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Mind Macros 47: An antilibrary, the medium is the message, and effects of social media
"Fortune falls heavily on those for whom she’s unexpected. The one always on the lookout easily endures." — Seneca
Welcome to another issue of Mind Macros - I hope you find something of value.
Food for Thought
I. An antilibrary and antischolar
"The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and nondull. He is the owner of a large personal library (containing thirty thousand books), and separates visitors into two categories: those who react with “Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have! How many of these books have you read?” and the others—a very small minority—who get the point that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allow you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary." — From The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.
The antilibrary reminds us of what we don't know, our antiknowledge, as Taleb calls it. Whether physical or digital, bookshelves provide a survivorship bias effect, in that we are more aware of the knowledge we possess than what we have left to learn. This thinking often leads to the Dunning–Kruger effect, in which people with low expertise and experience overestimate their ability or understanding. Because we've read a handful of books on a subject, we believe ourselves to be more informed than average. Yet, this line of reasoning fails to account for the thousands of books we haven't read. When this separation manifests itself as an antilibrary, one is forced to question the extent of their knowledge. Thus, true expertise is the acknowledgment of our antiknowledge.
Taleb goes on to highlight another issue of information, treating knowledge as a guarded commodity:
"We tend to treat our knowledge as personal property to be protected and defended. It is an ornament that allows us to rise in the pecking order. So this tendency to offend Eco’s library sensibility by focusing on the known is a human bias that extends to our mental operations. People don’t walk around with anti-résumés telling you what they have not studied or experienced (it’s the job of their competitors to do that), but it would be nice if they did. Just as we need to stand library logic on its head, we will work on standing knowledge itself on its head. Note that the Black Swan comes from our misunderstanding of the likelihood of surprises, those unread books, because we take what we know a little too seriously. Let us call an antischolar—someone who focuses on the unread books, and makes an attempt not to treat his knowledge as a treasure, or even a possession, or even a self-esteem enhancement device—a skeptical empiricist."
The antischolar approach aligns with the Roman philosopher Seneca’s treatment of knowledge. Seneca offers a method akin to participation in a buffet, in which we're engaging in ourselves while passing around the plates:
"'What,' say you, 'are you giving me advice? Indeed, have you already advised yourself, already corrected your own faults? Is this the reason why you have leisure to reform other men?' No, I am not so shameless as to undertake to cure my fellow-men when I am ill myself. I am, however, discussing with you troubles which concern us both, and sharing the remedy with you, just as if we were lying ill in the same hospital. Listen to me, therefore, as you would if I were talking to myself. I am admitting you to my inmost thoughts, and am having it out with myself, merely making use of you as my pretext."
Around 350 years before Seneca wrote those words, Plato's teacher, Socrates, apparently said, "I know that I know nothing," which wasn't born of humility but of truth. Yet, knowing the periphery of our knowledge tree isn't enough; we must actively remind ourselves of what remains out in the ether, waiting to teach us.
True learning is a journey of discovering how much there is to learn. After finishing a book, I try to recognize the information as just the tip of an iceberg. I find myself both in awe of what I have learned and humbled by the magnitude of what remains to be uncovered. I imagine this activity as a tree. The trunk represents the beginning of the learning process, where everything looks linear and straightforward. The higher I ascend, the more things branch off into a myriad of pathways, with each step illuminating how much is left to learn.
To summarize this approach into a memorable motto, I suggest a quote from the late American theoretical physicist Richard P. Feynman:
“Be humble. Be teachable. The universe is bigger than your view of the universe. There’s always room for a new idea. Humility is necessary for growth.”
II. The medium is the message
In Mind Macros 45, we discussed complexity reduction in communication and how text strips away the linguistic cues that help us infer meaning. In his book, A World Without Email, Cal Newport discusses the ambiguity introduced by emails and team messaging within businesses. After exploring Newport's argument, we left the elephant in the room unanswered: what effects are we experiencing due to complexity reduction from social media?
"The medium is the message" is a phrase coined by Canadian professor Marshall McLuhan in his 1964 book Understanding Media. McLuhan argued that throughout history, the medium through which we communicate is more important than the messages being conveyed, as each medium influences the generation growing up with it. In his book Stolen Focus, Johann Hari explores McLuhan's work and imagines each new medium like a pair of goggles we adopt and view the world through. According to Hari, these are the three messages we absorb from Twitter:
"First: you shouldn’t focus on any one thing for long. The world can and should be understood in short, simple statements of 280 characters. Second: the world should be interpreted and confidently understood very quickly. Third: what matters most is whether people immediately agree with and applaud your short, simple, speedy statements. A successful statement is one that lots of people immediately applaud; an unsuccessful statement is one that people immediately ignore or condemn. When you tweet, before you say anything else, you are saying that at some level you agree with these three premises. You are putting on those goggles and seeing the world through them."
As Hari explains, this is the exact opposite of reality:
"In fact, the world is complex. To reflect that honestly, you usually need to focus on one thing for a significant amount of time, and you need space to speak at length. Very few things worth saying can be explained in 280 characters. If your response to an idea is immediate, unless you have built up years of expertise on the broader topic, it’s most likely going to be shallow and uninteresting. Whether people immediately agree with you is no marker of whether what you are saying is true or right—you have to think for yourself. Reality can only be understood sensibly by adopting the opposite messages to Twitter. The world is complex and requires steady focus to be understood; it needs to be thought about and comprehended slowly; and most important truths will be unpopular when they are first articulated."
Twitter is a mere illustration of this modern style of communication; this is not about any single platform or social media, but rather the trend toward complexity reduction.
Quotes to Ponder
I. Seneca on preparing for uncertainty.
"Fortune falls heavily on those for whom she’s unexpected. The one always on the lookout easily endures."
II. Publilius Syrus on ruling over oneself.
“The greatest of empires, is the empire over one's self.”
Thank you for reading,
Every Thursday, I condense the most profound lessons from my 20-hour reading weeks into a four-minute newsletter.