The Post-Idea World

Robert Rowland Smith argues that the “Age of Ideas” has reached its peak. So what comes next?

What fool would suggest that an idea is a bad thing? They take up no space, are completely inexhaustible, and cost absolutely nothing. Everything is driven by ideas. We come up with them, discuss them, consider them, put them into practice. People say “I don’t think that’s a good idea” or “you get the idea” or “don’t give him any ideas!” We can be open to ideas or not open to ideas. We can also have no idea.

But it’s a TED world now, and with the outbreak of innovation centers and businesses peddling ideas as if they were the products themselves (see GE’s “Ideas Are Scary” or the BMW i8’s “Powerful Idea” commercial), have we begun to overrate or even fetishize them?

That’s the argument of Robert Rowland Smith, author of Breakfast with Socrates and Driving with Plato , who claims that we cherish ideas to the point that we ignore other, more intuitive forms of knowing. Are we using ideas as a coping mechanism? Do ideas blind us to reality? Is the Age of Ideas coming to an end?

AR — I’d like to pick up on a talk you recently gave on the idea of being “post-ideas.” We work in an industry where ideas are held in high esteem, but at the RSA you took ideas to task for being overrated. I was wondering if you could elaborate.

Robert — I think you're right in saying that everybody’s after ideas these days, in one form or another. But it’s worth putting it in historical context. This is a massive generalization, but one way of doing that is to frame this obsession with ideas that we have at the moment in terms of an Age of Ideas. To put it very crudely, if we think about the earlier part of the 20th century, and stretching back into the Industrial Revolution, as being an Age of Reason, then the Age of Ideas that comes after that in the 20th century is, in part, a way of reacting against reason. Reason was seen to be too mechanical, too efficient, and in some cases, led to extreme forms of rationalism.

There are some very vivid examples of that, in manufacturing processes and in hyper-efficiency, for example. Even in forms of fascism. But if you want to go less extreme than that, it also appears in forms of advanced bureaucracy. That is a bit of context, there, of why we think ideas are so great.

And I think the reason I’m suggesting the Age of Ideas has peaked, or is beginning to reach some sort of expiry date, is that, because of digital media and so on, ideas are now so easily replicable that their scarcity value is significantly decreased. No sooner does somebody have an idea than it's tweeted or published on YouTube or disseminated around the globe. It is instantly consumed. So ideas essentially have become another form of rapidly consumed entertainment.

Secondly, if you think about the production of ideas, they typically get generated—outside at least of the scientific context—in forms like brainstorming. It's a very common way of producing ideas, and ideas are one of the main currencies of creative agencies. The issue I have with brainstorming is that, rather than creating new ideas, they tend to replicate existing ones. Say you invited people in after this interview, into your office, and said, "You know what, guys? Let's have a brainstorm for Issue 4 of The Alpine Review," the chances are, brainstorming will automatically name-check ideas that are current in the climate—like the digital, social media, viral, scaling, gaming, curating. What we think of as idea creation is often idea re-creation. It is a reinstituting or a confirming of the existing ideas-world out there.

For me, those are two of the main reasons why ideas are coming to an end. In terms of what’s replacing them, we are becoming more aware of other faculties that we have—physical faculties, somatic faculties—which are beyond idea generation. Powers of intuition, gut feeling and so on.

You said that the Age of Ideas emerged in response to the Age of Reason, but I’m wondering how ideas could oppose themselves to reason. Reason, I feel, is usually held in opposition to emotion, and ideas, if anything, would fall on the reason side of that distinction, no?

I guess the main difference is that reason has always been connected with form and discipline. An “architectonic” reason would be a system of categories or structures that logic, to take one form of reason, would then follow. If you wanted to talk about the philosophical tradition, Immanuel Kant would be the person to reference here because, for him, reason literally takes the form of an architecture, or what he calls an “architectonic,” with almost a floor plan that you can follow, a decision tree. Whereas, I suppose, ideas have always been thought to have been free of formal constraint. You can have ideas that will organically move in different directions, so it is the difference between a fixed structure, if you like, on the side of reason, and unknown, unpredictable, meandering organic structure or non-structure on the side of ideas. I guess that is why I would oppose reason and ideas.

