and it’s no substitute for ignorance
(5 minute read)
“The only good is knowledge, and the only evil is ignorance.” – Herodotus
Today, as never before, information is increasing and knowledge is decreasing. Because it’s the era of … quick-click, sound-bite, short-clip, digital drivel – we’re buried in a tsunami of information, roiling across the Internet. We’re addicted to information – but not knowledge – immersed in clickety-click online reading that scrolls right past any chance of acquiring a greater depth of knowledge and understanding. Our society, cultures and individual lives, are being driven by speed, access and banality, ingesting superficial answers while ignoring critical questions.
“Intelligence is not always knowing the answer, it is always, asking the question.” – Maya Angelou
Wired’s Clive Thompson has stated, “The perfect recall of silicon memory can be an enormous boon to thinking.” He’s right – but only partially. Because there is a huge downside that is becoming more and more obvious.
The Internet has given us access to unlimited sources of information, but it only delivers pieces of information – a deluge of facts, opinions, and fake news – but it isn’t knowledge. It’s information that only our mind can convert into knowledge through the heavy lifting of thinking – sorting, sifting, discerning, assessing, musing and interpreting. Only then does it become meaningful knowledge. The Internet is like a giant Rubik’s Cube of information, but most of us don’t have the time, talent or perseverance to sort, sift, discern, assess, muse and interpret the information.
Too much information, too little time.
The recall and organization of our memory is cumbersome, complex and limited, whether buried in the tissues of our brain or coming from the silicon of semiconductors, it has inherent risks that can be as much a bust as a boon. Recalling information is highly unreliable, and to be of much value it needs to be questioned, assessed and rethought before it coalesces into valued knowledge. And most of us are not willing to do what it takes.
Our minds are inundated as never before and in relying on our mind to process it all, we fast track the processing. New research shows that our minds are adapting to the onslaught of information, and according to Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University, some of the effects are becoming obvious. We’re coming up short. She says, “We are not only what we read … We are how we read.” She states that the style of reading promoted by the Internet puts “efficiency” and “immediacy” above all else – quick and easy, quantity over quality. She claims that through our online reading habits we are becoming “mere decoders of information” and our capability to make deep, mental connections is more and more disconnected.¹
Research of online habits conducted by University College London² found:
- People using the sites exhibited “a form of skimming activity,” hopping from one source to another and rarely returning to any source they’d already visited.
- Typically read no more than one or two pages of an article or book before they “bounce” out to another site.
- Sometimes they save a long article, but there’s no evidence that they ever went back and actually read it.
- There are signs that new forms of “reading” are emerging as users “power browse” horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins.
- It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.
“The idea that our minds are susceptible to systematic errors is now generally accepted.” Daniel Kahneman
Nowhere is our lack of mental prowess and intellectual curiosity more profoundly explained than in Daniel Kahneman’s 2011, seminal book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. This book stands as a beacon – and a navigational light – in the tumultuous ocean of information, which is driven by the incessant demand for instant answers, quick solutions and short-term results. Kahneman articulates, convincingly, that until we understand how we think, and start to think differently, our minds will always be susceptible to the systematic errors that come from our innate, mental – genetic – flaws. And worse, our condition is being exacerbated by our Darwinian adaptability, as our brains automatically respond to the Internet tidal wave.
A cornerstone of Kahneman’s findings are two modes of thinking that psychologists have studied for decades. He sets them out as two “systems of the mind:”³
- System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.
- System 2 allocates attention to the effortful [arduous] mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with subjective experience of agency, choice and concentration.
System 1 is mainly about thinking fast and is “radically insensitive to both quantity and quality of information,” which can be both good and bad, depending on the need. When speed and action are required, and beneficial, it works. However, when information is either scarce, questionable or over abundant (overwhelming), we default to our intuition, which is the automatic driving force of System 1. The problem is, System 1 – which we rely on most of the time – is not very good when questions or choices are difficult, serious or complex. We get caught in what Kahneman calls our “intuition biases,” which act like short-cuts. We jump to conclusions. This type of fast thinking does not filter or process what the Internet feeds up nor does it do a deep search of our memory. Rather it feeds on a fast-food diet of skipping, skimming and clicking across a smorgasbord of information, grabs readily available memories, and then delivers the combo directly to our ready-to-jump intuition and … presto, we have undigested, regurgitated conclusions.
“Her favorite position is beside herself and her favorite sport is jumping to conclusions.” – Danny Kaye
Kahneman relates the line from comedian Danny Kaye to illustrate the pros and cons of System 1 thinking. Jumping to conclusions is okay, and efficient if the conclusions have a high degree of being right and a low risk and cost if they are wrong. We use our intuition like this everyday, with great benefits. However, jumping to conclusions is risky when we don’t take the time to collect, absorb or properly assess large quantities of information. This is when intuitive error is most likely to happen, and at higher risk and cost. This is when we need to move to System 2 thinking. Problem is, when faced with more difficult questions and too much information, Kahneman claims, “we often answer an easier one [question], which we substitute without realizing it.” We answer the wrong question. Too many of us, too often, are adverse to the heavy lifting and concentration demanded by System 2. We take the easy way out, avoiding the difficult task of slow thinking.
“Overconfidence is fed by the illusory certainty of hindsight … [and] the puzzling limitations of our mind: the excessive confidence in what we believe we know, and our apparent inability to acknowledge the full extent of our ignorance and the uncertainty of the world we live in.” – Daniel Kahneman³
Kahneman has a wonderful acronym that captures the essence of our thinking problem in the age of the speed and immediacy. “What you see is all there is” (WYSIATI). We jump to conclusions based on the limited evidence we have, which, in turn, drives us to use our intuition, which we think can make sense of partial, and often flawed, information. It draws on our memory and experience, which has, as its biggest impediment, “our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.” We don’t know, what we don’t know, won’t take the time to think it through, and simply rely on our intuition. We build a story from the available memory in our brain and unfiltered, unchecked bits of information, and if the story fits what we already think we know (always limited), we accept it.
“Intuition is nothing more and nothing less than recognition.” – Herbert A. Simon
With fast thinking, we make judgements based on what we “see” and “recognize,” with no deep reflection and contemplation, which comes only from what Kahneman calls slow thinking. He says, “We are confident even when we are wrong.” And we are wrong a lot when it comes to questions of risk. In our everyday lives our intuitions serve us well and helps us through the day and many daily experiences. But when it comes to more important judgements, we depend too much on fast thinking and seldom employ our capability for deep understanding – slow thinking.
Kahneman applies decades of research to demonstrate the folly of our thinking and how we seldom apply the process of thinking slowly in order to transform memory and information into well-founded understanding.
“This is a landmark book in social thought, in the same league as Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretations of Dreams.” – Nassim Taleb, author of The Black Swan [another must-read]
- Is Google Making Us Stupid? What the Internet is doing to our brains, Atlantic magazine
- Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman, p. 21
Thank you for reviewing this book, I will order it today. As I was typing this, I received two notifications. Being ‘connected’ is both a gift and burden to knowledge.
@Julia – also check out the Atlantic article. Lots of good thinking on the Internet addiction.
Thank you for the article. It rounds out an understanding of epistemology with a
good understanding of how the “machinery” of knowing works and when it
@Mike – good point. Knowing how it works is the beginning of being able to actually manage the “machinery” – our thinking processes – which, in turn, is essential if we want to improve and grow.