Lost technologies, Seveneves, and The Secret of Our Success

Spoilers ahead, but if you haven’t read Seveneves by now they probably don’t matter.

Seveneves is an unusual and great novel, and it’s great as long as you attribute some of its less plausible elements to an author building a world. One plausible element is the way humanity comes together and keeps the social, political, and economic systems functional enough to launch large numbers of spacecraft in the face of imminent collective death. If we collectively had two years to live, I suspect total breakdown would follow, leaving us with no Cloud Ark (and no story—thus we go along with the premise).

But that’s not the main thing I want to write about. Instead, consider the loss of knowledge that inherently comes with population decline. In Seveneves humanity declines to seven women living in space on a massive iron remnant of the moon. They slowly repopulate, with their descendants living in space for five thousand years. But a population of seven would probably not be able to retain and transmit the specialized knowledge necessary for survival on most parts of Earth, let alone space.

That isn’t a speculative claim. We have pretty good evidence for the way small populations lose knowledge. Something drew me to re-reading Joseph Henrich’s excellent book The Secret of Our Success, and maybe the sections about technological loss are part of it. He writes about many examples of European explorers getting lost and dying in relatively fecund environments because they don’t have the local knowledge and customs necessary to survive. He writes about indigenous groups too, including the Polar Intuit, who “live in an isolated region of northwestern Greenland [. . . .] They are the northernmost human population that has ever existed” (211). But

Sometime in the 1820s an epidemic hit this population and selectively killed off many of its oldest and most knowledgable members. With the sudden disappearance of the know-how carried by these individuals, the group collectively lost its ability to make some of its most crucial and complex tools, including leisters, bows and arrows, the heat-trapping long entry ways for snow houses, and most important, kayaks.

As a result, “The population declined until 1862, when another group of Intuit from around Baffin Island ran across them while traveling along the Greenland coast. The subsequent cultural reconnection led the Polar Intuit to rapidly reacquire what they had lost.” Which is essential:

Though crucial to survival in the Arctic, the lost technologies were not things that the Polar Intuit could easily recreate Even having seen these technologies in operation as children, and with their population crashing, neither the older generation nor an entirely new generation responded to Mother Necessity by devising kayaks, leisters, compound bows, or long tunnel entrances.

Innovation is hard and relatively rare. We’re all part of a network that transmits knowledge horizontally, from peer to peer, and vertically, from older person to younger person. Today, people in first-world countries are used to innovation because we’re part of a vast network of billions of people who are constantly learning from each and transmitting the innovations that do arise. We’re used to seemingly automatic innovation, because so many people are working on so many problems. Unless we’re employed as researchers, we’re often not cognizant of how much effort goes into both discovery and then transmission.

Without that dense network of people, though, much of what we know would be lost. Maybe the best-known example of technology loss happened when the Roman Empire fell, followed by the way ancient Egyptians lost the know-how necessary to build pyramids and other epic engineering works.

In a Seveneves scenario, it’s highly unlikely that the novel’s protagonists would be able to sustain and transmit the knowledge necessary to live somewhere on earth, let alone somewhere as hostile as space. Quick: how helpful would you be in designing and manufacturing microchips, solar panels, nuclear reactors, plant biology, or oxygen systems? Yeah, me too. Those complex technologies have research, design, and manufacture facets that are embodied in the heads of thousands if not millions of individuals. The level of specialization our society has achieved is incredible, but we rarely think about how incredible it really is.

This is not so much a criticism of the novel—I consider the fact that they do survive part of granting the author his due—but it is a contextualization of the novel’s ideas. The evidence that knowledge is fragile is more pervasive and available than I’d thought when I was younger. We like stories of individual agency, but in actuality we’re better conceived of as parts in a massive system. We can see our susceptibility to conspiracy theories as beliefs in the excessive power of the individual. In an essay from Distrust That Particular Flavor, William Gibson writes: “Conspiracy theories and the occult comfort us because they present models of the world that more easily make sense than the world itself, and, regardless of how dark or threatening, are inherently less frightening.” The world itself is big, densely interconnected, and our ability to change it is real but often smaller than we imagine.