Reason is supposed to be a publicly shared discourse. There is no such thing, really, as private reason. Otherwise it would be irrational. Whereas ideas are allowed to be personal, creative, individual, singular, and that is exactly what gives them free rein to diverge from reason, understood as a publicly-agreed set of rules or codes that will encourage people to conform to it. Reason comes with convention, if you like, whereas ideas are supposed to be able to break free of convention—although I believe in their current form, ideas do anything but that. They tend to reinforce convention.

Where would you place thought, or thinking, among these terms?

Thinking is an activity, whereas ideas and reason are products of that activity. So in a certain sense, you’re talking about apples and pears there. I don't think that thinking is of the same order as ideas or reason. It’s a process by which either is produced.

The problem with thinking, in my view, is that it tends to be too cognitive. It tends to be in the head, whereas if you talk about intelligence, then there are the sites of intelligence. For example, our body is a site of intelligence because we can read situations in a room, with our body, often more accurately than we can read situations in a room with our head. That’s why we feel nervous, for example, when we are walking in to give a presentation, or excited when we’re going to meet a lover or whatever it might be. Our body is as intelligent a reader of the world as our minds are, sometimes more intelligent because there aren't meta levels of processing going on, in the body, generally.

We experience these things without having a cognitive awareness of them, and yet we have a bodily awareness.

Exactly. One of the reasons why the Age of Ideas might be beginning to expire is precisely because, it seems to me, people are turning as much to physiological forms of understanding as much as cognitive forms of understanding. I think that that is partly because, as robots become more sophisticated, as digital technology becomes more sophisticated, human beings are recognizing that they can't compete with cognitive processing at the level produced by computers. What kind of faculties do we have that are special and different? What can we do that computers can't do? Computers don't have bodies. Right? We have an advantage. We have a way of reading the world that computers don't have.

So have ideas reached a state of commodification then? And if so—if there’s an increasing need to shift to other forms of understanding like gut and instinct and embodied knowledge—how do you think we can develop that kind of knowing? Is that even possible?

Yes, ideas are obviously becoming commoditized, and I think that the rise of TED Talks would be the most obvious example of that. People can't get enough of them. They’re packaged up into bite-sized ideas. If you think about university syllabuses as well these days, they are very much packaged around themes, takeaways and concepts. If you think about movements, I don't know if it's the same in Toronto, but certainly in London and Paris, you have an increasing number of forums for the presentation of ideas—the salons, places like The School of Life, festivals, where what people are consuming are ideas. Instead of going to the cinema and consuming a film, you will go along to a talk and consume an idea.

In terms of harnessing other forms of knowing, I am a practitioner of this technique called Constellations. It is a way of literally working with energy, body energy, in a group, which brings hidden dynamics to bear. You use bodily knowing in order to track what's going on in a given system, whether that is a family system or a business system or a social system. It’s hard to talk about because it sounds weird and cultish, frankly. So that is a very direct way of harnessing bodily knowledge, I suppose, or non-cognitive knowledge.

Of course, one of the ironies about bodily knowing is that it is less harnessable, whereas ideas can be codified, written down, passed on, transmitted and so on, and then have longevity. Bodily knowledge almost by its definition tends to be more transient and ephemeral. It is more difficult to harness, I think, more difficult to talk about. We are doing this under the guise of an interview for a magazine, which will be published as text—so automatically, we are in a medium which is cognitive. So there’s an irony in talking about the idea of non-ideas, in an ideas-based journal, isn't there?

Oh, absolutely. You also mentioned in your talk the fact that we’re saturated with reality. Similarly, Will Self talks about the idea of there being too much reality and Douglas Rushkoff in his book Present Shock talks about presentism and an overflow of reality. Are ideas to blame here?

I would make a distinction between reality and content. I think that there is an abundance of content, in terms of news feeds and so on, and in that sense we are saturated with content. I don't think that the exposure to reality increases with the exposure to content. For example, the more news you watch doesn't mean the more reality you're imbibing. Because I think that reality moves at a much slower pace than content does. What are the realities in the world at the moment? They’re not the same as what you will see in a news loop, on CNN or something. Realities are underlying structures that don't lend themselves to news, necessarily.

