I have ~4,000 word essay up at the American Enterprise Institute reviewing Tyler Cowen’s new book Create Your Own Economy and presenting my perspective on the ongoing debates around internet information culture, whether we are more distracted, whether bits from blogs cohere into knowledge, the importance of un-focus to creativity, and related issues. It is also the most detailed explanation yet of how I think about my information diet at a high level.
On the intellectual and emotional stimulation we experience by assembling a custom stream of bits:
Cowen refers to this process as the “daily self-assembly of synthetic experiences.” My inputs appear a chaotic jumble of scattered information but to me they touch all my interest points. When I consume them as a blend, I see all-important connections between the different intellectual narratives I follow — a business idea (entrepreneurship) in the airplane space (travel), for example. Because building the blend is a social exercise real communities and friendships form around certain topics my social life and intellectual life intersect more intensely than before. And I engage in ongoing self-discovery by reflecting upon my interests, finding new bits to add to my stream, and thinking about how it all fits together.
Cowen maintains that these benefits enhance your internal mental existence; how you order information in your head and how you use this information to conceive of your identity and life aspirations affects your internal well-being. Because a personal blend reflects a diverse set of media (think hyper-specific niche news outlets in lieu of a nightly news broadcast that everyone watches on one of three networks), and because each person constructs their own stories to link their inputs together, the benefits are unique to the individual. They are also invisible. It is impossible to see what stories someone is crafting internally to make sense of their stream; it is impossible to appreciate the personal coherence of it.
On self-education in the era of the web:
Within my online information diet, it is exhilarating to follow narratives, read the latest controversy (seasteading, anyone?), add my own two cents to the debate, and stitch together all that I have learned. Self-education has gone from being like a loner sitting in a bar sparsely populated with hazily attractive women to being in the center of a packed, rocking night club where the women are wearing mini-skirts and the guys’ shirts open up several buttons down. As Cowen puts it, “The emotional power of our blends is potent, and they make work, and learning, a lot more fun.” When a topic gets filtered through a two-way, fast-moving, personal bit stream, it commands my attention in a way the static, one-way, black-and-white version of the topic never could.
On whether we’re turning our brains into mush by our online info consumption habits:
The draconian bottom line for these people is as follows. The human brain is a famously plastic organ: how we use it shapes what it can do and what it becomes. If we spend all our mental cycles getting quick hits from blogs and our BlackBerries, our brains will optimize around this deployment of attention. Reading complicated books will become a hell of a chore and enduring long stretches of reflective solitude will become nearly unbearable. The bastions of intellectual culture are preparing to weep.
In praise of un-focus:
The glorification of “focus” is the second problem with the criticisms of bit-consumption and technology use in general. While some amount of focus is necessary, it is not the case that sitting alone in a quiet white walled room with no beeps or buzzes is the ultimate day-to-day environment for deep, creative thinking. Sam Anderson in New York Magazine summarized research that says un-focus is actually an important part of creativity—random meanderings and conversations can trigger important creative insights. Excessive conscious attention on one particular point can come at the cost of the free-associative brainstorms that just might lead to the next big thing. A University of Amsterdam study showed participants who were distracted from making a decision, and forced to consciously focus on something else, devoted valuable unconscious thought to the issue and ultimately made a better decision when they returned to the task.
To my knowledge this is the first published review of Cowen’s book. A few additional footnotes:
1. It is more about autism than my review would suggest. The book opens and closes with exploring the autistic cognitive style, and it comes up in almost every chapter in-between.
2. The autistic cognitive style description personally resonated with me. I collect and organize information to an intense degree. I have tagged and labeled almost 6,000 web pages. A lifelong goal has been to take a bar code scanner and scan all the books my family owns and put them into a database. And I synthesize diverse bits of information faster than most.
3. I make a claim that is more negative than Cowen: that many people have not and will not read the great books, and for many people on many topics it’s the bits or nothing. We both arrive in praise of bits but I get there in part via a more cynical path. I’m not sure if Cowen agrees with me here but I do think it’s this truth which makes his positive vision work.