Ideas 2011 July/August 2011

The 14 Biggest Ideas of the Year

A guide to the intellectual trends that, for better or worse, are shaping America right now. (Plus a bunch of other ideas, insights, hypotheses, and provocations.)

13. The Maniac Will Be Televised

Walter Kirn
Author of
Up in the Air and Lost in the Meritocracy

In a news year dominated by manic ranters, from Charlie Sheen to Donald Trump to the Rent Is Too Damn High guy (and even, on the extreme end, Colonel Qaddafi), we are quickly learning that agitation pays when it comes to maintaining a high profile in our seething media environment. If the old advice to electronic communicators was to speak in sound bites and keep things simple, to cut through the noise by being straightforward and countering confusion with consistency, the new winning strategy is the opposite: embrace incoherence and become the noise. The cool self-control that was once considered the soul of telegenic behavior has been turned inside out, and the traits that people used to suppress when they appeared on television—the contortions and tics—are now the best way to engage an audience. Attention-deficit disorder, remember, responds to stimulants, not sedatives.

Sheen was the spilled beaker in the laboratory who proved that in an age of racing connectivity, a cokehead can be a calming presence. His branching, dopamine-flooded neural pathways mirrored those of the Internet itself, and his lips moved at the speed of a Cisco router, creating a perfect merger of form and function. Trump, though his affect is slower and less sloppy, also showed mastery of the Networked Now by speaking chiefly in paranoid innuendo. The Web, after all, is not a web of truths; its very infrastructure is gossip-shaped. The genius of Sheen and Trump and other mediapaths (Michele Bachmann belongs on this list too) is that they seem to understand, intuitively, that the electronic brain of the new media has an affinity for suspicious minds.

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