To come at it another way, take the idea of ISIS. Clearly, at a certain level, there is a reality to ISIS. But our way of speaking about ISIS clearly comes with a certain set of ideas. We have an idea about East and West, for example. We have ideas about radical versus non-radical. So in order to access the reality of ISIS, we are already going through several idea filters before that. So all of our reality in that sense is mediated by ideas, and those ideas are part of the content that we are always being bombarded with. I don't know, really, what the reality of ISIS is, and I think that it is very hard for us, any of us, in the West, to really talk about what the reality of ISIS is. I don't know. Content is different from reality. What are we really being exposed to, when we're being exposed to all this presentism? Part of it, it seems to me, is actually quite anesthetic. It actually has the opposite effect. It stops us from noticing the real, being with the real, in some way. I am not sure if the news gives us access to the real at all. If anything, I think that it probably blocks us from the real.

But even if ideas and content can close reality off to us, can we ever live without them? Could we ever see reality without the help of ideas—in an unfiltered, pure, or raw state?

I mentioned Kant earlier. Kant says that we can never see the thing-in-itself, but the structures we have for thinking about the world, what he calls reason, are a good enough proxy. We can never know reality, never ever ever, but we have reason, which gives us, in the Kantian view, a good enough sense of what reality might be. We can always have a pretty good speculative relationship to the real, according to Kant. Broadly speaking, that is the purpose of ideas. For example, with ISIS, we have an idea of radical Islam, for example. It may or may not be true, but it's good enough for us to have a working understanding. We can have an understanding, even if we can't have knowledge. I thoroughly agree with and broadly subscribe to that view. We have more understanding than we do knowledge, but understanding is a pragmatic way of dealing with the world. The downside of it, of course, is our understanding will vary.

The difference with what I call phenomenological knowing is that it is not mediated by ideas. It circumvents ideas. It comes through bodily awareness. It is like intuition. To that extent, the kind of knowledge that is provided is a... I hesitate to use the word purer, but it is a kind of purer knowledge. It is more immediate. The trouble is that, in the West, we find it very hard to go along with that because we are so invested in ideas-based frames of knowledge, or reason-based frames of knowledge.

It seems like bodily forms of understanding are more passive than cognitive ones. And I’m wondering, again, how that might be something that could be harnessed. There’s a paradox, a little bit, in trying not to try.

We have such a sense in the West of agency—that we can take control, have ideas, make things happen; that we are the authors of our own will, the generators of our own destiny. It is such a dominant underlying tenet of Western life. It goes together with the notion of freedom. You can't have a culture of freedom without some belief in agency.

Sometimes it seems to me that we get our best results when we cede agency. When we surrender a sense of agency, things often tend to flow better. Of course, it is much harder to preach a doctrine of letting things go, because what do you do with that? It is much easier to preach a doctrine of making things happen, but so many things are out of our control.

I was giving a talk yesterday at Google about leadership. If you think about the financial crash, in 2008, how many businesses in the year 2007 would have planned to lose all their revenues and close down? Probably not very many had developed a strategy of failure. Right? They were taken up in a wider system of macro-economic international forces. I have been working with a chief executive of this major company who was saying, "Actually, you should never manage for the top line because the top line is out of your control in business. The only thing you can really manage is the bottom line because you can control costs." Everything else is part of a macro-economic set of conflictual forces across the globe. It’s like the weather. You’ll never be able to steer the weather.

It is not exactly a counsel of despair, but it is a counsel of wondering whether there is also value in acknowledging the degree to which we are played rather than the degree to which we play.

And are ideas not a way of maybe coping with this absence of control?

Yeah, absolutely. I think that that is exactly right. They are a kind of frame. They are just a frame.

A word that we surprisingly have not used so far, in this interview, is innovation, which is another proxy. Everyone wants to innovate. What do you make of that? Is it also because we are trying to invent solutions for a world that has become more uncertain, that we want to make sense of the world we live in?

