Gongol.com Archives: July 2021
One of the great temptations of a hyper-connected, social-media-drenched age is to flit about pointlessly from one tweet to another, doomscrolling endlessly through Facebook, and going down low-value YouTube wormholes. The short-term sense of stimulation one gets from the illusion of being connected to "right now" turns out to be insufficiently satisfying in the long run. ■ A great alternative, of course, is to read books -- particularly those books that have stood the test of time. At the very least, it makes sense to consume a media "diet" balanced between the timely and the timeless. Human nature really hasn't changed that much in thousands of years of history -- things that mattered to people in the past, like the quests for love and belonging and the fear of pain and death, are the same things that still matter to human beings today. They will matter for millennia to come. ■ But occasionally one encounters really bad advice from the past. Not just advice on matters like "how to deal with your slaves", but on deeper things, too -- like what comprises a good media diet. Indeed, Lucius Seneca -- who lived at roughly the same time as Jesus -- offers some specific advice to his correspondent in his letter #2: "You must linger among a limited number of master-thinkers, and digest their works, if you would derive ideas which shall win firm hold in your mind. Everywhere means nowhere. When a person spends all his time in foreign travel, he ends by having many acquaintances, but no friends." ■ At the surface, this may seem like a valid recommendation: Get to know subjects thoroughly. Don't be a mile wide and an inch deep. The jack of all trades is the master of none. But dig a little deeper, and you'll find that the advice is hollow, at least in the modern world. ■ There may have been a time when it was possible to read all the works that anyone had ever written on a subject. Certainly, there weren't all that many books published before there was a printing press to make them en masse. That isn't the case today; there are uncounted numbers of books, papers, articles, and electronic documents that have been published on the whole spectrum of human knowledge -- with vast amounts yet to be learned. Ask a graduate student conducting research: A literature review alone can take up a vast share of a research paper. ■ Yet there is more to it than that. It's not that mastery of any one subject is an illusion (though it may well be). It's that the fish does not know that it is wet. It's hard to know where one's knowledge is bounded without crossing outside the boundary. The most interesting things happen at the margins between subjects, where matters from different fields intersect. The more complex the world becomes, the more important it is to have a multidisciplinary view of the universe. ■ Law and technology are each interesting, but the really hard questions emerge where they intersect, in questions of privacy, national security, and property rights to things that exist only as bits and bytes. Physical sciences like meteorology make tremendous progress on their own, but the social sciences (like psychology and communications) are needed to put those developments to work for the most people -- that's how lives are saved. ■ Isolating ourselves to exhaustively reading all of the "great" writing on just one or two subjects may well constrain us from actually knowing where that knowledge will turn out to be useful in human existence. So while it may be unhealthy to doomscroll, never having an anchor in any particular area of knowledge, it may also be a fool's errand to "linger among a limited number of master-thinkers" without probing the boundaries of that knowledge from the outside. To be a fundamentalist -- even a Stoic fundamentalist or perhaps an astrophysics fundamentalist -- is to put yourself at risk of not knowing where the boundaries of that fundamental knowledge may be.
It takes humility to have other people whose approval matters to you. Humility is a good thing.
They get that weird jackalope energy.