I could get a book deal with a big New York trade publisher.
This is what I had to do. First, I needed to have a platform. A platform is something you stand on. It makes you taller than you are. In trade publishing, a platform is the same, but it’s a prestigious brand. I had two: from a trade editor’s point of view, I had been a “professor” at the big university and a “writer” at the big magazine. Second, I needed a big idea. A big idea is an enthusiastically stated thesis, usually taking the form of “This changes everything and will make you rich, happy, and beautiful.” A big idea must be counterintuitive: the this that changes everything must be something everyone thinks is trivial, but in fact matters a great deal. In my case, the this had to be Wikipedia, so my big idea was “Wikipedia changes everything.” I had done no research to substantiate such a claim. Third, I needed a catchphrase title like The Wisdom of Crowds, The Tipping Point, or The Long Tail. The title had to be the kind of thing that becomes a cliché.I was going to describe this as revealing, but it pretty much just confirms what I already thought. Poe concludes:
I couldn’t write a big-idea book, because, as it turned out, I didn’t believe in big ideas. By my lights, they almost had to be wrong. Years of academic research taught me two things. First, reality is as complicated as it is, not as complicated as we want it to be. Some phenomena have an irreducible complexity that will defeat any big-idea effort at simplification. Detailed research has, not surprisingly, cast doubt on the reality of wise crowds, tipping points, and long tails. Second, most of the easy big questions about the way the world works have been answered. The questions that remain are really hard. Big ideas, then, can only reinvent the wheel or make magical claims.My first reaction was to feel contempt for the people who sell these big ideas, but maybe the people who buy them are more of a problem. These, after all, are in some sense the intellectuals of our society. Not the leading intellectuals, mostly, of course, but the people who buy books and take an interest in ideas. If what goes over best with them is ideas that are almost guaranteed to be false then there is a problem with our intellectual life, with our culture. (This problem, of course, might be no worse now than ever before.) Perhaps that goes without saying, but it makes me wonder about the value of democracy. Perhaps that kind of questioning is also just obviously called for, or already too late. But then what?
One thing that might help would be a reduction in the power of individuals like Rupert Murdoch to wield so much influence over how people think. But it's not hard to imagine the media being dominated by multiple people who all think along the same lines as Murdoch. There aren't that many people rich enough to be media moguls who are politically neutral or who think the rich have too much power. Strengthening disinterested news sources, e.g. PBS and NPR, might help, but I don't know how likely this is to happen, and it will never be a solution in itself.
Two other things that occur to me I associate with Martha Nussbaum, no doubt partly because I'm currently reading her Creating Capabilities. The first would be to guarantee the provision of certain basic capabilities or rights, so that these would be protected no matter what crazy people got elected. This would limit the damage that could be done by rule of the stupid by the stupid.
The other is Nussbaum's idea (which, of course, she shares with others) of educating people for citizenship by teaching them things like philosophy and thus developing their critical thinking skills (among much else, no doubt). This seems idealistic in both the good and the bad sense. It's worthy and admirably optimistic, but it also seems unlikely to work. Partly because some very powerful people would surely not want it to work. If an educated electorate started electing people other than those who are currently paid for by the power elite then this elite would do something, surely, to stop them.
I feel as though, in thinking all this (or thinking there is a need for the capabilities part of it, at least), I'm being elitist and anti-democratic, neither of which sounds or feels good. So it would be nice to see some alternative. But I'm not sure I do right now.