James Harkin suggests that big, serious-sounding ideas that are simple enough to be clearly expressed in several paragraphs are fashionable in the global market, as manifested by the spread of ideas-based books such as Freakonomics and the proliferation of ideas professionals such as think-tanks and trend forecasters. Capitalising on this, his Big Ideas presents, alphabetically, 72 entries on what Harkin thinks society sees as the "big ideas" of contemporary life.
He summarises each big idea, usually with reference to a book, journal article or, at the very least, to a social trend noted in a newspaper. Importantly, each time he ends by debunking the big idea in question, often in an entertaining way.
While the book could be criticised for its surface and poorly evidenced expositions and refutations, that would be to miss the point and indeed its very appeal.
The book's stated aim is to present a coherent snapshot of the contemporary world and its ideas of itself. As such, it is a pleasant and enlightening read for every academic with an interest in social trends who has not had time to read all the interesting books on concepts such as crowd-sourcing, the economy of prestige and the Long Tail.
While Harkin, in his introduction, lauds the spread of good big ideas from academic discipline to discipline, his repertoire is largely drawn from political economy or marketing. From political economy, concepts revolve around the themes of citizen engagement, collective action and distribution of resources. From marketing, recurring themes are spin, advertising, branding and consumerism.
Maximising its appeal to an interdisciplinary market, this book requires no prior knowledge of such themes or concepts, as Harkin offers an easy explanation of all those he relates. Given that many of the big ideas are drawn from social trends observable in the media, and/or noted by the media, media examples proliferate, either as big ideas in themselves or as examples of the big ideas.
Let's look at Harkin's treatment of topics beginning with "p". Here, the only concept directly about the media is peer-to-peer surveillance. Most of the other concepts come from marketing (pre-inheritance, playtime and protirement) or political economy (precautionary principle, positive liberty, pension-fund capitalism, the paradox of choice), with some political economy concepts exemplified with media examples (philanthrocapitalism, mentioning the television show The Secret Millionaire and public value, focusing on the BBC).
Whether the book is really about big ideas is debatable, as in progressing from definition to definition one often feels that one is really reading a popular explanation of social categories used by marketing organisations (generation gap, regretful loners, yeppies, curation nation and so on). However, there are enough political economy concepts to raise this book above the level of a good magazine read.
Vian Bakir is senior lecturer in media and communications, University of Glamorgan
Big Ideas: The Essential Guide to the Latest Thinking
By James Harkin
Published 1 February 2008