Henrich writes:

Once individuals evolve to learn from one another with sufficient accuracy (fidelity), social groups of individuals develop what might be called collective brains. The power of these collective brains to develop increasingly effective tools and technologies, as well as other forms of nonmaterial culture (e.g., know-how), depends in part on the size of the group of individuals engaged and on their social connectedness. (212)

The Secret of Our Success also cites laboratory recreations of similar principles; those experiments are too long to describe here, but they are clever. If there are good critiques of the chapter and idea, I haven’t found them (and if you know any, let’s use our collective brain by posting links in the comments). Henrich emphasizes:

If a population suddenly shrinks or gets socially disconnected, it can actually lose adaptive cultural information, resulting in a loss of technical skills and the disappearance of complex technologies. [. . . ] A population’s size and social interconnectedness sets a maximum on the size of a group’s collective brain. (218-9)

That size cap means that small populations in space, even if they are composed of highly skilled and competent individuals, are unlikely to survive over generations. They are unlikely to survive even if they have the rest of humanity’s explicit knowledge recorded on disk. There is too much tacit knowledge for explicit knowledge in and of itself to be useful, as anyone who has ever tried to learn from a book and then from a good teacher knows. Someday we may be able to survive indefinitely in space, but today we’re far from that stage.

Almost all post-apocalyptic novels face the small-population dilemma to some extent (I’d argue that Seveneves can be seen as a post-apocalyptic novel with a novel apocalypse). Think of the role played by the nuclear reactor in Steven King’s The Stand: the characters in the immediate aftermath must decide if they’re going to live in the dark and regress to hunter-gatherer times, at best, or if they’re going to save and use the reactor to live in the light (the metaphoric implications are not hard to perceive here). In one of the earliest post-apocalyptic novels, Earth Abides, two generations after the disaster, descendants of technologically sophisticated people are reduced to using melted-down coins as tips for spears and arrows. In Threads, the movie (and my nominee for scariest movie ever made), the descendants of survivors of nuclear war lose most of their vocabulary and are reduced to what is by modern standards an impoverished language that is a sort of inadvertent 1984 newspeak.* Let’s hope we don’t find out what actually happens after nuclear war.

In short, kill enough neurons in the collective brain and the brain itself stops working. Which has happened before. And it could happen again.


* Check out the cars in Britain in Threads: that reminds us of the possibilities of technological progress and advancement.

Briefly noted — Do I Make Myself Clear? — Harold Evans

If you’ve read in the vast genre of how-to-write books—everything from Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style to John Trimble’s Writing With Style to Zinsser’s On Writing Well—you’ve already in effect read Do I Make Myself Clear? Why Writing Well Matters. It’s a good book, just not one that advances the art or covers material you’ve not seen covered elsewhere.

It starts with Orwell and “Politics and the English Language,” which indicts “bad English for corrupting thought and slovenly thought for corrupting language,” then goes to say that “eternal vigilance is the price of intelligent literacy.” Problem is that I don’t think we’ve been vigilant and I don’t see signs of increasing literacy—in political terms, if anything we see the opposite. The kinds of people who need to read Do I Make Myself Clear? don’t read and don’t care.

Elsewhere we find that

There is no compulsion to be concise on either the Internet or the profusion of television and radio channels; and in writing of every kind, Twitter apart, we see more words, more speed, less clarity, and less honesty, too, since with “demand media” you never know whether a review of Swan Lake will conceal a hard sell about toenail fungus.

I like a good rant as much as the next guy, but do we know we’re seeing “more words, more speed, less clarity?” How do we know? How would we even measure this? I don’t know. Does “speed” mean speed of writing, speed of reading, both, or neither? I don’t know that either. Knowing is hard.

To be sure, there’s a long history of language exhortations violating the very rules they posit (few of those who decry adverbs and passive voice fail to use both). But it can be interesting to apply the same principles being espoused to the work doing the espousing, to see if it follows its own command.

Briefly noted: Deep Thinking — Garry Kasparov

If you’ve read Average is Over you’ve gotten enough of Kasparov’s book to skip it; the abstract lessons from the second section of Average is Over are similar to Deep Thinking‘s. Still, human-computer play remain underrated and also remains a key metaphor for what human-computer interaction will look like in the near future. Computer-assisted driving is maybe the most familiar aspect right now, and that sort of dynamic will likely increase as time goes on and as the number of transistors that can inhabit a given area continues to increase.

