With the World’s Knowledge a Click Away, We Spend Our Time Looking at Funny Pictures of Cats

Last week I introduced the concept of ultralearning: deep, aggressive self-education. This is the strategy that I used to learn hard subjects like differential equations or Mandarin Chinese in a short amount of time.

This kind of self-education—epitomized by doing intense practice to learn hard subjects—isn’t a normal practice for most people.

I believe that would surprise many of the futurists who looked at the development of the Internet. Suddenly, all the world’s information would be available easily, to anyone in the world. Many universities, seizing the opportunity, decided to publish their course materials for anyone to follow.

The Internet Age was supposed to be like the printing press, a new Enlightenment, by allowing easy and free access to expertise and knowledge that was previously hard to come by. Instead, we spend our time looking at funny pictures of cats.

What the Futurists Got Wrong

What went wrong? The internet enabled us to become experts in anything we desired. We could learn lucrative skills, foreign languages or the cutting edge science that defines our humanity. Why, then, is ultralearning so unusual?

The quick answer is that ultralearning is hard and looking at funny cat pictures is easy and entertaining. I’ll admit, that’s a good explanation for the many people who have no interest in learning anything.

However, as evidenced by the popularity of things like the MIT Challenge, it’s clear to me that many of you actually do want to learn more things. What’s holding people back isn’t simply a utilitarian calculation that people would rather spend their time looking at cat pictures than learning hard and useful things. Instead it’s because ultralearning is a skill most people have never been taught, and they have temporary barriers preventing them from starting.

Reddit, Self-Education and the Paradox of Choice

I’m fascinated by Reddit. For those of you who don’t know the social media platform, it’s a website where anyone can submit links, and then other people can vote on those links to decide whether they’re good or not.

In theory, Reddit should produce the most popular content. In practice, however, it has a very strong bias for images, sensational headlines and short videos. Longer, deeper content is practically ignored. The algorithm produces this because, faced with hundreds of links and too many choices, human beings naturally gravitate to the easiest-to-process content, not necessarily the best.

Reddit is the informational equivalent of fast food. It’s delicious and highly optimized to meet the hardwired circuits of your desire for information. But, consumed in excess, it’s probably not the ideal diet you would choose for your mind.

I’m not advocating eliminating all shallow, infotainment from your life. I enjoy Reddit. The difference is that, in recognizing its addictive potential to pull me away from the deeper learning opportunities I also desire, I strictly moderate my usage. (There are a variety of tools for doing this, I recommend LeechBlock.)

What has happened with the internet is a paradox of choice. Faced with the barrage of information, we gravitate towards shallower consumption. Because the very mechanism of internet algorithms is to propagate what is liked, upvoted and shared, this means that shallow content overwhelms deeper opportunities for learning.

Recovering the Lost Art of Self-Education

I don’t believe this situation is something to despair. Instead, the internet has created both an incredible opportunity along with a tricky obstacle.

The great autodidacts of the past, Benjamin Franklin, Richard Feynman and Leonardo da Vinci would have been blown away by the ease and accessibility for learning hard subjects in the modern era. The opportunities for ultralearning are enormous.

However, they also did not have to face the distraction of memes, the constant eruption of tabloidesque social media scandals and silly pictures of cats. This obstacle for engaging in the enormous depths possible for self-education today is not a trivial one.

But, for the people who would like to become ultralearners, I think there is a twofold solution:

  1. Make a conscious decision about your ratio of deep to shallow information consumed. It doesn’t have to be 100% deep learning, but recognize that without deliberate decisions, it will trend to 0%. This ratio can be inforced, without willpower, using systems like LeechBlock, Mac App Blocker and Self-Control.
  2. Learn the skill of self-education. The second barrier to ultralearning is that most people don’t know how to teach themselves hard things effectively, so even if they could remove distractions, they wouldn’t learn programming, calculus or foreign languages. This latter barrier, I’ll cover more in the next articles in this series.

