Drowning In An Information Ocean

by diegocaleiro5 min read30th Mar 201321 comments

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Scholarship & Learning
Personal Blog

Drowning In An Information Ocean

I decided to take a look at the books hanging around the Future of Humanity Institute. It is a sobering and sad experience. I'd say there are little less than 2 thousand books.

80% of books I wouldn't mind reading,

1/2 I would read,

1/3 I should read

and 1/5 I must read!  

I predict that I'll read actually 1/400, counting the ones there, and their enhanced successors. How emotionally terrible is it to live in such a technically competent society and want to understand the world! Since 2000 I've abandoned TV, videogames, celebrity gossip, musical ability, knowledge about bands, politics, theater classes, dancing classes, handball, tennis, reading fiction, reading parts of Facebook, maintaining contact with groups X and Y of friends, newspapers, magazines and comics. All in the name of keeping up with human knowledge on some areas that fascinate me. Mostly areas having to do with the nature of minds and mental states. Come to think of it, the only two things that really, really interest me are minds and evolution. My curiosity is very narrow, it should be no trouble to learn a satisfactory amount about two things, right? So if you want to know what a mind is and what it does, and to get a grasp on the outlook of evolved stuff, you need to go through areas like:

Positive Psychology, Evolutionary Psychology, Animal Cognition (Ethology), Cultural Evolution, Cognitive Neuroscience, Cognitive Science, Artificial Intelligence, Philosophy of Mind, Philosophy of Cognitive Science, Primatology, Physical and Biological Anthropology.  

Which I did. 

Dig up a bit and you'll find that those require knowledge from Evolutionary Biology, Neuroeconomics, Basic Neuroscience, Genetics, Proof Theory, Formal Logic, Anthropic Reasoning - And from Anthropic Reasoning, you get a lot of physics requirements, mostly in cosmology and a bit in particle physics. Dig a little further and you can't get a lot of what is up there without grasping Maynard Smith and Trivers thoughts on biology, which come from economics, and by the time you notice you are surrounded by isoquants, comparing stable equilibriums across disciplines and thinking of economic metaphors for how the PreMedial Ventral Cortex settles some decision issues. Which of course requires that you understand metaphors, and you'll have to check some Hofstadter and Pinker on those issues, which will require at least some very basic linguistics, or at least an outlook of philosophy of language. Did I mention that most of this only works if you are rational, and that means you'd better have read the sequences prior to all this stuff?

Then there are the nagging exact sciences people. They come to you at night, haunt you in your dreams, telling you how much you should study math, how math is important for this, for that, and for that. Most disagree which branches of math are important, stats being the most universal like. If I were to learn to all the math I was told to learn, that would be at least 3 years more. Scott Young can do an entire university course (CS) in one year, Nick Bostrom kept that pace for 6 or 7 years. Most people don't get the mix of time, luck, capacity, resources and most importantly, motivation, to pursue such Homeric tasks.

I've never doubted Math is awesome. What I did doubt, and to this day I have seen few who doubt with me, but good examples being Peter Thiel, more strongly, and Jared Diamond and Dan Dennett, less strongly, is that so many young talents should be drawn into physics and math (and chess). Why should we make people who are really smart do the things in which it is easier to detect being smart?  Companies don't ask their best employees to devise ever better and more complicated IQ tests just because IQ tests are good predictors of how good a worker will be. The goal is not to costly signal being near the upper bound in intelligence. The goal is using your intelligence to pursue your goals. Sure, lots of it will be signalling instrumentally, but once the dust settles, don't get fixed in proving the constructibility of enormously large polygons, or beating Kasparov.  

So far I've tried to make two cases: Even with prima facie narrow interests, anyone is bound to be drowning in an ocean of information, and the interconnectedness and requirements to understand narrow interests may be much larger than one's initial expectancy. Secondly the main modulator of what to do with intelligence (your own, or someone else's) should be to tune it with goals and interests, not with easy detectability. 