Yeah. Again, I think we have to be sensible about this. In the field of medicine, we want innovations to be able to treat HIV, to combat Ebola. In less scientific or medical contexts, I am not so sure. Again, it seems to me that part of the issue is that, when we think about innovation, in that non-scientific context, we tend to think about a collision of different perspectives. When we bring diversities together, we will have some sort of innovation. No doubt, that sometimes happens, but it seems to me, if you think about the real innovators in history, these aren't collaborators. These are individuals who worked in isolated circumstances, who turned inwards. It seems to me that innovation is much more about an inner process, or loss of process, whereby individuals expose themselves to compulsion. You certainly get it in the worlds of art and music.

People don't brainstorm a Bach cantata.

Take the music of Bach. It is highly compulsive music, but it comes from this spring which seems to either exist within him or within his version of the divine, whatever it is, but doesn't come out of the group. People don't brainstorm a Bach cantata.

Innovation in that case, again, comes from a sub-cognitive place, a place beneath or beyond cognition in some way.

It almost seems as if ideas are simply the result, the exhaust even, of a sub-cognitive experience. You make a piece of art from experience, maybe from feeling, and it’s only in hindsight that one says one had an “idea” that one wanted to express.

Yeah, exactly. One way of understanding this, I think, would be to think about the discourse of art criticism. If you think about the way art is written about, in galleries or newspapers, almost every art gallery you go to, you will see a caption on the wall as you walk in that says, "So-and-so's work explores the idea of…" Right? Or, “explores concepts of alienation or gender or man's relationship to nature.” You nearly always see some caption. You can insert the phrase, "explores whatever it is,” but in all cases we are invited to look at the artwork as though it were the illustration of a concept. Here is the painting or the installation, and over here is the idea of which this is the illustration.

What that seems to do, in my view, is precisely anesthetize us or even sterilize us from an encounter with the work because it is saying that you must have an ideas-based event.

But it seems to me, in my experience of art, yeah, there are ideas that I can take away about the artwork, and I can be thinking, oh, yeah, here is an exploration of technology or whatever it might be. But there is also something else going on in the experience of art, which is, if you want to put it in old money, you would put it in terms of the “sublime,” the romantic sublime.

You called the next age potentially the Age of Intuition. Is that still what you would call it?

Yeah. I mean, I hate the word.

[Laughs] I wonder, though, what kind of education system we are going to need to prepare the next generation of people operating in an Age of Intuition, or in a world beyond ideas. Because it seems we are caught in so many frameworks. It’s interesting to envision a world beyond ideas.

I think, in terms of education, it is actually much simpler than that. In this country, we have gone backwards in terms of education. If you think about where education was a generation ago, we have now gone back to more kids taking more exams, at a younger age, more and more testing. It is becoming more like a Japanese system. The opportunity for kids to develop emotionally, physically and so on, that has been cut back. Time for games, for sport, for emotional exploration, talking in a more open, unfettered way about the world, all of that time in the curriculum has been cut back.

We are invited to look at the artwork as though it were the illustration of a concept. Here is the painting or the installation, and over here is the idea of which this is the illustration.

In a certain sense, I think, it is just about more of that, more time for kids to play, more time for them to do sport, more time for them to talk about their feelings, more opportunity for them to have emotional tools, I suppose, to help them understand their world. Just a bit less math and science, certainly fewer tests. It is crazy, just crazy.

Of course, the way in which they are encouraged to understand literature, for example, is becoming more and more ideas-based. “This text is about this idea,” or “This Ted Hughes poem is about the rawness of nature." Nothing else.

Everything’s a symbol or an allusion.

Yeah. I mean, you can understand why, in a pedagogic context, you have to simplify things, but I am doing a little bit of work with an educational charity over here, trying to base schools much more in their community, get parents more involved, have kids talk about how they feel a bit more, the basic underlying premise being that people learn better when they are emotionally more stable. You make people more emotionally stable, make them feel like they belong, and they will be more open to learning. If kids are arriving at school without having had breakfast, without knowing where their mum is, their capacity to learn is significantly impacted. Those are all simple things, really.

Robert's thoughts were featured in all three issues of The Alpine Review. You can read our first interview with Robert titled "Imagination as a new currency" and his essay titled "Notes on the future of capitalism" from our second issue — AR

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