Deep Thinking is most interesting about halfway through when Kasparov describes in detail the conditions under which he played the famous 1997 Deep Blue match. Before and after there is some interesting material but less than one would like. Maybe I’m just a sucker for narrative, and the middle section is primarily narrative. Still, the more I read of Kasparov the more I think I should read more, and his writing about Putin and Russia is consistently insightful. If you want a conventional review of Deep Thinking, Robin Hanson’s “Grandmasters vs. Gigabytes” is good.

There are few aesthetically beautiful sentences but still some useful observations. For example:

Connections between chess skill and general intelligence are weak at best. There is no more truth to the thought that all chess players are geniuses than in saying that all geniuses play chess. In fact, one of the things that makes chess so interesting is that it’s still unclear exactly what separates good chess players from great ones.

That last sentence is true of novelists and other writers too. “Good” and “great” can be felt and the critical faculty can be honed over time, but specific definitions remain elusive. Oddly, though, two pages later Kasparov returns to notions of greatness in a way that almost contradict the quote above:

When Der Spiegel asked me what I thought separated me, the world champion, from other strong chess players, I answered, ‘The willingness to take on new challenges,’ the same answer I would give today. The willingness to keep trying new things—different methods, uncomfortable tasks—when you are already an expert at something is what separates good from great. Focusing on your strengths is required for peak performance, but improving your weaknesses has the potential for the greatest gains.

So there is an answer to what separates good from great (“The willingness to try new challenges”) or there isn’t? Both sections are interesting and both might be true, but this is the sort of internal contradiction editors (or Kasparov’s ghost writer / assistant, Mig Greengard) are supposed to find.

Then there are sentences like, “It’s a privilege to be able to focus on the negative potential of world-changing breakthroughs like artificial intelligence. As real as these issues may be, we will not solve them unless we keep innovating even more ambitiously, creating solutions and new problems, and yet more solutions, as we always have.” Everyone else seems to be for innovation, making me tempted to come out as anti-innovation simply to be contrary.

But there are very useful sentences too, like the last one here:

How professional chess changed when computers and databases arrived is a useful metaphor for how new technology is adopted across industries and societies in general. It’s a well-established phenomenon, but I feel that the motivations are underanalyzed. Being young and less set in our ways definitely makes us more open to trying new things. But simply being older isn’t the only factor that works against this openness—there is also being successful. When you have success, when the status quo favors you, it becomes very hard to voluntarily change your ways.

Success is never final. Yet we, collectively, never seem to know that. Peak performance sustained over a lifetime may have to incorporate this idea.

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI — David Grann

People who like true crime stories will love Killers of the Flower Moon, but I’m not one of them and find it unmoving, though the scope of the conspiracy it describes is fantastical, and the third part is amazing. Like The Name of the Rose, it seems to be a story of detection and reconstruction: who killed Anna Brown? Brown’s sister, Mollie Burkhart, worried about Brown, though Brown “had often gone on ‘sprees,’ as her family disparagingly called them.” But this wasn’t a spree and what seems to concern one murder, at first, turns out to concern many more.

One can see Killers of the Flower Moon in other ways than a story of detection: as parts of government wrangling with other parts of government; as how demand for government leads to greater supply of government (“For years after the American Revolution, the public opposed the creation of police departments, fearing that they would become forces of oppression”—whether they have is left as an exercise to the reader); of how bureaucracy organizes itself to solve problems; of how feudal or rural systems of justice and law enforcement give way to larger modern structures. There is something for people who want to read about ghastly murders and something for people who like Albert Hirschman. Not many books overlap in that venn diagram! There are many sentences about bureaucratic wrangling, like “Because of [x’s] power, a federal prosecutor warned that it was ‘not only useless but positively dangerous’ to try him in the state legal system” (this occurs late in the book and I removed the person’s name to prevent spoilers).

Large-scale conspiracies are so rare that when they do occur they fascinate (think of my post, “The power of conventional narratives and the great lie“). Imagined conspiracies are much more common than actual ones.

