More Than You Can Chew

NOTE: This post was originally written in June of 2012.

Well, with the exception of attending the Buffalo Niagara International Antiquarian Book Fair with several dozen other dealers, I spent the month of May furiously working through the collection in my last blog post.

The result? I would be more than halfway done, but the consignor has added even more!

It got me thinking about the challenges we face in life, and how we approach them.

In this instance, my strategy was to divide and conquer – watch for the release of Part I of the collection as an e-list very soon. Looking at the scope of the collection, how much more work it will entail, and the fact that it won’t generate income for me until I start making it available for sale, this decision to release it in parts was essential.

Trying to offer it as one piece would be like drinking the ocean so I would never be thirsty again – not only am I incapable of doing it, even if I were, it just wouldn’t work. Better to take small gulps.

Now that got me thinking about the way we, as individuals, process information, and how that fits in with the way things are laid out these days. We live in the information age, so things should be pretty good, right?

Well, maybe not. It turns out that, though we are surrounded by information that is readily accessible, it is still very much an ocean. As individuals, we need this ocean split up into small, manageable chunks. We can’t digest a whole ocean at once. Now, you will probably say, “That’s what a search engine is for – it drills down to get what you need.”

Let’s say, for this discussion’s sake, that that’s true (though I would probably have some arguments counter to that belief). In order to use a search engine to get to that manageable chunk of information, I need to already have some information. I need to have a question, and I need to translate that question into a group of words that a search engine will understand.

If I am looking for a recipe for cheesecake, or directions to a local movie theater, that’s fairly straightforward. Even more complex questions are pretty easily answered (e.g., What caused World War I?; What is existentialism?).

I see two problems here. First, these answers aren’t gulps of information; they’re droplets. There’s a whole world in between the ocean and the droplets, and I want to be able to get at it. Second, what happens if I don’t know the information I need to get at an answer. Put a different way: What if I don’t know that I don’t know something?

Let’s start with the first problem – simple searches don’t get us to manageable chunks of complex information. It turns out, that’s something that computers and the internet still just aren’t that great at. If you do manage to find a well-researched, capably-written response that goes deeper than a trivia-show-length Q&A, you’ve probably located either an online article, or an excerpt from a book.

Which brings me to problem two: what if I can’t find that article, or that excerpt, because I can’t generate the magic sequence of keywords to bring it up as a search result? Or what if I am ignorant of my own ignorance, and never do a search in the first place? I am a better search engine user than many, in my opinion, but I often give up when I am unable to quickly generate useful results. And I’m fairly sure an internet search for ‘What don’t I know?’ would be vague enough that we’d just end up with the ocean again.

So what does this mean? It means that we are faced with an unlimited amount of knowledge, to which our access is limited based on how much we already know. What’s worse, the way search engines work is designed around what you’ve already done, what you’ve already searched, but in a way that returns sameness, that repeats your previous experience, not in a way that adapts to show you new things.

Instead of playing the role of teacher, the internet as viewed through a search engine is the consummate yes man. It will lead you to pages that affirm what you already think, sell what you’ve already bought, and encourage what you already do.

So what is the alternative? My answer: Read books. Now, you might say, “Certainly there are books that do the same thing.” And you’d be right.

My new answer: Read old books. Ones that have stood the test of time. Read works by authors whose names we still remember, though they lived decades or centuries ago. Read Dickens. Hugo. Tolstoy. Read Plutarch. Marcus Aurelius. Plato. Darwin. Rousseau. Dostoevsky.

And when you read them, don’t look for answers to specific questions. Learn. You’ll realize the questions they’ve answered were ones you hadn’t thought to ask yet. And eventually you’ll realize that, though you came to the ocean hoping to understand a few things and move along, now…. now you can swim.

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Published in: on June 24, 2013 at 11:40 AM  Leave a Comment  
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