I was curating my Google Reader feed this eve. Chalk it up to Nicholas Carr’s book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, which I’m three-forths into. He’s got me meditating not only on the mediums through which I consume (and create) information, but on the information itself. So I’ve made it a point to periodically audit my diet, to ask:
-Is the information I’m consuming advancing my goals? Goals be damned, am I getting enough pleasure out of reading?
-What topics am I getting none, too little, enough, or not enough of?
-What are my subscriptions, sources? Blogs, papers, mags, Twits, YouTube Channels?
-How am I discovering new sources and content? Word of mouth, links, HN, Reddit, etc?
-What books have I read? Am I reading? Should I be reading? In what order?
-Am I balancing the old with the new? The tested with the trendy? The pithy with the profound? The how to with the what?
-Through what mediums am I getting information? Conversation? RSS? Book? Audiobook? Ebook? YouTube? TV?
-What are people around me reading? What are people far away from me reading?
-Am I reading too much?
Now, I happen to believe behavior can turn on a phrase, and I think it’s healthy to conceive of information intake as a “diet”. The metaphor connotes a “balanced diet” and “going on a diet”. I strive for balance because I’m looking to “grasp” reality, from the proverbial 30,000 feet. But it’s also a nod to nuance and moderation; a hatred of extremism, group-think, and reactionaries; and a deep skepticism of recommendation algorithms and bespoke search.
Four years ago I was still getting the WSJ and the FT on my doorstep. The content I consumed was professionally curated and I inbibed it linearly, page by page, making it more likely that I’d get a variety of topics and, arguably, facts rather than fiction, relevance rather than trivia. Now I do most of my reading digitally. Hyperlinks encourage cherrypicking and crowdsourcing exposes the popular, and recommendation algorithms and bespoke search reinforce rather than challenge my beliefs (a point elegantly made by Eli Pariser in his TEDTalk, “Beware online ‘filter bubbles'”).
Similarly, the new Facebook subscription algorithm–which divides a friend’s status updates into “all”, “most”, and “only important”–limits the information you see.* To understand how this harms you, you should read Mark Granovetter’s seminal 1973 paper “The Strength of Weak Ties”. Granovetter demonstrated that new information is more likely to reach us through aquaintances–our “weak” ties–than through friends. This is because friends tend to belong to circles, within which they recycle information. And so Facebook–which likely calculates the number of shared friends when choosing a default subscription–will tend to feed you and your bubble the same gruel, repeatedly. This is bad enough for the individual. But when half the US population is on Facebook, what is the effect on the body politic?
What we need is a contradiction engine–a site that regularly serves up (intelligent) content that disagrees with you. For unless you actively seek out contradiction, by dint of education and temperament, you no longer get it.
Which brings me to my other point, that of going on a diet. Einstein put it best: “Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking.”
Time to turn off the machine, close the books, and fast. Goodnight.
*Which recalls a funny anecdote about some students who thought that FB was a site for Christian teens!
**The other night I was reading through commenters’ book recommendations on Fred Wilson’s post. This is a smart crowd. But even among the intelligent and educated, the herd instinct runs strong; the number of times I counted Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow–a book on my list–made me “pause and reflect” at the prospect of finding myself “on the side of the majority”. Good company to be in but: “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.” (Murakami)