Schopenhauer and innovation
“As the biggest library if it is in disorder is not as useful as a small but well-arranged one, so you may accumulate a vast amount of knowledge but it will be of far less value than a much smaller amount if you have not thought it over for yourself.” – Arthur Schopenhauer, The Art of Literature, chapter 5, 1891
The problem of the internet is that it has the potential to generate a vast cacophony of echoes distorting echoes.
The promise: by having more communication, we can build solutions to problems more rapidly. 1. One way to do this is by communicating sub-solutions, where one agent has produced one part of the solution, another a different part. This requires coordination of sub-solutions to achieve a solution. 2. Another is by allowing rapid feedback on an idea. “Can anyone see a problem with x? Can anyone see what is right with x?” An example of this would be getting comments on an article or post one has written. This requires evaluation of the feedback. 3. Another way is by allowing a given agent to find the information they need to generate a (sub-)solution themselves. For example, finding a book or article by using a search technology.
Some things to consider:
a) In any communications system, the static:signal ratio is important. Increasing ease of feedback, for example, might increase the static such that it outweighs the advantages from the increase in signal.
b) Similarly, with more information available, the ease by which to distract oneself with irrelevant writing increases. For example, one goes to find an article on x, only to get sidetracked by an article on y. Sometimes, such sidetracking is useful, but my guess is that the large majority of the time it is not.
More subtly, the important information may not be as readily apparent, so one may spend time reading things that wouldn’t have been available before because they aren’t as important.
c) Someone must do some new thinking for genuinely novel solutions, and often the depth of thought required by some individual will be very great.
d) There is something to thinking something through for oneself. When one thinks through something for oneself, one gains an understanding that often doesn’t obtain when reading someone else’s thoughts.
For both c) and d), increasing availability of things to read might decrease time spent thinking things through for oneself, which can actually result in a decrease in future solutions.
So, what is the right balance? Schopenhauer suggests that a “man should read only when his own thoughts stagnate at their source, which will happen often enough even with the best of minds.” For most complex and creative areas of enquiry – even ruggedly empirical ones – my guess is that this applies to a significant extent.
Unless one figures out how to sift, focus (using search technologies, say, to find relevant information more quickly), and limit, a technology like the internet may diminish significant scientific or technological progress, instead of increasing it.
This post was sparked by Bruce Charlton’s post.