Thursday, February 23rd, 2012
A programmer once built a vast database containing all the literature, facts, figures, and data in the world. Then he built an advanced querying system that linked that knowledge together, allowing him to wander through the database at will. Satisfied and pleased, he sat down before his computer to enjoy the fruits of his labor.
After three minutes, the programmer had a headache. After three hours, the programmer felt ill. After three days, the programmer destroyed his database. When asked why, he replied: “That system put the world at my fingertips. I could go anywhere, see anything. Because I was no longer limited by external conditions, I had no excuse for not knowing everything there is to know. I could neither sleep nor eat. All I could do was wander through the database. Now I can rest.”
— Geoffrey James, Computer Parables: Enlightenment in the Information Age
I was a major content consumer on the Internet. My Google Reader had over 120 feeds in it. It produced more than a 1000 new items every couple of hours. I religiously read Hacker News, Reddit and a variety of other high-volume sources of content. I have directories full of theoretical science papers, articles on a wide range of topics and many, many tech books. I scoured the web for interesting articles to save to my tablet for later reading. I was interested in everything. Programming, Computer Science, Biology, Theoretical Particle Physics, Psychology, rage-comics, and everything else. I could get lost for hours on Wikipedia, jumping from article to article, somehow, without noticing it, ending up at articles titled "Gross–Pitaevskii equation" or "Grand Duchy of Moscow", when all I needed to know was what the abbreviation "SCPD" stood for. (Which, by the way, Wikipedia doesn't have an article for, and means "Service Control Point Definition")
The things is: even though I was learning about stuff, it was superficial knowledge without context and the kind of basic information that allows you to draw these conclusions you're reading about for yourself, without the help of some article. I didn't pause to think about conclusions drawn in an article, or to let the information sink in. I read article after article. I wasn't putting the acquired knowledge into practice. The Learning Pyramid may have been discredited, but I'm convinced that we learn more from doing than we do from reading about something.
So what makes reading so attractive that we'd rather read about things than actually doing them? And I know for a fact that I'm not alone in having this problem. I think – and this might be entirely personal – it's because of a couple of reasons.
One is that it's much easier to read about something than to actually figure things out yourself. I want to experiment with sharding in NoSQL databases? I have to set up virtual machines, set up the software, write scripts to generate testing data, think about how to perform some experiments, and actually run them. Naturally I'd want to collect some data from those experiments; maybe reach a couple of conclusions even. That's a lot of work. It's much easier to just read about it. It's infinitely easier to stumble upon and read an article on "How to Really Get Things Done Using GettingThingsDone2.0 and Reverse Todo Lists" than it is to actually get something done.
The second reason, at least for me, is that it gives me the feeling that I'm learning more about things. In the time it takes me to set up all the stuff above, I could have read who-knows-how-many articles. And it's true in a sense. The information isn't useless per se. I'm learning more shallow knowledge about a lot of different things, versus in-depth knowledge about a few things. It gives me all kinds of cool ideas, things to do, stuff to try out. But I never get around to those things, because I'm always busy reading about something else!
So I have taken drastic measures.
I have removed close to 95% of my feeds from Google Reader. I've blocked access to Reddit and HackerNews so I'm not tempted to read the comments there. I check hackurls.com (an aggregator for Hacker News, Reddit's /r/programming and some other stuff) at most once a day. Anything interesting I see, I send to my tablet (at most two articles a day), which I only read on the train (where I don't have anything better to do anyway). I avoid Wikipedia like the plague.
I distinctly remember being without an Internet connection for about a month almost four years ago. It was the most productive time of my life since the Internet came around. I want to return to the times when the Internet was a resource for solving problems and doing research, not an interactive TV shoveling useless information into my head.
Now if you'll excuse me, I have an algorithm to write and a website to finish.