Seriously, what it is? Inquiring (not enquiring) minds want to know. Because, as far as many of us can tell, there aren’t any big ideas any more. As Neal Gabler said in the New York Times article on the elusive big idea, we live in a society that no longer thinks big. And that’s bad. Why? In many fields of technology, there have been no big ideas for decades. Sure, we see new and better devices every year and sure the iPad just came out, but, let’s face it, the iPad is a netbook with a touchscreen. A netbook is just a miniaturized laptop, and a laptop is just a miniaturized portable computer, and portable computers have been around for over 30 years. (Yes, you read that right, over thirty years, with the first portable computer manufactured in 1979.) And touch-screens have been around almost as long (with the first commercial touchscreen computer released back in 1983). Apple just took the technology to the next generation, while making sure it was easier to use than all of its competitors products. But, contrary to their marketing, there is no new “big idea” in the iPad.
The cloud? Well, I hate to burst your bubble (actually, not true, I love to burst that bubble), but the cloud is just a return to the fundamental concept of mainframe computing with dumb terminals — one big shared computer that services a whole bunch of users who are remote and don’t want, or need, to know how the big computer works. Except this time the big computer is a whole bunch of smaller computers networked together and, since the network is very big (and, in fact, global), the computers can reside anywhere. I could go on, but, even in computing theory, almost everything traces back fifteen to thirty years (or more).
I’m almost ready to agree with the author of a recent Forbes opinion article on the New York Times article that asked why did big ideas die when he said that we live in a post-idea society where people don’t think at all. With exceptions fewer and further between by the day, most people don’t think [deep] anymore.
Why is this? As Gabler says, we are living in an increasingly post-idea world — a world in which big, thought-provoking ideas that can’t instantly be monetized are of so little intrinsic value that fewer people are generating them and fewer outlets are disseminating them.
Who’s to blame? Gabler blames the usual suspects — the web, Twitter, and everything else that, instead of facilitating a lively intellectual life, instead drowns us in information. And while some of these suspects, like Twitter, are indeed a problem, the reality is that they are a symptom and not the root cause.
The problem lies with Wall Street and VCs. They’ve convinced the business world that nothing matters beyond the current quarter and any idea that can’t be brought to market overnight isn’t worth it. We did not come further in the last 100 years than in all of human history by only focussing on products that could get to market quickly. (We have to remember that the first cross-Atlantic transmission did not occur until 1902. This transmission, and all major computational and communication advances since, did not happen in a quarter. Most of the advancements took years of research and decades to perfect.) If you’re trying to change a market — to go from a Model-T to a Jaguar — that takes years, but VCs won’t support anything that can’t be done in more than a few months. As a result all we get are small incremental improvements, with significantly diminishing returns as time goes on, as no one is investing to take the big leap forward.
And, despite claims to the contrary, we haven’t really reinvented the organization (as telecommuting and outsourcing have been common for at least a couple of decades), education, health care, or ownership. We’ve simply redefined management and, in some cases, who foots the bill. I’d like to see some fundamentally new big ideas, but these are looking more unlikely by the day.