Knowledge Consumption

Feb 22 2023

Making sense of information diets.

We digest information, we chew on ideas, we communicate in bite-sized pieces. The food metaphor is prevalent for writing as a way to think about how we interact with our ideas. And while this isn’t necessarily a bad thing; we use those phrases more commonly for a reason, it shortchanges the value of what we are trying to communicate.

Part of the tension here comes from a pervading sense that people only read the headlines, not the full article. And while part of that is due to the overwhelming shift to paywalled articles for mainstream news outlets and media organizations, part of it is also time, and a tension between the right amount of information needed to carry an idea.

There are numerous review that reproach blog posts masquerading as books, and books that need ‘editing’ and are over-long. Readers may give different reasons for their frustration with this, but I imagine it’s often a question of whether the reader felt they ‘got the idea’ or ‘the gist’ of what the author is trying to communicate, and whether the additional words. In a more selfish phrasing, it can be a question of:“Why should I trust that the author will convey the full idea and details in a way that best matches my preferred information diet?”

This is a fair question in the sense of expectations not always matching reality. A developing news story may not yet have all the details I want to know. An article may want to spend more time explaining something I think I already know about, and so I skim past to the things that seem less familiar. Skimming, speed reading, all of this is about efficiency. Nuance has never been about efficiency.

There’s a conflict between these ideas. Efficiency is used to read more in less time, to do more in less time with fewer resources. Efficiency is a measure of method, not a goal in itself. Instead, efficiency wants to know what you need to do.

I want to read more != I want to fully understand a specific topic.I want to read faster != I want to fully understand a specific topic.

I don’t have the time to read deeply = the value of reading deeply does not outweigh the opportunity cost for other uses of my time.

Which is fine! That’s okay! No one wants to spend every second of the day only reading. What I’m interested in is how do we strike a balance between time spent reading, the amount of reading, and what we want to gain from that information. The problem isn’t entirely with the reader, either. There are plenty of writers who don’t match up with how you want to discover that information. And there are plenty of writers who don’t write well. We get around this with word-of-mouth recommendations, tweets, snippets of ‘I thought you might find this interesting.’ We rely on other readers and their reviews. If you are a headlines-only reader, that’s fine. You don’t have to hide it. There is plenty of room and grace to say ‘I saw this in passing’ or ‘I saw something about this but haven’t read anything more on the subject.’ My personal opinion is that it is ok to recognize the limits of your knowledge. Not knowing everything doesn’t mean you know nothing. What is the goal of your reading? Is it to understand a topic thoroughly? Is it to be aware of major events happening around you? Is it purely for pleasure? Is it to escape for a bit? Is it to see someone else’s perspective? Is it to laugh about something you find funny? Maybe the argument isn’t ‘we need more nuance’ but rather ‘why don’t you want to do the work of learning nuance?’

Because it is work. Rarely does it come in the form of a single article on the matter. It takes putting together the different bite-sized pieces and turning them into a larger picture. Digestion doesn’t occur immediately, either. It’s the behind-the-scenes process that keeps these ideas in the back of our mind, looking at how this information alters, whether through addition or subtraction, how we understand our world.

And by world, I don’t mean the globe. I mean the people we see everyday, the streets we drive or walk down, the ennui of waiting in line, the meals we eat, taxes we pay, the way we travel and communicate. Much is said about expanding perspective, but there’s a difference between what knowing what you should see and what you are seeing as you make your way through the day. So why do we use food metaphors when talking about knowledge? These ideas are supposed to fuel us. It takes continual nourishment, but the goal is for them to be put in action.