What does it mean to be a “libertarian paternalist” or a “transhumanist”? What is it like to live in an “experience economy”? When people murmur knowingly about something called “the wisdom of crowds”, what are they talking about? Is there really a “tipping point” in every field of human endeavour and, if so, where does it come from and how does it work?
Ideas are all the rage. Good ideas have always been contagious, but thanks to the internet and the increasingly globalised media, they are now making their way around the world almost as soon as they are invented. As this new market for ideas begins to settle, something else has become clear too – America is way out in front. If distinctively European thinkers such as Isaiah Berlin and émigrés from Europe to America such as Hannah Arendt had dominated the battleground of ideas during the age of ideology (defined, by the British historian Eric Hobsbawm, as the years between the first world war and the fall of the Berlin Wall), one of the oddities of this new landscape of ideas is that Americans seem to be much better at generating them. There are still some heavyweights around in Europe with novel things to say – Jürgen Habermas in Germany and Slavoj Zizek in Slovenia, for example – but they are few and far between. When France’s Jean Baudrillard died in March last year, at the age of 77, it seemed to signify the close of an intellectual era. In any case, Baudrillard was canny enough to know which way the intellectual wind blew. For all his criticism of American culture, he was enchanted by this place he called “the original version of modernity”. France, he pointed out, was nothing more than “a copy with subtitles”.
So why has the centre of gravitas shifted towards America? One reason is the deep pockets of America’s universities, the resources and reputations of which are able to attract the world’s best thinkers and afford them the time to cogitate and write at their leisure. Awash with money from wealthy charitable foundations, America’s think- tanks are a case in point. In 2003, for example, Charles Murray, the controversial American libertarian think-tanker and fellow of the American Enterprise Institute, published a book called Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800BC to 1950, a huge tome in which he tried to rank the top 4,000 thinkers in human history. Leave aside the eccentricities of Mr Murray’s project for a moment and feel its width. Can anyone imagine a think-tank in Europe – most of them slaves to the threadbare pockets and narrow horizons of corporate public affairs departments – with the resources and the confidence to allow one of its scholars to spend five years on a project as unashamedly intellectual as this?
However, America’s dominance in the new global landscape of ideas is not only a matter of resources. Americans have also become expert packagers of ideas. American writers and thinkers seem to have acquired the knack of explaining complex ideas in accessible ways for popular audiences. The success of idea books such as The Tipping Point and Freakonomics and a rather depressing glut of books about happiness has signified to cultural commissars a thirst for good ideas clearly expressed. It helps that journalism in America is taken more seriously than it is in most other countries; its newspapers and magazines have been happy to whet the public appetite for interesting ideas, clearly articulated. The New Yorker, buoyed by staff writers such as Malcolm Gladwell, James Surowiecki and Louis Menand, has developed a reputation for helping to explain complex ideas to a lay audience. In 2000, The New York Times even inaugurated an annual “ideas of the year” supplement, handing out gongs to the best new ideas around the world.
Assaulted by this battery of sometimes flaky new ideas, it would be easy for European thinkers to sit back and sniff. Some of it is mere gimmickry – zappy headline titles that seem to capture the essence of a complicated idea while intriguing the reader enough to read more. Unlike many European philosophers and social scientists, however, the new idea-makers lack verbosity or obscurantism and do not retreat into jargon. A country that controls the market for ideas, remember, has its levers on a great deal else besides. Europeans thinkers, who were so formidable at producing practical ideas during the age of ideology, need to think about catching up.