Weekly Pessimism: Carr’s Nightmare & Google’s Perfection

Of all the readings Carr’s piece really hit home. This specific problem has plagued me for years. I need my information delivered in bursts. I am totally addicted to the instant gratification that a smartphone and Google provides, and I have no more use for specifics. I skim almost everything I read. I’ll Google answers to questions I have while trying to fall asleep, even if that wakes me up again. I lack the patience for detail, in most cases I can’t even tolerate it.

It is an incredible disadvantage in graduate school. After all we’re supposed to read a few papers per day, right? I don’t think I’ve thoroughly read one in years, I usually skim my own proof-reading. So how am I supposed to finish a PhD, when the entire point is becoming an expert in the mundane details of one highly specific area. You can’t be a jack-of-all trades PhD who specializes in nothing. Honestly, I’ve been worried this lack of mental discipline would tank my career for years, yet I can’t fight it. In the middle of reading Carr’s piece I was truly hoping he’d offer some brilliant solution I hadn’t thought of, while simultaneously hoping he wrap it up soon, because come on dude it’s been like 15 paragraphs, cut to the chase…

Frighteningly, this piece was written in 2008, just a year after the first modern smart phone was released, and years before anything resembling modern social media. I would suspect the effect is even more profound today when Facebook is considered too detail heavy, and most of us have moved on to image sharing services and single sentence tweets. I suspect that no matter how pessimistic Carr was feeling as he typed out that article, he probably didn’t really comprehend how bad it would get for some.

I must admit that I am an addict myself, and the 2008 version of me would never have predicted how bad it would get. According to an app called Quality Time, which measures phone use, I unlock my phone about 300 times a day, and spend between 4-5 hours on it, with roughly 2/3rds of that on social media. Every day, I spend hours training myself to consume nothing but tidbits of novel information, without any substance at all. How could I expect to suddenly be able to read 15 pages about obscure spatial statistics.

What’s worse, I had the good fortune of getting most of my education prior to the rise of Google and social media. What concerns me most is that the students we’ll be teaching in another 5-10 years will have grown up on it. While the rest of us may be able to return to the high-detail “scuba-diving” version thinking (hopefully), perhaps that skill is entirely foreign to the younger generation. What will the kids who got their first iPhone in fourth grade be like when they get to college? Taking away their electronics won’t help them, it’ll just disengage them further. I keep thinking, perhaps we should embrace this and give them bursts of low-detail novel information, but at some point, they’ll need detail if they are to be professionals in their field.

As usual, I honestly have no idea how to solve this problem, and expect it to be exacerbated in the following years. Salzberg’s advice seems like a Band-Aid on a broken bone; medication not meditation is what I need, and I didn’t grow up reading Instagram on the school-bus. Perhaps we older folk can retrain ourselves by abstaining from instant gratification sources of knowledge, and forcing ourselves to read more. I have heard some folks have luck with completely disengaging from social media and going back to flip phones, but I have yet to try it. Maybe I’ll start with a few good books of the paper variety. As for the younger folks, they may be out of luck. Perhaps the world will have to adapt to them instead.
__________________

On a side-note, the comments on Carr’s article are completely missing the danger of perfect silicon memory. To greatly paraphrase the work of Dr. Nicholas Christakis (one of the fathers of my field), there is incredible utility in imperfection. To steal an example he uses frequently, consider designing an algorithm for a small robot to find the top of a hill. You program it to always go in the direction of the highest slope, and set it loose. Eventually it finds the top of the highest hill, right? Not quite, it finds the local maxima, but there could be a much taller hill next door. If the robot isn’t allowed to make mistakes and go downhill sometimes, it’ll get stuck on the local maxima and never leave. The same goes for Googling answers. How many times have you gone looking for something and stumbled upon a better solution? If you cannot ever make that mistake, if you always find exactly what you need, you’re greatly limiting innovation.

People that are willing to give this up for perfect recall are giving up far more than they know.