Thursday, April 12, 2012

Face to Face Big Ideas

This week, while I attend the Mobile 2012 conference, I am lucky to be able to take the light rail to the event each day, which gives me time to use one of my favorite apps, Read It Later, (is very similar to InstaPaper). In it, I save all the things that I want to read, but will probably forget about if I don't save them. Added bonus: it saves them in an offline mode so I can read them anytime (usually when I'm waiting on something). What I usually pair Read It Later with is the LongReads twitter feed. LongReads makes it its business to promote longer-form essays, which don't tend to be too popular in this day and age of two-paragraph news articles and 24 hour news tickers.

The essay I read today during my light rail ride was an opinion piece from the New York Times called "The Elusive Big Idea." It's main premise is that we're living in the Information Age, where we can know anything with Google, Wikipedia, etc. and where we can know everything about our friends through social media. However, there are very few big ideas or "big idea"-type people around anymore, and the ones that are around, aren't heard.

It makes excellent points about how social media especially leads us to focus on the short, distilled form of knowledge about a topic, rather than anything that deeply explores the ideas that can lead to new inspiration. The author quotes Yogi Berra who said that you can't think and hit at the same time. I have found this to be quite true at this conference (and conferences in general). When I sit and listen to a keynote, I rarely just sit and listen. Often I'm taking notes and tweeting quotes from the speaker throughout the process. While I'm glad I do this on some level, I'm fairly certain it doesn't encourage me to actually thoroughly digest the ideas that are being presented to me, because I'm too busy tweeting that fascinating statistic the speaker just mentioned, etc. In fact, the author of this article describes it as not just a form of distraction, but "anti-thinking."

However, I do draw encouragement from conferences like this, because it is an incubator of big ideas. One speaker yesterday quoted Steve Jobs, who is obviously a technology guru, as saying,
"There's a temptation in our networked age to think that ideas can be developed by email and iChat. That's crazy. Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions. You run into someone, you ask what they're doing, you say 'Wow,' and soon you're cooking up all sorts of ideas."
When we take time to sit down with other people and talk about how we go about doing things, and thoughts we've been pondering of how to make our teaching better, those big ideas can become real practices that can fundamentally change what we do. As the author states, "While social networking may enlarge one's circle and even introduce one to strangers, this is not the same as enlarging one's intellectual universe." I feel that gathering, idea-discussing, and brainstorming are the incubators of today's big ideas. In many ways, the face-to-face conference is from the last generation, but it serves a critical purpose for today. Direct contact is what inspires the big ideas of the future.

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