Saturday, February 25, 2017

Reading books in the age of the internet

In today's internet age of information, it feels ironic that our attention spans are as short as they are, and the free acquisition of knowledge by someone is so rare to hear about.

In one case, the education system, like a well-oiled efficient machine, relegates knowledge acquisition to just the bare minimum of purely bookish technical matters that seem so abstract so as to be divorced from any social reality or human experience, to churn out human machines to do their part in feeding the starved and relentless motion of industry. I call this industrialized education - different stages of formal education such as grades of school, college, etc feel like a soulless assembly line, and the finished product, quality controlled by various tests and examinations, seems to emerge without much social consciousness.

On the other hand, outside the structured education system today, we are not really imbibed with a fire to learn, or even how to learn. A reasonable person would expect that any individual would start on top (or keep themselves aware) of the bulk of previous collective knowledge, at the very least for issues of interest. Yet, most people today seem to spend most of their time on nonsensical trifles like social media or popular mass audience TV programming, and if they are lucky a fact or two might hit them in the head (a carefully curated and sanitized fact with the consent of state and corporate interests that control these forms of media). While these activities might have their merits for non-educational purposes (which I have significant reservations about anyway, will come to that later), they do a great disservice to education.

First, the format of the internet for learning things has some fundamental flaws. Browsing the internet is always a permanently transient activity - even if one is interested in learning, you are bombarded and overwhelmed with random facts that are ultimately mostly useless because of their superficiality, and the cost of context switching between different tabs (or topics or activities) which causes one to forget everything about it. Can you recall something from your last browsing session? I mostly can't. When I browsed Quora extensively, I used to marvel at the interesting things I read on a daily basis about all sorts of topics. Yet now, those seem completely unremarkable as I cannot recall anything at all, especially damning given the amount of time I spent browsing it. A complete waste of time. The same goes for any popular TV show or "news/entertainment" program.

Second, the bulk of our collective human knowledge, accumulated over time, is in books. There is no way around this. The idea that a book can be condensed into an equivalent 5 minute YouTube video or worse, even shorter pithy comment or smarmy gotcha catchphrase on a TV news program is simply ridiculous. There is no substitute to reading books. If one does not read, they are simply ignorant of the majority of human knowledge, even in their fields of interest.

The fact that TV or video (or other inane soundbites on social media posts, comments, tweets or whatever other monstrosity) form the majority of "knowledge" nowadays is shocking and should be embarrassing. To me, social media or popular media really seems to be the language of the ignorant, and I say that not due to any sense of elitism but because of the drawbacks in communicative capability. Social media (probably due to the incessant chatter and connectedness) tends to make people so impatient, reductionist and honestly incapable of dispassionate learning since they are always in the "hot seat" of any discussion and usually very emotionally invested in it.

For example, I recall reading works on atheism by ethno-nationalist supremacists like Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins and feeling a sense of wonder at how new and enlightened all of it seemed. It now seems even embarrassing to admit that I ever considered such people as novel given that this topic is as old as the hills with an already exhaustive scholarship throughout history beating the dead horse inside out, and blind to the now obvious and distasteful moral failings of these individuals. However, this experience happened out of ignorance - I did not know any better, and they wrote in pop language. They are to philosophy what Chetan Bhagat is to literature.

I did not know or care of the Carvakas. Or Buddha. Or Bertrand Russell. Or Marx. Or EV Periyar. Or Gora. Or Narendra Nayak. I would have known, if I thought that the serious way to learn something is to read extensively about it.

It seems to me that there are very few contemporary authors who actually require attention without first getting a good foundation of human historic collective knowledge, i.e. authors of the past. It may certainly be worthwhile reading contemporary books, at least to get an introduction and an idea of what the space is like. I like Ta-Nehisi Coates, but it has really just made me put WEB DuBois on my reading list.

These thoughts materialized more solidly as I watched the several multi-hour long parts of this fascinatingly informative series What would Plato say about the 2016 Presidential Election. There is no substitute for in-depth discussion with uninterrupted focus and analysis. It has inspired me to seek out such classic and monumental books, so that I can learn from the best accomplishments of human history. It seems strange that no one had ever really bothered to emphasize this to me before, be it in an academic or societal setting.

I will be reading more, and also try to formalize my thoughts about books I'm reading.


Also, off late my observations of social media have soured my opinion of it considerably. I don't think it's entirely because of the recent resurgence of anti-intellectual and immoral movements, although that only helped make it starker - a cursory reading of the comments of a news article these days makes you marvel at the complete lack of dignity, respect or compassion for fellow human beings. I feel repulsed by social media - on a somewhat philosophical level, which goes to the fundamental design of platforms like Facebook or a dating site. In real life, you rarely get a glimpse of yourself unless you pass by a mirror - by and large the 2 eye slits peering outward ensure that most of your day is occupied by other people or things. Yet, on social media, everything is centered around you. Your profile is the first thing you see when you log in. You view all interactions with other people voyeuristically, and you can see exactly how these interactions look like to other people. It is the equivalent of living life with a webcam beaming your every move to everyone, including yourself, and then people getting obsessed with their respective webcam feeds while they interact with each other. Even with our limited daily self-consciousness in real life, we obsess over ourselves to unreasonable degrees. Social media greatly exacerbates that by giving us so much more screen time so as to be voyeuristic about our own lives.

It feels very self-absorbed.

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