 

Swimming Upwards

To avoid drowning in the ocean, I've already mentioned a lot of weight I found I could live without: TV, videogames, celebrity gossip, musical ability, knowledge about bands, or politics, theater classes, dancing classes, handball, tennis, reading fiction, reading parts of Facebook, maintaining contact with groups X and Y of friends, newspapers, magazines and comics. Those were not easy choices, each comes with a cost, a sadness, and a feeling that something valuable has been lost. The richness of flavors of life got somewhat poorer, because at least about minds and evolution, I wanted to keep track of human knowledge. 

It is hard enough not to go after understading Muons better, or knowing if really Brontosaurs had extra little brains throughout their neck, or why is it that vegetables are healthier than a double bacon cheeseburguer. But this tradeoff is knowing X versus knowing Y. It gets messy when it becomes earning X versus knowing Y, loving G versus knowing Y, containing curiosity about facebook update F versus knowing Y, and going to U's party versus knowing Y. 

Keeping a positive information diet helps, but I'm unsure even that stringent criterion is enough to know as much as one would like about one's narrow interests. Thus here I am, surrounded by 400 books I must read, and imagining how often new books that I'd put in the "must read" category are created every month. Probably same goes for amount of pages of scientific and philosophical journal papers. Stephen Hawking points out that you'd have to run faster than a car to read all written knowledge being created. I think the drowning metaphor is better because if books were liquid, you would quite likely not be able to swim even an aquarium of your own interests. I'm even considering moving to cold lowlight areas of the world, just for the purpose of having less (distractions) weight even, so I can swim a little longer. 

 

Writing, Advocating and Teaching 

Finally, there is the ultimate tradeoff. Being a child versus being a parent. Getting memes versus spreading memes. Learning versus teaching. Exploration versus exploitation. Being directed versus directing. Paying attention versus becoming focus. Riding versus driving. 

Writing takes a ridiculously long time. To write this text so far took me about 2 hours. It is simple, autobiographical, uses mostly folk psychological concepts, and not very theory-laden. My rule of thumb for writing technical stuff is one hour per page. In that time I could read up to 40 times as much. Assuming a publishability of a page per 3, the choice is writing three books or reading the 400 that surround me. Surely a lot of learning requires reprocessing, and one of the best ways to learn is to reconfigure our mental constructs, and use inter-areas knowledge to compose new ideas out of read ones (Pasupathi2012). Writing is learning, but it is still costly learning.

When thinking whether you should go into research, not only all the different sorts of considerations suggested by the 80000hours community should be looked at, but also how much is that individual driven to sharing knowledge, once acquired. Some people really want to output as much as possible, but many care, by and large, mostly about the input, and given writing one book may cost reading up to 120, they can rest assured there will be very interesting material eager to be read, always jumping ahead their priority list. In the last two years, the Teens and Twenties, a conference for young cryonicists (many of whom lesswrongers) had, out of four personality types, a vast majority of curiosity driven individuals. Much more incentives are needed to get people writing their thesis than to get them reading about their thesis topics. 

 

The Examined Swim 

From many perspectives, in particular that of technical achievement and development, it is great and fascinating that we live in such accelerated scientific age. In other states of mind, or ways of thinking, it is not that great. Those states of mind are not frequently ones that show up in books, specially not in academic courses. They deal not with the speed or depth of things, but breadth, gravity, resonance, luminance, sacredness. Some books, like The Examined Life, The Guinea Pig Diaries, Mortals and Others, and lots of songs and movies deal with those aspects. 

Wearing the transhumanist technoprogressive hat, what I don't like about drowning is similar to what I don't like about the cosmological constant, it would be really cool if the speed of creation and my speed of absorption were exactly the same, and it would be really cool if the universe was stable instead of getting cold. It's something I can shrug about and move on. 

Wearing the other hat, the surrounding ocean of great books has a more sinister message to tell. It reminds me of the finitude of the human condition, it is a visual reminder of all I'll never know, never see, taste, borrow or steal. More than that, because all aspects of life are in constant dispute of attentional resources, it takes a lot of effort and anguish to choose to go for those books, the plunge is deep, and wearing this hat, I can't help but to think it may not be worth it.