At times Killers of the Flower Moon reminds one of a Western like Lonesome Dove:

[Tom] White was an old-style lawman. He had served in the Texas Rangers near the turn of the century, and he had spent much of his life roaming on horseback across the southwestern frontier, a Winchester rifle or pearl-handled six-shooter in hand, tracking fugitives and murderers and stickup men. [. . .] Even when dressed in a stiff suit, like a door-to-door salesman, he seemed to have sprung from a mythic age.

The West as imagined today is built on myth, and so, too, is the FBI—which, in this telling, springs from the Rangers and from similar sources. Which I hadn’t realized. Maybe you hadn’t either. This book is not for me but it may very well be for you. Very few of the sentences stand out as truly excellent, and that to me is a key metric in a book.

Free Women, Free Men: Sex – Gender – Feminism — Camille Paglia

New Paglia is always worth reading, and Free Women, Free Men is not an exception. That being said, if you’ve read her other books you’ve already read this one. If you’re tired about hearing about Doris Day and “my 1960s generation” or “my baby boom generation” (as I am), you’ll be tired at many points in this book. I wrote that line before I saw Dwight Garner’s NYT review, in which he says, “The problem, for the reader of ‘Free Women, Free Men,’ is that she repeats the same arguments and anecdotes over and over again. Reading this book is like being stranded in a bar where the jukebox has only two songs, both by Pat Benatar.”

Yes. And many of the pieces date poorly. Does anyone care about Madonna’s BDSM-inflected music video from the ’90s? It may have been a vital moment in pop culture, but almost all pop culture is ephemeral, as pop culture itself likes to imply, or remind us. Or how about Anita Hill? That was a name I needed to back-check: my first inclination was, “Anita who?”

That being said, there is much to like in Free Women, Free Men, starting from the first page:

The premier principles of this book are free thought and free speech—open, mobile, and unconstrained by either liberal or conservative ideology. The liberal versus conservative dichotomy, dating from the split between left and right following the French Revolution, is hopelessly outmoded for our far more complex era of expensive technology and global politics.

It is always useful to call for free thought and speech, especially when both seem weirdly under fire, from left and right (later in the introduction, Paglia writes, “The title of this book exalts freedom as an indispensable condition for the incubation and flourishing of individualism”). Despite how tedious reading yet more about Doris Day and Madonna may be, sometimes we look to past predictions to see how they might be right. This Paglia line, originally from 1997, is particularly prescient: “Too much tolerance too fast can produce a puritanical or fascist backlash” (142). Had I read that in August I would’ve laughed. Now I realize that I was wrong and that is fascist backlash is possible. We don’t really learn from history—not collectively, anyhow—and facts don’t change our minds. In some ways the state of knowledge is better than ever before; we can learn almost anything, immediately, but in other ways the state of knowledge is worse: incorrect memes proliferate, and they enable the fascist backlash, though that backlash may be enabled by people who know not what they do.

That line about tolerance and backlash occurs nearly midway through the book and it’s easy to miss. But it’s also emblematic of the way Paglia spouts ideas like water from a Greek fountain. They are ceaseless, and take the eye away for a moment and new ideas take the place of the ones just experienced. In this way she is, or is close to being, an artist.

She also calls for real equality rather than special privileges or hand-holding; she says, for example,

What was distinctive in those emancipated women—and here loom my later problems with second-wave feminism—was that they never indulged in reflex male-bashing: they accepted and admired the enormity of what men had accomplished and were simply demanding a fair chance to prove that women could match or surpass it. Their inspirational record of unapologetic ambition and plucky, resourceful self-reliance was the foundation for my later philosophy of equal opportunity feminism.

That being said, she can also be fond of nitwitisms like, “The sexes are at war.” Nonsense. It’s nonsense now and has been nonsense as often as it’s been said. In that domain we live in a positive-sum world, not a zero-sum world, and in many ways Paglia gets that. Yet she won’t quite admit it.

While I admire parts of Free Women, Free Men, I wish for another book like Sexual Personae. In her conversation with Tyler Cowen, however, Paglia said that what she considered to be Volume II of Sexual Personae she actually published as individual “articles.” A shame. Nothing she’s published since that, however interesting it may be at times, matches it. I will reiterate that new Paglia is worth reading, but be ready to skip the sections that you have in effect already read.