  • Sandra Boodhoo

    I can’t wait for your next couple of articles on self-education! 😀

  • Sandra Boodhoo

    I can’t wait for your next couple of articles on self-education! 😀

  • Mel

    Interesting – and really quite important – stuff. It’s true, most of us choose to consume content which is easiest to consume. Although, of course, Google likes in-depth, long-form content.

  • Mel

    Interesting – and really quite important – stuff. It’s true, most of us choose to consume content which is easiest to consume. Although, of course, Google likes in-depth, long-form content.

  • Joe

    It is open my eyes how to use internet properly. Most of the times, I use it for read or watch entertainment. The era of internet gives us access to many learning contents but at the same time it enhanced our opportunity to wasting time by spending it on something that we don’t really need most of the times.

  • Joe

    It is open my eyes how to use internet properly. Most of the times, I use it for read or watch entertainment. The era of internet gives us access to many learning contents but at the same time it enhanced our opportunity to wasting time by spending it on something that we don’t really need most of the times.

  • Thanks to this post I now know who Richard Feynman was. Opening an other tab and doing some research helped.

    Regarding the non-available distractions in the past I like to disagree. Maybe not a Da Vinci or a Franklin, but Feynman probably read a daily paper, laughed with colleagues about comics and jokes – The advantage they had was: It was not addictive like todays clicking from one pic to the next and when those are done switching to videos about “the best fails of the week”.

    Your approach with technically limiting your ‘leisure time’ sounds interesting. Please allow me one question:
    How much time do you grant yoursel for ‘silly’ things per day?

    Thanks for this useful blog (evolved a lot since I first visited about 5-6 years ago).

  • Ritterspiel

    Thanks to this post I now know who Richard Feynman was. Opening an other tab and doing some research helped.

    Regarding the non-available distractions in the past I like to disagree. Maybe not a Da Vinci or a Franklin, but Feynman probably read a daily paper, laughed with colleagues about comics and jokes – The advantage they had was: It was not addictive like todays clicking from one pic to the next and when those are done switching to videos about “the best fails of the week”.

    Your approach with technically limiting your ‘leisure time’ sounds interesting. Please allow me one question:
    How much time do you grant yoursel for ‘silly’ things per day?

    Thanks for this useful blog (evolved a lot since I first visited about 5-6 years ago).

  • PeterHenry

    A lot of people want to learn, want to improve, but just can’t do it. A large part of the issue is the increasing lack of self discipline, particularly among younger people. The ability to make a plan and stick to it, in spite of it being difficult or ‘boring’ compared to the distractions. “But I get things done at work, but can’t get anywhere with my projects or learn things I want”. At work you have a supervisor, a boss. You rely on their discipline, not your own. This is largely the difference between people who will be employees their whole life despite desiring more, and those who can become successful entrepreneurs. Self education is by definition an exercise in self discipline.

    So how does one end up being deficient in self discipline. By upbringing alone, or are there mechanisms that can erode it? I’ll put forward that the new age of enlightenment that the internet has brought has coincided with an increase in stimuli and culture that isn’t conducive to self control/discipline, and even erodes it. So then, how does one learn it, especially later in life? Some ideas include implementing a morning routine wherein you do a certain set of tasks daily, writing down all tasks on a to do list and every morning planning out the time in your day to cover the highest priority tasks you noted on a calendar; but adhering all of this requires self discipline. So it seems almost chicken and egg, but in reality it’s not.

    It just requires a willingness and fortitude to fight to teach yourself something new. Self discipline is the foundation of an effective, happy life I believe. Like learning to walk it requires you to accept that you’ll fall down a lot. You’ll fail daily. You want to work on your personal website, improve your painting skills or studying for the exam, but instead you’ll binge on idle internet browsing and playing video games instead. The pursuit of building this self-discipline muscle involves reconditioning and rewiring the brain. But if you keep working at it, eventually the span between failure increases. The ability to ignore distractions to focus on priority increases. You FEEL less of a pull on you away from the priority tasks that you set your mind on doing, because your self control increases. You’re anchored and harder to sway by the currents around you. This ties in with the issue of dopamine addiction, an addiction to short term fulfillment, be it from simplistic exaggerated headlines that reinforce your bias, from so-called sugar addiction, and porn among others. There’s a lot at play here. I’m no authority but I’ve been exploring this subject for a while, due to basically trying to cure myself.