In a recent conversation with one of the enhancement researchers here he pointed out that it may be the case that for the individual Modafinil is not an enhancement, but for society as a whole it is. An individual won't change much due to taking Modafinil, and may pay costs if it has some particularly adverse effects for that person. Society on the other hand will be greatly benefited by the additional capacity of hundreds of thousands of scientists, each a little smarter.

It may well be that society needs you not to drown, and incentivizes you to swim as fast as you can, cost whom it may, it sure is the case in the corporate world. Thinking of yourself as an utility function and wearing the technoprogressive hat sure signal your allegiance to (this) society's cause. Yet wearing the other hat, as I often do, sometimes tempts me to let go and delve into the Siren's songs...  

 

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How emotionally terrible is it to live in such a technically competent society and want to understand the world!

I find it helps to remember that the world doesn't become any simpler when there aren't books explaining various aspects of it.

What are you actually trying to do?

At this exact moment I'm trying to understand which of the million possible meanings of your question you meant, and which was the most common interpretation by the six people who upvoted it.

1) With those books? Nothing, just being amazed.

2) With the knowledge in them? I'm trying to find out whether I want the life in which I have the pleasure of understanding them, or one of the counterfactual alternatives.

3) With this post to lesswrong? On a narrow scale just reporting a piece of data for others who like changing hats every now and then, but didn't have the privilege of being here, yet. On a broad scale my goal is to make as many as possible aware of vast amounts of knowledge that are not in yours Peter Norvig AI, nor in the awesome papers by Miri people, but still are about minds, about variegated kinds of minds, which work very differently from the intuitions one has after going through lesswrong, this project includes several posts prior and posterior to this one, and it can be said to be a continuation of Dennett's project of telling AI people "Our minds are, that is true, a computer, but they are not like any computer you've ever seen". On a personal scale, this semester beeminder makes me write 2 hours a day, when I'm not writing academic things, my belief is that lesswrong is the best training, and highest expected impact, for my brainstorms.

4) With your life, in ways which relate to this post? I guess what most people want to do: Increase the likelihood of a posthuman dream being achieved, prefereably during our lifetimes, preserving the things that are valuable for us (my guess so far is something involving happiness, identity, complexity and consequentialism), and having a life to which I can look back and sing "My Way" when it's near the end, both in the case in which the dream became reality, and in the other case.

So which of these, was your question?

What I meant was, is there some point where you plan to stop learning and start doing? If so, then the more you know what you plan on actually doing, the more your learning can be focused on the specific requirements of that thing. Then you don't have to worry so much about missing out on all the rest that you don't have time for.

[-][anonymous]8y 2

I am one of the people who upvoted ShardPhoenix's comment, and I took it to refer to a combination of 2) and 4).

Is there a FHI bookshelf we could see?

Ugh, I feel this myself. Not even just about learning. I love learning, but I also love gaming and writing and reading and a bunch of other stuff. And there's just too much stuff for one lifetime. I first started to notice I guess around ten years back, when I realized there were so many great video games coming out that I there was no way I could play them all; that I was missing cool things. And that is not okay.

Same for books; and, as you point out, same for raw knowledge. I've tried to contain the flood by restricting myself to only reading (or playing) the best of the best material in whatever medium. Of course, that just replaces the problem of absorbing everything with identifying that which is worth absorbing! If you want to start using the programming language C, you read K&R2 and you're pretty much ready. What's the similarly-definitive reference for, say, a given subset of geology? Sculpture? Authorship? Are your only options to try and find that one specific bible for the field, or to read 100 books and find that 90 were mostly wasted time?

Somewhere around here is a thread trying to pick out excellent textbooks. I think it's one of the most useful things on the site outside the Sequences.

Error, I agree with you (what a nickname you got by the way!)

For books, you are pretty much on your own, or under orders (advisor orders) so you're fine once you have the method of finding stuff in an area (usually finding someone you trust in the area), that is how I got my education by the way. I found 4 really smart apes, and asked each to tell me a 1000 pages to read. I don't regret it.

