if unique ideas are more difficult to come by nowadays, in a world comprised of nearly 7 billion people; however, I am quite certain that ideas should be fostered, harnessed, and let loose onto the world at every opportunity. If 140 characters suffice, then tweet your ideas away. If not, then please find another way to make your voices heard. Ideas are possibilities, and whether developed alone or in sync with the masses, the world will always need possibilities.