  • PeterHenry

    A lot of people want to learn, want to improve, but just can’t do it. A large part of the issue is the increasing lack of self discipline, particularly among younger people. The ability to make a plan and stick to it, in spite of it being difficult or ‘boring’ compared to the distractions. “But I get things done at work, but can’t get anywhere with my projects or learn things I want”. At work you have a supervisor, a boss. You rely on their discipline, not your own. This is largely the difference between people who will be employees their whole life despite desiring more, and those who can become successful entrepreneurs. Self education is by definition an exercise in self discipline.

    So how does one end up being deficient in self discipline. By upbringing alone, or are there mechanisms that can erode it? I’ll put forward that the new age of enlightenment that the internet has brought has coincided with an increase in stimuli and culture that isn’t conducive to self control/discipline, and even erodes it. So then, how does one learn it, especially later in life? Some ideas include implementing a morning routine wherein you do a certain set of tasks daily, writing down all tasks on a to do list and every morning planning out the time in your day to cover the highest priority tasks you noted on a calendar; but adhering all of this requires self discipline. So it seems almost chicken and egg, but in reality it’s not.

    It just requires a willingness and fortitude to fight to teach yourself something new. Self discipline is the foundation of an effective, happy life I believe. Like learning to walk it requires you to accept that you’ll fall down a lot. You’ll fail daily. You want to work on your personal website, improve your painting skills or studying for the exam, but instead you’ll binge on idle internet browsing and playing video games instead. The pursuit of building this self-discipline muscle involves reconditioning and rewiring the brain. But if you keep working at it, eventually the span between failure increases. The ability to ignore distractions to focus on priority increases. You FEEL less of a pull on you away from the priority tasks that you set your mind on doing, because your self control increases. You’re anchored and harder to sway by the currents around you. This ties in with the issue of dopamine addiction, an addiction to short term fulfillment, be it from simplistic exaggerated headlines that reinforce your bias, from so-called sugar addiction, and porn among others. There’s a lot at play here. I’m no authority but I’ve been exploring this subject for a while, due to basically trying to cure myself.

  • Alexander Ladroma

    Can’t wait for the next article Scott! Great blog!

  • Alexander Ladroma

    Can’t wait for the next article Scott! Great blog!

  • Anon

    “The second barrier to ultralearning is that most people don’t know how to teach themselves hard things effectively, so even if they could remove distractions, they wouldn’t learn programming, calculus or foreign languages.”
    What about an article about the skill of self-education?

  • Anon

    “The second barrier to ultralearning is that most people don’t know how to teach themselves hard things effectively, so even if they could remove distractions, they wouldn’t learn programming, calculus or foreign languages.”
    What about an article about the skill of self-education?

  • Kent St. (Korea)

    Just some initial thoughts…brainstorming…random. This may not be true for you, but it is true for some…maybe.

    1) The internet is for learning? This thought almost came as a shock!

    2) How and where can you find all this wonderful self-education stuff? What are the best links? How can you find the needle in the haystack of Google’s 40,800,000 results?

    3) The internet has taught us not to read. There is too much info. One must scan everything, so we are out of the habit of “deep.” This blog post–good–but how many “readers” REALLY read every word? I didn’t! And Mr. Henry below–who wants to read a dense three-paragraph comment?! Just the look of it is off-putting! (no offense meant…just my personal reaction)

    4) There are “readers” and “non-readers”. Online learning works better for the “readers”. I read as little of my text-books as possible in Uni (I have a master’s). I don’t read all of any text-book I teach from (I’m a professor). Learning from TED is much more my style. Face-to-face interactive learning fits me. Where does the internet provide this…at a price one can afford, and in a schedule one can do? I HATE discussion boards….again….too much reading required.