The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream — Tyler Cowen

The Complacent Class came out last week and it’s excellent. Drop everything and read it. That said, if you read Cowen’s previous two books on related subjects, The Great Stagnation and Average is Over, you will recognize some of the underlying facts that drive the narrative (the preceding links go to my previous essays on those two books).

I’m not going to summarize The Complacent Class because it’s already been well-summarized in many places, like “Dreaming small: how America lost its taste for risk” (though you may not be able to cross the FT paywall). This piece is also good. Here is another. Here is another. More may be found.

That being said, the summaries don’t and can’t account for the many, many small details and sometimes counterintuitive swoops the book makes, and some of the articles I’ve seen argue with strawmen. So I’m going to discuss some of the smaller details and possible counterexamples while attempting to avoid fights with inanimate bags of straw.

Cowen enumerates the many ways our desire for safety actually increases risk, but I can think of one macro trend that defies this general point. For all the complacency of the complacent classes, guns are one domain that remains wildly dangerous. Politicians are reluctant to touch anything to do with guns; by at least some measures, gun laws are more lax than ever and it’s easier than ever for anyone, including mentally ill or deranged people, to get guns. Guns kill tens of thousands of people a year; among non-medical issues, only cars rival them (and opioids, if one considers them non-medical). Yet the collective response has been to make guns easier to get, rather than less. We’re over-obsessed with safety in some domains and seemingly under-obsessed in others, including cars and guns.

In the chapter “Why Americans Stopped Creating” Cowen writes:

A recent report by Wells Fargo showed productivity slowdowns in almost every sector of the American economy. Perhaps most strikingly, the sector “professional and technical services” showed no increase in the productivity of the average office worker at all. You might think IT and the wired office has boosted productivity substantially, and it has in some ways, such as enabling rapid-fire communications across great distances or after work hours are over. But the evidence has yet to materialize for any kind of recent boost in office productivity. We don’t yet know why this is, but maybe the time Americans waste on Facebook and texting and social media takes back some of the gains from all that added connectivity and greater ability to network.

This is plausible, and I’ll add that it may not only be that we’re wasting time “on Facebook and texting and social media.” We may also be deploying technological gains in efficiency terms to create more onerous, bureaucratic, or difficult processes that don’t necessarily add value. In 2015, I wrote a post on “How Computers Have Made Grant Writing Worse.” Computers have enabled us to produce more drafts for clients; clients to comment more on each draft; and, perhaps worst of all, funders to produce longer, harder-to-understand RFPs.

Funders can also just become more demanding in general. When I started working for Seliger + Associates, most foundation and corporate funders wanted a one-, three, or five-page letter proposal, and writing one such proposal was enough to ensure that it could be cleanly and quickly customized for each funder. Many funders are moving to online systems that are hard to use and that often demand persnickety, weird answers to non-standard questions. Our productivity has fallen in some ways, because funders can demand more onerous application processes—which may be attractive to them while raising costs to nonprofit and public agencies.

Email may be another example of technology slowing things down by almost as much as it speeds things up. While email can be very useful often it isn’t, which many of us know as we check it compulsively anyway. In addition to grant writing I do some work as an adjunct professor; I get lots of emails from students, very few of them substantive and most about material covered by the syllabus or about persnickety issues that are best struggled with (the word “persnickety” is useful in dealing with technological availability). I don’t want to turn this into an ill-advised kids-these-days rant, but I’m definitely not convinced that email has improved teaching, learning, or the university experience.

The email bombardment is significant enough that I’ve instead banned email, in part using the rationale at the link, and the results have been good. But not everyone can ban email and it’s still hard for me to separate the substantive from the substanceless. Still, I don’t think being able to receive student emails about sicknesses and petty points around assignments and so forth has improved the education process. Students used to have to wrestle with more problems for themselves, while today they can and do often email questions and concerns that they ought to be able to decide autonomously.

