Reading is eating

I just stumbled across a bit of food for thought, and think I did (my nice little jog-in-the-rain turned into exercise of a different kind). Have a bite. Go on, eat the whole thing while you’re at it — it’s only 8 minutes. Then it might be an idea to chew-the-cud a bit before we go on — heavy lifting required.

Fed, rested and primed for action now? Good. Now lets get the obvious conclusion out of the way.

I shouldn’t overeat. Did I say that? Come on, not that one. After all, after are stomachs are full eating gets painful anyway. I expect you know the feeling, after having read for a few hours, when your mind blanks out all but the page in front of you, that your vision starts to blur, concentrating on what your reading any more becomes difficult, and it dawns on you, slowely at first, but more and more insistently I need to get up and do something. No, I expect you were familiar with that before you even stumbled across this article.

No, my first conclusion was I may not have a problem with eating and exercising out food, but I sure have put on a bit of cognitive fat, so-to-speak. There’s a few points here:

  1. There’s no point consuming information if you don’t use it. Of course, there’s no point going on a starvation diet either, besides the fact that we need sustenance to grow. But reading something because it tastes nice isn’t a good idea either, nor just reading something because my teacher tells me I need to know this. 
  2. When you’ve got a job to do, concentrate on the job and not the food to fuel it. Sure, you shouldn’t ignore whatever information you’ll need, the same as it’s not nice to come home after an exhausting day’s work and discover you need to cook supper too. But thinking I need to know the theory in this textbook, so I should start by reading the entire book is not the right way to get something done either.

I hope you already knew that.

I did.

In theory at least.

So, what’s the other conclusion I drew?

Well, consider this. You come up with some cool idea, so you write it down. You don’t trust it to your memory, because you know if you do that you’ll forget at least three quarters of the good bits. (I certainly do.) Job done. You think of something else. You right that down too.

A week goes by. A month. Soon you’ve got more pages of notes than you can organise, and you’ve already discovered by now that you’ve written the same idea down twice, more than once. If things go on like this, soon you’ll have a pile of disorganised, highly-redundant notes, and any time you want to find some note in particular you’re going to have a huge pain. So what do you do?

Thankfully you wrote your notes on a computer so you can easily rename them and move them around. So you categorise them. You’ve got quite a few notes about topic X, so you group them together. You notice several are about some
subtopic, Y, so those can go together too. You even tag stuff about topic Z, despite the fact that topic Z pops up all over the place in contrary to your top-down categorisation.

So, some hours of work later, you find you’ve got things a bit better organised. You’ve not categorised everything yet, but it’s just a matter of time. You’ll get to it.

Time goes on. Notes get better organised. At the same time, more notes get added. You realise from time-to-time that some old categorisation wasn’t very effective, or that you can also categorise items according to some new tag, and
start shuffling around already-categorised notes. You realise that over time, the work of just managing your collection of notes grows in proportion to the number of notes you have. If work goes on like this, you’ll either spend less
and less time doing anything original as more and more of your time is spent keeping things organised, or you’ll have to give up on the organisation and accept that your notes get more repetitive.

Except that that’s not all that will happen if you stop organising. Any plans you had once will get buried. Jobs that you planned out will never get done, not because the information’s not there, but because you can’t find it. Any attempts to stand back to get a wider perspective on all the little conclusions you’ve drawn over time will become extremely difficult, if not impossible, because you can’t _find_ all those little conclusions you’ve drawn.

So what happens?

I’ve been thinking about what happens to society. Already we’re suffering, not from information overload, but from information disorganisation. Physicists need to know about the particles or waves or structures they’re studying, but also need to be able to do some pretty fancy maths in order to achieve anything. Biologists need to know about cells or organic molecules or organ structure or many other things, but in order to do their work, geneticists need complex computer algorithms to analyse anything, pharmacists need a lot of complex chemistry to engineer their drugs, and pretty-much any biologist needs to be able to handle a lot of statistics to prove anything (at some confidence interval).

So, what’s happened? We’ve specialised. Now, more than ever, young people go to university to study maths or English or chemistry or one of many other subjects. Now, more than ever, young people go on to do PhDs — but even if they don’t get that far they’ve already had to specialise from being a computer scientist to focus on algorithms, or language theory, or machine learning, or databases, or computer vision, or encryption, or data transmission and information theory, or one of many other things. There’s no such thing as a generalist any more. Is that a good or a bad thing?

Well, judging by the incessant discoveries in medicine, in computing, in climate science and in science in general, one can hardly say it’s not worked out. I won’t go on about this, because there’s no point — we’ve been developing new drugs, faster computers, better telescopes, etc., for decades, and there’s no sign that this is about to slacken off.

One thing that has got harder though is using results across fields. As the lowest hanging fruit in mathematics has got harder and harder to reach, new developments become harder and harder. That the proof of Fermat’s last theorem took so long is because it required the co-use of so many areas of mathematics. That the Polymath project had such success proving the density Hales-Jewett theorem was due to the fact that it allowed the collaboration of many different mathematicians working in different backgrounds. So what might be possible with massive collaboration across many fields of science? What might be possible by combining the knowledge of the whole of humanity in one place? Proving this point with an example is obviously beyond my capability, but I hope you get the picture that the information processing resources available to individual humans have an enormous effect on society. So big, in fact, that I can only see four possible outcomes:

  1. We continue as we do now. Here and there communication of ideas and results get optimised somewhat, general education may improve, big organisations continue to out-compete smaller ones due, often enough, to being able to employ specialists in more overlapping areas. Scientific advances continue to be made, but we remain a human society, working within human limits. Fundamentally this outcome is unstable due to the following possibilities, but striving as we do for control and economic return we may be able to keep it up for a long time yet. 
  2. At some point, things slip up. Society gets more fragmented as we continue to specialise, and instead of asking people specific questions about there business (you had any problem with foxes lately?) we are more and more reduced to asking peripheral questions (how is work?). Key knowledge is lost as people die or migrate or fall out with each other, university level education harder as professors have to focus on more specific fields, and in the end society fails to  rovide enough young scientists to replace the old, resulting in a spiralling collapse of much of science. We don’t lose our cars or computers or Airbus A380s, at least not immediately, because people already know how to build cars and  computers and Airbus A380s. But scientific advance collapses and maintaining society as we know it becomes a struggle. 
  3. Genetics or implants or some type of human modification enables us to become smarter. People can take in larger amounts of information and process it farther. Temporarily, the new “super people” pick up knowledge across many different topics and produce many new discoveries. But eventually they become the norm, and society — a faster moving, more energy intensive society — has make even better people to keep moving as people have accustomed to.
  4. Computers can already process information a lot faster than us — and computers are, and probably will be for a while yet, increasing in capacity exponentially at a very fast rate. If they get smart enough, they may end up doing our reasoning for us. At first, of course, we’d remain in control — but with them being a lot smarter than us (or at least able to take a much broader point of view), along with the constant pressure to let those best at doing anything organisational do it, it would be almost inevitable that they would end up running society, perhaps leaving us as pets to them as dogs and cats and monkeys are to us.

I won’t say that one of these scenarios is better, or more likely, or more preferable than another, because I didn’t write this article to talk about armageddon. But I will say that information is more important to us than ever.


About dhardy

A software developer who landed in Switzerland, I love conjecturing over a few things computer-related, open collaboration, and quietly promoting linux/KDE as a desktop OS.
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