    5) There should be an abstract, summary or “fast read” version of everything. Especially blogs. No one wants to read all that crap!

  • Kent St. (Korea)

    Just some initial thoughts…brainstorming…random. This may not be true for you, but it is true for some…maybe.

    1) The internet is for learning? This thought almost came as a shock!

    2) How and where can you find all this wonderful self-education stuff? What are the best links? How can you find the needle in the haystack of Google’s 40,800,000 results?

    3) The internet has taught us not to read. There is too much info. One must scan everything, so we are out of the habit of “deep.” This blog post–good–but how many “readers” REALLY read every word? I didn’t! And Mr. Henry below–who wants to read a dense three-paragraph comment?! Just the look of it is off-putting! (no offense meant…just my personal reaction)

    4) There are “readers” and “non-readers”. Online learning works better for the “readers”. I read as little of my text-books as possible in Uni (I have a master’s). I don’t read all of any text-book I teach from (I’m a professor). Learning from TED is much more my style. Face-to-face interactive learning fits me. Where does the internet provide this…at a price one can afford, and in a schedule one can do? I HATE discussion boards….again….too much reading required.

    5) There should be an abstract, summary or “fast read” version of everything. Especially blogs. No one wants to read all that crap!

  • Gopi Krishnan G

    you poor thing… 🙁

  • Gopi Krishnan G

    you poor thing… 🙁

  • Natalie Jones.

    Great read. Very informative and unusual topic. Reminds me of a public speaker called Hamwi Mustafa in Dubai. Keep posting. Thanks.

  • Natalie Jones.

    Great read. Very informative and unusual topic. Reminds me of a public speaker called Hamwi Mustafa in Dubai. Keep posting. Thanks.

  • Camila SC

    Very good, of all the subjects you speak of in your site, this is the one I’ve always been most interested in.

    it’s important to consider these other limitations when ultra-learning from the web:

    1- finding the correct material
    (by the time i found betterexplained.com, i had already struggled through years of mediocre high school math classes. it’s difficult to find the *just right* material for you in each subject.for subjects that are traditionally taught wrongly like math, even more so)

    2- time and money.

    (self-taught greats of the past are inspiring to us today, but now we recognize better that they were a tiny percent of people who had advantages others didn’t. we have to understand that a great majority of the world population does not have the *means* themselves to even do this)
    3- availability

    (mainly, in the form of language barriers. the best material of the web is in english, most of the world does not speak english).
    4- the distractions *want* to distract you. (that’s their business, of course it’s not gonna be *easy* to just shun down all these social media sites- they’re actively fighting against you for your time and using all the tools they can, like by making themselves ¨/essential/ (just like in this site, where i see social media icons if i want to publish this comment via disqus…)

    being conscious of these limitations should theoretically make the “ultra-learning” process smoother.

  • Camila SC

    Very good, of all the subjects you speak of in your site, this is the one I’ve always been most interested in.

    it’s important to consider these other limitations when ultra-learning from the web:

    1- finding the correct material
    (by the time i found betterexplained.com, i had already struggled through years of mediocre high school math classes. it’s difficult to find the *just right* material for you in each subject.for subjects that are traditionally taught wrongly like math, even more so)

    2- time and money.

    (self-taught greats of the past are inspiring to us today, but now we recognize better that they were a tiny percent of people who had advantages others didn’t. we have to understand that a great majority of the world population does not have the *means* themselves to even do this)
    3- availability

    (mainly, in the form of language barriers. the best material of the web is in english, most of the world does not speak english).
    4- the distractions *want* to distract you. (that’s their business, of course it’s not gonna be *easy* to just shun down all these social media sites- they’re actively fighting against you for your time and using all the tools they can, like by making themselves ¨/essential/ (just like in this site, where i see social media icons if i want to publish this comment via disqus…)

    being conscious of these limitations should theoretically make the “ultra-learning” process smoother.

AS SEEN IN