“Knowledge is Out, Focus is in” – or maybe, how will books differ from what is accessible through the “internet?”

Let’s think about/talk about how we learn.

I recently gave a synopsis of The Black Swan for a major corporate client.  One person said after the session, “This was really interesting.  But I’m not sure how I’m supposed to use this.”  He was describing what I would say is the difference between a “practical” book vs. a “big picture/let’s think” book.

Which kind is more important to read?

Well, if you have not mastered a skill, then you need a “this is how you do it” book.  Something like Encouraging the Heart on how to treat and build people who report to you at work, or The Tyranny of E-mail to provide concrete suggestions on how to handle your e-mail come to mind.  These are what I would call “read once and you’ve got it” books.  You might refer back to them for reference.  They are valuable, helpful, practical books.  But increasingly, we live in a world where a gigantic ever-available library of “this is how to do stuff” is ready to be accessed at a minutes notice on the/through the internet.

The other books are the “big picture/let’s think” books.  That’s where The Black Swan, much of Malcolm Gladwell, and other authors fit in.  You don’t know what to “do” after reading such books.  But you have a bigger world-view, and you may just think bigger picture after reading such books.

I thought about this after reading a brief post by Andrew Sullivan: The Age Of External Memory:

David Dalrymple finds that “filtering, not remembering, is the most important skill” in the digital age:
Before the Internet, most professional occupations required a large body of knowledge, accumulated over years or even decades of experience. But now, anyone with good critical thinking skills and the ability to focus on the important information can retrieve it on demand from the Internet, rather than her own memory. On the other hand, those with wandering minds, who might once have been able to focus by isolating themselves with their work, now often cannot work without the Internet, which simultaneously furnishes a panoply of unrelated information — whether about their friends’ doings, celebrity news, limericks, or millions of other sources of distraction. The bottom line is that how well an employee can focus might now be more important than how knowledgeable he is. Knowledge was once an internal property of a person, and focus on the task at hand could be imposed externally, but with the Internet, knowledge can be supplied externally, but focus must be forced internally.

Sullivan is quoting from this piece:  KNOWLEDGE IS OUT, FOCUS IS IN, AND PEOPLE ARE EVERYWHERE, by David Dalrymple Researcher, MIT Mind Machine Project.  Dalyrymple begins with this:

Filtering, not remembering, is the most important skill for those who use the Internet. The Internet immerses us in a milieu of information — not for almost 20 years has a Web user read every available page — and there’s more each minute: Twitter alone processes hundreds of tweets every second, from all around the world, all visible for anyone, anywhere, who cares to see. Of course, the majority of this information is worthless to the majority of people. Yet anything we care to know — what’s the function for opening files in Perl? how far is it from Hong Kong to London? what’s a power law? — is out there somewhere.
I see today’s Internet as having three primary, broad consequences: 1) information is no longer stored and retrieved by people, but is managed externally, by the Internet, 2) it is increasingly challenging and important for people to maintain their focus in a world where distractions are available anywhere, and 3) the Internet enables us to talk to and hear from people around the world effortlessly.

Dalyrymple’s point is about the accessing of knowledge, which will become easier and more omnipresent, so that the time will come when a person might do the equivalent of “think” a question, and the answer becomes instantly available.  The how of that is beyond my puny mind to think about.

But this is what I do think about.  What kinds of books will people read?  I think they will read books that do not have parallel content in quick grabs of knowledge through the internet/technology of the era.

So – maybe his phrase describes it partially: knowledge is out, focus is in.  But thinking will also be in, and thinking may be facilitated by fewer “practical” books and more “big picture/let’s think” books.

What do you think?


Important footnote:  The Dalrymple piece is part of a page at the World Question Center, How Has The Internet Changed The Way You Think? Check out (the) Alan Alda’s piece about actual conversation (you know, with “tone of voice” possible) vs. the internet.  An excerpt from Alda:

In email, there’s no instant modulation of the voice that can correct a wrong tone as there is on the phone, and even though I avoid irony when emailing anyone who’s not a professional comedian or amateur curmudgeon, I sometimes have to send a second note to un-miff someone. This can be a problem with any written communication, of course, but email, Web postings, and texting all tempt us with speed. And that speed can cost us clarity. This is not so good because, increasingly, we communicate quickly, without the…  modulating voice…
Somehow, we need what taking our time used to give us: thinking before we talk and questioning before we believe.

I have a hunch I will get lost in this web site a few more times…  Interesting!

One thought on ““Knowledge is Out, Focus is in” – or maybe, how will books differ from what is accessible through the “internet?”

  1. Randy Mayeux Post author

    Good questions — good point.

    You are right. It is not a zero-sum game. It is, and should be, “both/and.” But, part of what I try to do is to help us hear the conversation as others observe it. And I think the Dalrymple post is provocative. I know that I have changed the way I read/watch television/listen. I find myself asking, “how old is Jay Leno, compared to Conan O’Brien,” and seconds later I have my answer on my iPhone. Before the iPhone, which gave me internet access at my tv watching chair, I would have just wondered. Information is now more accessible. At the same time, my mind flies all over the place, and distraction is ever-more possible.

    And, my post was partly prompted by the remark where I delivered the synopsis of The Black Swan — the question, “what do I do with this?”

    As to your “actual conversation” point, yes, tone is possible over the phone in a different/much better way than over electronic forms. I liked Alda’s phrase: I have to “unmiff someone.”


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