The ways computers have made us more productive are obvious; it’s much faster to write a proposal via computer than typewriter, and it’s more pleasant writing on a 27″ iMac than the 10″ IBM CRT my Dad bought when he started Seliger + Associates. Yet the ways we’ve clawed back gains, through a kind of information Jevons Paradox, are also on my mind. Books like Deep Work take on special salience. How many of you are reading as many books as you used to? I don’t: I do read a lot more longform articles and essays, using Instapaper.com and a Kindle, and while this may be a net improvement I wonder about the costs.

Earlier I mentioned opioids. Cowen writes about what our drugs may say about us:

The 1960s was also an era that called for greater freedom with drug experimentation. But of all the drugs that might have been legalized, American citizens chose the one—marijuana—that makes users spacey, calm, and sleepy. LSD attracted great interest in the 1960s for its ability—for better or worse—to help users see and experience an entirely different world, often with different physical laws. That is now out of fashion.

That point is well-taken, especially regarding marijuana legalization, yet we’ve also seen the growth of molly / ecstasy / MDMA-style uppers that make people better able to connect with each other and that seem most often used in shared, group spaces far from computers. Ayahuasca is popular (or trendy) enough to merit a New Yorker article, “The Drug of Choice for the Age of Kale.” I’m not sure molly helps people imagine a different world, like LSD does, but it’s far from the spacey, calming effects of marijuana.

We also all live in our own bubbles, but I’ve been offered that class of drug more often probably than any other. Or maybe people today want to be different enough to be interesting but not so different as to be dangerous; the molly class of drugs, if synthesized in pure form, seems much less dangerous than, say, coke (back to The Complacent Class: “Crack cocaine, a major drug in the 1980s, can rile people up, but for a few decades now it’s been losing ground to heroin and other opioids…”). I don’t have good data on the molly class of drugs and their popularity, and I’d be curious to see if any readers do.

On transport Cowen writes:

The more general picture on transportation can be described with two words: less and slower. The number of bus routes has decreased, and America has done very little to build up its train network, even when additional or faster train lines would be profitable. Although American cities have growing populations and wealth, they haven’t built many new subway systems in the last thirty-five years, with the exception of the partial system in Los Angeles. The Department of Transportation has written, “All indicators show declines in personal travel for every age group, particularly among young people since the early 2000s.”

To me the problems are obvious: traffic is horrendous in many cities; parking is horrendous; plane travel is a relentless horror show, especially given the relentless security theater encountered in airports. For the last six months I’ve been meaning to visit L.A., but I despise going through airports and dealing with the unaccountable TSA goons who man them—and, speaking of subways, there’s no subway from LAX to the rest of the system.

To Seattle’s slight credit, it is (too slowly) building a subway system, which works well so far. Over the next 25 years, it will expand dramatically, but there is no planned route across the 520 floating bridge—people familiar with Seattle will know this is a huge problem. There is progress, but too little, and while Seattle is doing better on housing affordability than San Francisco and some other cities, it isn’t doing as well as it could and should.

Still, in some ways maybe driving less is getting closer to a green energy utopia: we don’t have to drive as much as we once did. In an era of climate change, cell phones, Netflix, and Internet porn may help us avoid or alleviate some of the challenges that arise from the oil economy.

The Complacent Class’s humor is real, underrated, and mostly unnoticed by the commenters I’ve noticed. For example: “There are dating or sex services to find people of specific nationalities, religions, ages, breast sizes, preferred sexual practices, and various weight sizes, including for those who prefer the very obese. Facebook helps people hook up with their exes and their junior high school crushes—not always for the better, of course.” An understatement: one can imagine that junior high crushes are best left in the imaginary past than the somewhat cruel light of the present.

In addition, part of the book’s overall and grimly focused humor comes from the way members of the complacent class (like me) are the people most likely to be reading it and discussing it.

This is an unfair criticism and mostly about my personal preference, but I would’ve liked to see more about books. The comment about Jane Austen being the canonical canonical writer of today, given her interest in matching, versus Dostoyevsky being the canonical canonical writer of the ’60s, being obsessed with morals, murder, and ethics, is good, and I wanted more. Is Gone Girl a fantasy about complacency shattered? Is Seveneves another way of yearning for complacency’s end? Is the seeming end of high culture itself a form of complacency?

