Programming-related ideas and writings.

The Internet and the False Hope of Easy Answers

May 31, 2024

I had the sudden urge recently to Google a trivial matter such as, "How to read more books," as if there were some profound insight to that query. "Read more," of course is the answer here.

It's a silly question, but it's something I assume most of us have done a number of times. In the moment, it feels right -- my thinking at the time being that there may be some unknown habit I'm partaking in that could be interfering with my ability to make adequate time for reading. Hindsight being what it is, this assumption could very well be correct, with internet browsing being the unfortunate habit I am so earnestly seeking to eradicate.

It's an unfortunate consequence of having a world of information readily available. It feels as though you may be able to find some nugget of information that will be an invaluable resource to help you along the path you are on.

Over time, though, I've come to realize that the best information comes from direct observation -- experience. E.M. Forster warned about the undervaluing of experience in The Machine Stops clear back in 1909, before the internet was even dreamed of.

Your descendants will be even in a better position than you, for they will learn what you think I think, and yet another intermediate will be added to the chain. And in time"--his voice rose--"there will come a generation that had got beyond facts, beyond impressions, a generation absolutely colorless, a generation seraphically free from taint of personality, which will see the French Revolution not as it happened, but as it would have happened, had it taken place in the days of the Machine."

Direct experience, of course, should hold a far greater position in our minds than second-hand tips and tricks, although it can be hard to convince yourself otherwise in the moment.

How do you read more books?

Become a better reader.

How do you become a better reader?


I'm sure an entire tome could be written here regarding first-principled thinking.

It's that direct observation, that direct experience, that propels you forward. It requires the most work, but reaps the greatest reward. It's rewarding.

Remember that the path you are on is your path. Searching for advice so readily can easily pull you away from that path. The internet is many things, but a place of nuance, it is not. The extremes are pulled to the surface, and the solutions to most problems are not found in extremes, but in nuance -- in outputs highly dependent upon their inputs and the variables of the problem at hand.

My question was a lazy question, one whose sole purpose was to make the going easier. If you get out what you put in, what good are such questions? Instead, let the practice lead the theory. Learn by discovery. Seek out primary sources. Let narratives be the supplement, not the diet.

Speaking of primary sources, what comes to mind is a passage from Isaac Asimov's Foundation, in which Salvor Hardin criticizes the Encyclopedists for having too much blind faith in the how things are written to be.

And Hardin leaped through the opening. "Are you though? That's a nice hallucination isn't it? Your bunch here is a perfect example of what's been wrong with the entire Galaxy for thousands of years. What kind of science is it to be stuck out here for centuries classifying the work of scientists of the last millennium? Have you ever thought of working onward, extending their knowledge and improving upon it? No! You're quite happy to stagnate. The whole Galaxy is, and has been for space knows how long. That's why the Periphery is revolting; that's why communications are breaking down; that's why petty wars are becoming eternal; that's why whole systems are losing nuclear power and going back to barbarous techniques of chemical power.

"If you ask me," he cried, "the Galactic Empire is dying!"

Are books always primary sources? No. But my point here is that we so readily dismiss work-involved tasks for a distilled summary or ready-made internet opinion. Here is the part where you say, "Gotcha!" and point a judgemental finger at this article, and of course there's some truth there, but nonetheless, I'll continue.

When in doubt, the best way to move forward is to simply get to work. Out of the work will come the insights, the tricks of the trade, the invaluable informative resources such as I was trying to extract undeservedly.

Work smarter, not harder, but the key to unlocking smarts so many times is hard work.

Let your ideas be second-hand, and if possible tenth-hand, for then they will be far removed from that disturbing element--direct observation.

Avoid it and they will become just that.