As computer systems continue to enable us to find specific information more efficiently, we’re inherently exposed to less ‘peripheral’ information. That is, information which may loosely relate to the topic searched for, but is not required to answer the question posed.
For instance, say I want to find out the best soil mixture for a succulent. In a frighteningly bleak world where a search engine (such as Google, or DuckDuckGo) isn’t a few taps away, I’d have a few options:
- Ask my friend who, unless has prior experience, is in the same boat as I
- Find an expert in the field, then hope they answer my question
- Go to a library, hope a book I don’t know exists, exists, then begin reading
- Say screw it, and “guess” through trial and error
For the purposes of describing peripheral knowledge, let’s assume I take the third approach: find a library and begin reading. I travel to the nearest library, converse with the librarian on possible books, then check out the recommended reading material.
Now begins the hunt.
Even using the table of contents, index, and appendix, I will still have to read a large amount of information that may not directly pertain to what I’m looking for: succulent soil mixtures. This ‘excess’ information I consider peripheral information which, over time, turns into peripheral knowledge (the readily applicable information that’s retained over time). The actual question I’m attempting to answer I consider targeted knowledge.
Now back to the luxurious age of instant communication, if I need to find my answer, I simply Google it…or Bing it…or DuckDuckGo it… Not sure what the phrase will be after someone’s impeding anti-trust lawsuits cough Google cough, but you get the point.
The first few links alone give possible mixtures, the rationale, and where to buy them (with far too many Amazon affiliate links…) all within a few seconds. Not hours, or days. Seconds. And only seconds, because it takes us longer to read the information than it does Google to search for it.
However, this also means for me to find the information I’m looking for, there’s far less peripheral information I must sift through to get to my goal. As such, I may have found what I was looking for, but one could argue I’m less knowledgeable in the domain of plants than if I had to read/skim through some books.
This is not to say the linked resources don’t contain peripheral information, however if I’m looking for a specific answer, I’ve grown accustom to skim/CTRL+F to find the keywords for my question. More recently, search engines have begun doing that for us, providing a relevant excerpt from the larger text.
Pros and Cons
Both options have their benefits and drawbacks:
- Higher barrier of entry for publishing a book (vs a forum post, website, or blog article) means typically the information is more vetted and thus more reliable.
- Forces exposure to peripheral concepts and topics. You might find these interesting, or just see them as facts you spout off during awkward silences.
- Due to the higher barrier of entry, its more difficult for unscrupulous writers to mass-publish disinformation
- Unless at a library, there’s a far greater monetary cost (read: anything more than free.) And even then, you must spend resources getting to the library.
- Iteration cycles are far longer. Reloading a web page vs waiting for the next edition of a book.
- Time investment to read, or even skim a book, is far greater than CTRL+F on the first Google result.
- Depending on the platform, answers to questions are crowdsourced on their accuracy, via voting. If everyone thinks the answer is right, then it is…right?
- Finding experts, communicating with them, or viewing an archive of their previously answered questions is easy, fast, and nearly instant. Just gotta pick the right experts.
- If a piece of information is outdated, and assuming the website owner isn’t slacking, there exists a far shorter turn around time for the author to update their resources.
Information reliability is more of an issue. If Dirty Dan can write that Reddit comment, guest post an article on that blog, or toss together a .weebly website in a few hours, then there’s a worse ‘signal to noise’ ratio.
Answers to questions are crowdsourced. If everyone votes and agrees an answer is right, when they’re all wrong, then your succulent will probably die. Maybe you stumbled upon an echo chamber of succulent-hating botanists
Less exposure to different ideas. Search engines have become highly optimized to a point where, depending on the search query, you’ll find only what you’re looking for. i.e. in all likelihood, you won’t see the converse opinion to the question posed, unless you explicitly search for it.
For many resources, SEO optimization (Search Engine Optimization) doesn’t reward multi-hundred pages of resources for a single post. Thus, books provide a far better ability to introduce a reader to the topic, and robustly expound on each sub topic, its importance, and relevance to the larger thesis. Posts on the other hand, have to do this in far fewer words. For some cases this is ideal, for others this is a crutch.
Thus, the person reading books for the answer is exposed to a far larger corpus of information. Some pieces will be forgotten, but others are bound to stick. While with search results, you’ll find your answer relatively quickly. This low time commitment also means, at least for myself, you’re less likely to remember exactly the answer to the question since you know you can look it up again at a low cost. While, if I had spent a few days at a library looking for the answer to my soil question, I’d probably be taking notes at the very least.
This idea isn’t fully fleshed out, but I decided to at least write my introductory thoughts on the matter. I think there exists further implications of our change in targeted vs peripheral knowledge, specifically with regards to novelty. Our now exponentially greater access to anything novel has led to application designs that target this reward system, which we can see via brain scans (social media over use has the same neurological pathways activated as a gambler playing a slot machines). This isn’t to say anyone on social media will be an addicted gambler, however the predisposition exists, and more strongly as app designers cater to the psychological ‘backdoors’ of our attention.