This post parallels Piketty with new media personalities, arguing the current social context has created a cultural space for them to become "iconic thinkers". It is less about Piketty, and more about the social response to his book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century.
"Turbulences of liminal time, be it social upheaval, cultural crisis or scientific paradigm shift, are conducive to the creation of cultural space without which iconicity of intellectual pursuits are unlikely... They emerge as icons within a specific constellation of relevant dialogues in the climate of particular idea- tional, emotional and normative expectations."
-- Dominik Bartmanski: "How to become an iconic social thinker: The intellectual pursuits of Malinowski and Foucault"
In the above quote, Bartmanski analyses the social context in which a particular thinker can become iconic. While his focus is within sociology, the construct is true across fields. Most recently, this can be seen in the sudden popularity of Piketty's book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which has had much critical acclaim. Yet, the basic theories of the book: rising global wealth inequality, the need for a global tax, are not in of themselves new concepts. So why are noted economists giving plaudits, and suggested the work has transformed our economic discourse such that "we’ll never talk about wealth and inequality the same way." It seems to be less about the work (which I have yet to read, but is no doubt superb) and more about the cultural space we find ourselves in. Piketty gave words to what people are feeling, and portrayed the trends people are seeing.
This same understanding is relevant to big name branded journalists and their organisational counterparts. Wonks have stepped in and are gaining support as they try to deal with modern upheavals. Upheavals, plural, as these individuals come face to face with both a (1) macro change in the social changes following the financial crises and (2) a micro change in the industry upheaval occurring as news media faces digital disruption. It means these individuals are looked at as saviours in both realms (or rather, they have the potential to be seen as such).
Some of these organisations will survive, and some will not. While there has been some concern over a wonk bubble - indeed, the number of outlets for these big brand journalists seems to be increasing almost exponentially - "bubble" implies a pop. Yet, fizzle seems more appropriate. Felix Salmon writes that "supply creates its own demand, which creates more supply, and so on, in a virtuous cycle". These wonks are contributing to the upheaval and therefor the context in which one, or some, of these wonks may achieve greatness. It is also possible, as Salmon points out, that each wonk's unique selling point (and that of their associated organisation) will be incorporated into larger media products such that each will cease to exist as separate entity.
"When an author’s work has staying power beyond its immediate context, something intriguing happens." According to Bartmanski, that something is the "iconization of intellectual pursuit". Piketty is well placed for this with regards to political economy. In media, the social and industry contexts currently in play means there is an opportunity to be more than just a wonk, but also an icon.
*There are a number of new media personalities that fall into the wonk category, including Ezra Klein at Vox.com, Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight.com, Glenn Greenwald at The Intercept, Kara Swisher & Walt Mossberg at Re/Code, Bill Keller at The Marshall Project, and more. While some consider the explanatory and focus on data journalism (as is the case with Klein and Silver) to be the main method of new media wonk identification, I would argue to extend the definition to those individuals looking at topics across new media, but with a unique content focus or methodology distinct from traditional media.
- Review: Forces of Divergence (John Cassidy, The New Yorker)
- Review: Why we're in a new gilded age (Krugman, The New York Review of Books)
- Ten questions for Thomas Piketty, the economist who exposed capitalism’s fatal flaw (Quartz)
- Is there a wonk bubble? (Felix Salmon, Politico Magazine)