Drowning In An Information Ocean

by diegocaleiro 5 min read30th Mar 201321 comments


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...