As I have written before, I am a huge consumer of online media. I love it and I rely on it every day. And I am learning from it. How much? I don’t have a reliable metric for that. But I do notice that I am able to do several key activities better than I used to. So I suspect that I am learning faster than I did in the bad old days before the digital world opened up for me.
And what activities are those?
The first is search. In the old days, I was less curious than I am now. And I had a lower tolerance for new things. Why? Because my curiosity had far less stimulation. And every now and then I would get very excited about a new thing that tended to dominate my thoughts for quite a while. Now I get that stimulation on a regular basis. I am more of a connoisseur of curiosity and I act on it. Acting on it gives me experience in how to look for stuff - what I call “search” as an activity. As I do more search I get better at it. And as I think about it, I look for ways to do search even better still. Most important, the more I value search, the less easily distracted I am by my own prejudices (manifestations of a desire to own knowledge rather than use it).
The second is interpretation. The more stuff I take in, the more challenged I am in understanding its importance over time. And the more I practice interpretation, the better I become at it. This has opened the door for better participation in dialogue. And it has made me a better listener. Yes, there is a virtuous circle here. I am much easier to get along with than I used to be. And I am happier for it.
The third is follow up. In the old days, it seemed a lot of stuff just seemed to happen. Suddenly Ronald Reagan was elected. Suddenly there was a computer on my desk. Suddenly the Soviet Union collapsed. You get the idea. These days, I am much more aware of the future impacts of stories that are unfolding around us. I am more engaged in the longer view of things. And more accepting of risk. So, does hurricane Sandy tell us that in fifty to one hundred years New York may be under water? Maybe it does. And maybe not depending on a huge number of factors that are now at work. So many amazing stories!
The fourth is sharing. In the old days, one read books, magazines and newspapers. That was nice. But there was a limit to how much one could exchange that input with others. And with less sharing, one had less skill in how to share. So, yes, I was known as a guy who talked too much. These days, I blog. And the more I blog, the more I realize how sharing helps me learn. How? By forcing me to put into words what I am thinking. And when I don’t blog, I miss it. As more people share better, we get closer to Steve Johnson’s and Matt Ridley’s vision of paradise on earth where more and better exchanges lead to more and better ideas.
So, better search, better interpretation, better follow up, better sharing. Exciting stuff for me. And this is changing my taste for input. I am much less excited than I used to be about opinion (as an end point rather than a starting point for a story). And therefore, I am much less excited about mainstream media, which is full of opinion. I am much more excited by breaking stories. Notice I said “breaking stories” and not “breaking news”. Breaking stories are things that are creating new story lines that I can follow for my own purposes. And for this purpose, a platform like Hacker News is far more useful than grand newspapers like NYT. And Hacker News is free. NYT is not. Go figure.
So here is an analogy. Learning how to manage information is a bit like learning how to manage personal finance. Fred Wilson writes about two dimensions in personal finance - “flow” (actually he means “net flow”) - income (inflow) minus costs (outflow) and “balance” (snapshots of your liquid assets - bank balances and such). Right. So how does that apply to managing information? We retain a certain amount of valuable information that we think is important. This is not unlike the balance in your bank account. And at the same time, we have inflow - what I am talking about above. We have outflow too. Sometimes, this is outright rejection (saying “no” to a request for our attention). It also happens when demands on our focus (what we call work or other events, like crisis) as well as distractions (what we call play) wash out information.
As Fred wisely points out, to become proficient at managing our personal finances, we need to manage flow and balance issues. The same is true for our learning capacity. Rigidly clinging to a fixed set of beliefs reflects perhaps, an over reliance on balance issues and reduces our capacity to understand flow issues. Similarly, gorging on input may reduce our capacity to understand what we take in and let go of. Scientific method is supposed to help us become more efficient in managing the “flow” and “account balance” of information. Experiment rather than worship as activity focus points. At least this is what Richard Feynman kept going on about. And I think he was right. Moreover, practicing learning increases our capacity to manage flow and balance issues. Dan Coyle talks about better use of practice. Study Hacks put this into practice in a rather amazing way.
The bottom line here is my optimistic view that one can learn how to learn better. This means that humankind can learn how to build better institutions that facilitate this, so that over time, what we call “normal” reflects a much higher level of learning capacity than we accept now. This, my friend, is the great challenge of the 21st century. I hope that I have the chance to see this play out over the next decades. And I hope that my son (and your sons and daughters too) benefit from this in ways that I cannot yet dream of.