I haven’t written much about the chapter on matching, which is interesting throughout, and the chapter “How a Dynamic Society Looks and Feels” is especially good. The last chapter is more speculative, and one wonders what “The Return of Chaos” might mean, beyond current political problems. Still, it’s striking to me that we barely avoided a global catastrophe in the form of Ebola. But I do think we’ve become collectively unaware of how bad, bad can really be. I wrote some about those issues in “Trump fears and the nuclear apocalypse,” especially regarding how it’s possible to sleepwalk into war. Many of the things done by Trump so far are bad but not catastrophic. Some catastrophic things may yet come to pass through his action, inaction, or simple incompetence, and we will all bear its costs. Everything, including complacency, has a cost.

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World — Cal Newport

In college, a guy who lived on my floor and spent seemingly all day every day on his computer, doing not much of anything, always with a browser window open and perpetually scrolling, searching, watching, surfing, or reading—for what I don’t know. I don’t think he knew. There seemed to be no purpose in his activities. I’d ask him sometimes what he was doing, and he never had a real good answer. I don’t remember his name.

deep_workThe difference between that guy then is that he was seen as an isolated weirdo loser (I think, anyway). Now, the way he lives has become for many of us the way we all live. For that reason Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World is, properly read, an indictment of me and probably of you. Because it’s an indictment it can be hard to read because it wounds through its accurate dissection of the way many of us live—or rather, don’t live. Newport writes:

Deep work is necessary to wring every last drop of value out of your current intellectual capacity. We now know from decades of research in both psychology and neuroscience that the state of mental strain that accompanies deep work is also necessary to improve your abilities. Deep work, in other words, was exactly the type of effort needed to stand out in a cognitively demanding field. . . .

Deep work isn’t only about your “current intellectual capacity”—it’s about improving and developing that intellectual capacity. Your current intellectual capacity probably isn’t and shouldn’t be your final intellectual capacity. Yet:

The ubiquity of deep work among influential individuals is important to emphasize because it stands in sharp contract to the behavior of most modern knowledge workers—a group that’s rapidly forgetting the value of going deep.

The reason knowledge workers are losing their familiarity with deep work is well established: network tools. This is a broad category that captures communication services like e-mail and SMS, social media networks like Twitter and Facebook, and the shiny tangle of infotainment sites like BuzzFeed and Reddit

Sound familiar? Maybe too familiar? It does to me. I’ve gone through periods of very intense deep work and periods of very little deep work. I know what the habits of both look like and I also know the temptations of the shallows. Many of you probably do too, but the reinforcement Newport offers is useful, like a reminder that sugar is terrible. We know. But we need to move from knowing to implementing change. Deep Work covers both.

Newport is not arguing for an all-work-all-the-time approach, and he knows that doing the max necessitates some downtime. I also think there is some important balance necessary between radical “openness” (random browsing, searching, connecting, that sort of thing) and radical “closedness” (shutting the door, solitude, going deep within the self to create). The radically open never get anything important done, like major software, books, articles, essays, or projects. The radically closed probably need an influx of new ideas, influences, concepts, and techniques. Too much of either is a detriment, but I myself am probably now too “open” in this sense.

In almost any finite system, one question should be, “What is the scarce resource here?” For most of us, it’s probably not excessive closedness.

To be sure, I learn much from the Internet, Hacker News, blogs, and so forth, but it is often too tempting to do shallow to medium-depth reading at the expense of more substantive projects. It’s too rare for me to do really deep reading—or writing. I know the problems: “Among other insights, [Clifford] Nass’s research revealed that constant attention switching online has a lasting negative effect on your brain” and I know the solutions. But the implementation can be hard.

Smartphones can’t be helping this, either, anymore than they can be helping the quality of relationships. Doesn’t stop us from using them, though.

Students report shocking (to me) levels of interest in and keeping up with Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and others. I don’t want this to turn into a “kids these days” essay, in which I wave my cane and tell everyone to get off my damn lawn, but it does seem like it’d be hard to accomplish much with the endless background noise forever buzzing. Then again, I see my friends engage the same behaviors, so maybe age is less a factor than I might think at first. We have all the world’s information in our hands, but what do we do with it? That’s a key question underlying Newport’s book—and all of our lives.

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