Now what is fuzzy and complicated is activities that can be social, in particular, I have a list with about 100 movies that one of 15 people I asked qualified as Life-changing, or majestic. I can nearly never get my friends or girlfriend to watch one of those. I frequently find myself either going to the cinema to watch something random (in comparison) or watching a movie that is clearly suboptimal for my criteria (personally I like movies that make me cry, which is easy, and make me rethink the whole of existence, which is hard).

34 years from now someone will quote me: "Error, I agree with you" - Diego Caleiro

and conclude I was a deconstructionist postmodern philosopher...

I expected a pointing at a solution. Nothing came. I can imagine some books have higher priority than others. I can also imagine that some insights have higher priority than others (in my case, more than 20 insights a day get forgotten, so I have to put an upper bound on how much I learn per day).

Looking at what people you already consider bright recommend most highly might be a way.

Rationalists should win, I feel your pain, but sketch me a solution.

Before you can sketch a solution, you first have to characterize the problem. Sometimes the solution isn't apparent immediately. And sometimes someone else has it.

Upvoted, but it felt more like a lament than a stab at a problem. Not that there is anything wrong with that.

I've never doubted Math is awesome. What I did doubt, and to this day I have seen few who doubt with me, but good examples being Peter Thiel, more strongly, and Jared Diamond and Dan Dennett, less strongly, is that so many young talents should be drawn into physics and math (and chess). Why should we make people who are really smart do the things in which it is easier to detect being smart?

I've held much the same view for some time now. For a long time, I've seen plenty of intelligent people denigrate softer sciences, like psychology and sociology, for having a history of poor research, while fields like physics have better track records. Sure, that's fair. But they lose me when they conclude that the softer sciences are unworthy of a high caliber thinker, and they should focus on the harder sciences. Shouldn't they focus more on the fields where they'll make the biggest impact?

The logic of comparative advantage is hard to argue against, but I wouldn't be so quick to assume that comparative advantage is being ignored here. In our culture, the kinds of people that go into fields like physics and math at least stereotypically have -- when they're choosing majors -- less socialization than the kinds of people who're going into psychology and sociology, and it's plausible to me that socialization and related skills have as much to do with success in those fields as raw intelligence does.

"It's the biggest sponge we've ever seen sir, it just keeps absorbing everything in its path"

"Have you tried squeezing it?"

"Sir?"

Can you explain this comment?

The OP strikes me as mostly worried about too much exploration and not enough exploitation. My point was that no external condition/opportunity has come along with sufficient motivating force to cause a switch over to exploitation mode and wringing as much utility out of the gained skills/knowledge as possible.

don't get fixed in proving the constructibility of enormously large polygons

Is this common? 'Cause um, at one point I did try to prove (or disprove) the constructibility of a hendecagon (11 sides) with neusis, but I didn't realise this was a popular pursuit. This isn't really related to the post, but I was very surprised constructibility got a mention.

(I ran into equations lacking an easy solution - they were sufficiently long/hard that Maple refused to chug through them - and decided it wasn't worth the effort to keep trying.)

I forget what it was called, but I remember a past post about trying to disprove very, very settled rules of math or science. A lot of the people who commented on it said that they had tried to do this as teenagers. (I never tried to construct unconstructable shapes, but I tried for a couple weeks to design a perpetual motion machine, once. I stopped after my middle school science teacher explained why a certain design wouldn't work - the explanation was what I needed to finally grok the laws of thermodynamics.)

When I was very young—I think thirteen or maybe fourteen—I thought I had found a disproof of Cantor's Diagonal Argument, a famous theorem which demonstrates that the real numbers outnumber the rational numbers. Ah, the dreams of fame and glory that danced in my head!

http://lesswrong.com/lw/j8/the_crackpot_offer/

Hm, that's true, I have heard that. Although in that particular case, it's actually unknown whether the shape is constructible or not, and I was trying to prove (in)constructibility rather than construct.