Much is made of the proliferation of information due to Web 2.0 technology and user generated content. However, this trend may be part of a larger trend which defines our era. Lee Siegel, a critic for the New Republic, reviewed Peter Gay's new book Modernism in The New York Times Book Review last Sunday and said in conclusion:
"We have exhausted Romantic individualism, and we have twisted the uniquely individual modernist escape from the self into "self expression". Expression is everywhere nowadays, but true art has grown indistinct and indefinable. We seem now to be living in a world where everyone has artistic temperament--emotive and touchy, cold and self-obsessed--yet few people have the artistic gift.
What Siegel is saying, in part, is that Web 2.0 is another manifestation of Modernism, that period in intellectual history (art, literature, music, architecture, etc.) which began in the late 19th century. However, Modernism has lost sight of true art and the quality associated with it. (There is a business point here, but you will have to be patient.) I would go a step further and say we have also lost sight of the value of public intellectualism.
Public intellectualism, which I would define as the public interest and support for new ideas and contributions in the arts and sciences, has been lost in part due to our addiction for fast, easy to understand cable news snippets and our willingness to accept unqualified pundits as satisfactory commentators regardless of the gravity of the matter. Part of this abandonment of public intellectualism is attributable to the declining market share of newspapers. Rather than attributing this decline to the growth of the Internet, I believe that the newspapers erroneous decision to compete with cable news has been their undoing. Newspapers historically succeeded because they provided information not easily found elsewhere, albeit somewhat esoteric, such as coverage of chess tournaments, architecture or new scientific discoveries. With an increasing part of their budget devoted to generating instant news, newspaper coverage was reduced for the specialized information that actually attracted readers.
Another example of the decline of public intellectualism is the low respect we give intellectuals today compared with previous periods in history. For example, Charles Dickens and H.L. Mencken were icons in their period, but we have opted to idolize movie stars, professional athletes and the likes of Pat Buchanan and Larry King.
Perhaps the third example of the decline of public intellectualism is the lack of a robust, public debate as Washington rolled back our civil liberties in the last few years. Perhaps it happened because of what Siegel calls our self-obsession, and the 2008 elections may in part be a referendum on the acts of the current administration, but the depth of debate on civil liberties has been shockingly thin.
Two news items may suggest a subtle reversal in the abandonment of public intellectualism, and therein lies the new business opportunity:
- Insidehighered.com ran a recent story on the American-Statesman, an Austin, TX newspaper, which is launching a column to review university-press titles by academics. Few publications review academic texts and Austin is the home of several universities including the University of Texas
- The New York Times reviewed Lapham's Quarterly, a new publication edited by Lewis H. Lapham, the former Editor of Harper's Magazine. This publication devotes each issue to a single subject, but in an interesting approach they provide both historical writings and current thoughts on the subject (think Plato, David Hume and Thurgood Marshall on democracy).
What these two examples may portend is a subtle strengthening in public intellectualism and a move back toward the quality and art that Siegel finds currently missing. Public intellectualism and its inherent art and quality can not be abandoned, for if so, we forego critical thinking which is the foundation of democracy, capitalism and the arts.
Providing a quality, intellectual experience may now be an under served need and the basis for a new business. While information is proliferating, little has been done to organize it where quality is the selection criterion or where analysis puts it in a larger intellectual context. Imagine an RSS feed reader that provided posts of your favorite writers but only on subjects where you think the writer is qualified and relevant. Another example is perhaps a search engine that includes historical references on the searched subject (search for democracy and find an easy to use link to David Hume's writings).
A third example comes from the New York Times on Monday. The NYT reviewed a beta site called Big Think, which targets "thinking people" and looks to generate debate between its users and experts in the fields of academia, business, politics, science and art. Your participation in the debate can take the form of video, audio, slide shows or text.
Marc Andreessen's recent post on the number of Ning networks dedicated to education and the arts is possibly another example or at least supporting evidence. Public intellectualism will rebound and quality in the arts will return and this will provide new opportunities to start businesses.
If this post prompts you to do a little more research on this topic or any other, you may want to check out Zotero. Zotero is del.icio.us on steroids and designed for serious online researchers. (It only works with Firefox).