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.

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