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Thought leaders and Ted Talks.


THE CHARACTER OF the public intellectual and his ostensible decline and death has preoccupied critics, writers, and academics for the better part of the last century. It is common to the point of being tedious to hear writers mourning the loss of the politically engaged, independently employed (or unemployed) literary and cultural critic—and to hear them mourning the loss of a public that could be bothered to read such a critic.

The American NoteIt seems that now, however, a new character is rising to prominence, either inheriting or usurping the role of the public intellectual, depending on your perspective: the so-called thought leader. It’s a newly popular term, though it has apparently been used in its current sense for at least the last two decades. Google N-Gram, which searches its entire digitized corpus for words and plots their relative frequency over time, shows the phrase in use since 1951 (0.0000000181% of the corpus) and steadily increasing since 1990 to an all-time high in 2008 (0.0000000867%), when the Google corpus ends. Though those numbers may seem absurdly small, notice the 379% increase. And from the 4,740,000 results that appear when “thought leader” is entered into Google, one could hazard a guess that its use has only continued to rise.

So, if they’ve become so popular, what is a thought leader, and how do they differ from the “public intellectuals” of previous decades? The names certainly suggest that they might fill a similar role in society. Here we might turn to Antonio Gramsci for some clarity. He writes,

Every social group, coming into existence on the original terrain of an essential function in the world of economic production, creates together with itself, organically, one or more strata of intellectuals which give it homogeneity and an awareness of its own function not only in the economic but also in the social and political fields.”

Thought leaders have come into being to justify and make sense of this class of entrepreneurs and the culture they have created.

To adopt Gramsci’s framework, then, we might describe thought leaders as the organic intellectuals of the tech industry, that sprawling universe centered on Silicon Valley of massive corporations and billion-dollar start-ups. Thought leaders have come into being to justify and make sense of this class of entrepreneurs and the culture they have created.

And at first glance, they seem nicely to fill the void left by the supposedly extinct species of the public intellectual. Many of us seem just to assume that, with a title like theirs, they must represent some sort of natural development of the intellectual, just as say, streaming videos is a “natural development” of watching movies.

But the extent to which they are an outgrowth of the tech industry ought to alert us to the falsity of that assumption. Public intellectuals (not that any one of them would have dared to adopt that title on their own) grew out of the literary and artistic circles in major cultural centers—New York, San Francisco, Boston, Paris. Those circles, regardless of whether they tilted toward the bohemian, the political, or the academic, put enormous emphasis on being well-read and well-informed; in order to be part of the “in group,” one had to be at home among the art, politics, and literature around which those circles revolved. To participate, all members had to be thoroughly versed in the intellectual tradition in which they strove to participate.

That intellectual tradition was one that existed on the margins; as writers, editors, and professors, they did all that they could to remain independent of political and economic interests so that they might be free to criticize, applaud, or question anything that seemed to them interesting and important. No book, art show, political development, or intellectual trend was beyond the scope of their writing. Their criticism invariably drew on their understanding of the past and of the work of past thinkers; they did their part to continue an intergenerational conversation about the world we live in and the nature of its inhabitants. To a very considerable degree, they refrained from offering solutions—theirs was a vocation of examination and analysis above all else.

The archetypal public intellectual, then, stands in stark contrast to the thought leader, who exists as a central player in the tech industry, a useful and potentially even necessary part of all the growing and buying and selling of companies and products. The thought leader is an insider far more than an outsider; she is not and cannot be free or critical the way the adversarial intellectual was.

This world in which the thought leader is enmeshed is a unique one, different from the cultures created by past industry booms like railroads or oil. For unlike those, tech thrives on what we might call the “start-up culture,” in which anyone can raise enough money to start a company that sells previously unheard-of products, in which huge potential and massive disruption are two sides of the same coin, in which the future looms larger than any present or past reality.

IT IS NOT hard to understand how the social-cultural logic that would arise out of the tech industry, with its emphasis on the potential of the individual, the disregard for the collective, and the all-consuming importance of The Future, would manifest itself as the “self-help culture” that has become so pervasive in recent years. This “doctrine of personal optimization,” as it has been called, holds out the tantalizing idea that one can live a perfect life—one can be perfectly healthy, fit, happy, and fulfilled—and that any failure to live that life is an entirely personal failure. You alone are to blame for the challenges in your life, for sadness, for ill-health, for financial trouble, but also: you are fully capable of designing and executing a perfect life, and you alone deserve credit for that success.

If the natural intellectual culmination of the tech industry’s driving forces is self-help culture, then it is inevitably the work of thought-leaders, the “organic intellectuals” of the industry, to develop and tend to that culture. It is appropriate that “one of his generation’s most provocative thought leaders” is Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist who is, according to his own website, “a leading expert on how we can find motivation and meaning, and live more generous and creative lives.” In other words, he is one of our great public minds, and his work is largely focused on the internal life of the individual rather than on the state of the world, on how to optimize the value of a friendship or a hiring decision rather than on the collective good. His combination of self-help subject matter backed up by social psychology and design and engineering logic (and terminology) is typical of thought leaders’ work. Not surprisingly, this is alluring stuff: with the respectability of science and engineering and the gratifying egocentricity of self-help, thought leaders’ work feels powerful, relevant, and accessible.

Equally unsurprising, but somehow more unnerving, is that becoming a thought leader is a popular and apparently viable career goal. Witness young Monique’s letter to a Forbes columnist:

Dear Liz,
I want to be you when I grow up. I want to be a thought leader and share ideas with the world. How do I begin?

Everyone can be a thought leader, so long as they have the right product to sell and the right strategy in place.

Based on the sheer volume of thought leadership labs and workshops and conferences listed on the internet, Monique is not alone. Indeed, it fits the Silicon Valley start-up ethos perfectly: everyone can be a thought leader, so long as they have the right product to sell and the right strategy in place. In Liz’s response to her young admirer, reading, research and history provide no necessary function to the aspiring thought leader, whose focus is entirely on generating and distributing “unique” ideas. The work that we associate with a life of the mind—reading, studying, debating, asking, striving to meet standards—these have no place here. Perhaps the intellectual tradition is just one more system to disrupt, or perhaps it just seems too distant from the lives of contemporary individuals to be worthy of consideration.

And so we come at last to the Cambridge Dictionary definition of “thought leader”: “an expert on a particular subject whose ideas and opinions influence other people, especially in business.” And we are left thinking, how peculiarly American it is that we welcome thought leaders, even as we heartily object to the elitism and remoteness of intellectuals (Cambridge: “a very educated person whose interests are studying and other activities that involve careful thinking and mental effort”). We don’t give as much value to history and literature, to study and work, to nuance and complexity as we do to confident calls to action and to the bluster of an enthusiastic “leader”—it’s the leader, not the thought, that we love in the thought leader, and the intellect that we hate in the intellectual. One might think that we’d balk at a self-proclaimed leader more than at a nonchalant thinker, but American anti-intellectualism runs deep, and American confidence (warranted or not) flows on.

Associate editor Chloë Hawkey studied American History and Latin at Columbia University. She lives in the San Francisco Bay area and works as a whitewater river guide on the Rogue river in the summer months. An archive of her Notes is here.

Note: A minor alteration to this text was made subsequent to publication to correct an editing error. —Ed.

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