When we search for an item, the list of entries our browser brings back to us is more or less a self-fulfilling prophecy —the list of items most linked to, searched by and clicked on as a result of our own search behavior and the average of the people around us. The business model of search engines is based on this data and at last look it's still quite vibrant.
A very similar thing happens when we go to social networks to discover new things —our experience is based on that of the things we have liked before and that of the people we are already linked with. This very issue has been making headlines recently with Facebook. Our social media behaviors are part of the business model of successful social networks.
We are the sum of our experiences.
At a time when we could wade into more diverse kinds of experiences —because of technology, tools, the ability to move around more, and border-less web and the limitless isle— those experiences end up being narrower that we would suspect. It turns out that having the options at our disposal does not equal taking the option.
But there is a deeper truth than just information overwhelm at the root of this particular puzzle.
Knowing the name of something is not the same as knowing it, says Richard Feynman:
“You can know the name of that bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. You’ll only know about humans in different places, and what they call the bird. So let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing—that’s what counts. I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.”
Inquiry and reflection are not prized activities. In a world that idolized “doing,” the value of thinking is overlooked. We think we know, or can find out or predict, thanks to data big and small, so we stop looking. Why work hard to try to understand something when we can rely on past behavior through data exhaust to tell us exactly what happened? At least we are sure we made the right rationalization, or are we?
We are limiting ourselves is so many more ways than that.
As individuals, we have so many more examples of model behavior to follow from digital data available for anyone to browse. What everyone is doing is creating the expectation of what we should be doing to be successful, popular, but also accepted, part of things —gossip being our very own social grooming. But it is also widening the gap between what we need and what we want, or we think we do.
For another example of having more options and fewer apparent choices we can look at what we read, what is on our bookshelves or on our night stands. Are we exploring less popular, yet not less deep, good or useful readings? Or do we fall into line and buy off the lists we find and see, populated as they are with the usual suspects? Even when it comes to reading and sharing articles, blog posts, and subscribing to newsletters, mainstream continues to reinforce itself.
There are so many overlooked authors even among the classics. For lack of patience, curiosity, and/or desire we say to ourselves we lack time. We may not know, but do we want to learn? Can reading make us happier? Can it heal us? The spirit of inquiry, even in disagreement, and especially in surprise, can make us wiser.
Cambridge graduate and novelist Susan Elderkin says:
“We feel that though more books are being published than ever before, people are in fact selecting from a smaller and smaller pool. Look at the reading lists of most book clubs, and you’ll see all the same books, the ones that have been shouted about in the press. If you actually calculate how many books you read in a year—and how many that means you’re likely to read before you die—you’ll start to realize that you need to be highly selective in order to make the most of your reading time.”
Elderkin works with pragmatic philosopher Alain the Botton at The School of life. They offer a form of book discovery, reading “prescriptions” to help people “deal with the daily emotional challenges of existence.”# It's something very similar to what we experienced in school and luckily our home was filled with a few thousand books to choose from, in addition to our local library.
Reading on purpose to explore and think is a habit we formed when we were forming. There many many character-building lessons in it. We were very lucky. It's an acquired taste, but the good news is our minds are configured for storytelling. It takes no time at all to get used to it again, or for the first time.
Love of reading and love of learning go hand in hand. Love matters.
- Bill Gates Summer Reading List (yes, it's from last summer, but it's still a good list)
[image via Pixabay CC0 Public Domain]