Remaking the world for infovores

Imagine if your time at school had been your to choose what to do with. You would still have access to teachers and classes, and there would be a syllabus of sorts, but essentially it would be up to you to what to study and how. Maybe also when.

Wouldn’t you have enjoyed school so much more if it had been like this?

Of course, with the internet this is increasingly possible, as Khan Academy has shown. But you don’t need to be at school to get that sort of experience. Everyone can be a self-directed learner now.

That’s the basic message of The Age of the Infovore (US link) by Tyler Cowen. The book is a review of the nature and importance of autistic cognitive traits and Cowen aims to make us think differently about those traits and to show us how important and useful they are in the modern economy.

One of the most well-known young infovores is Maria Popova, who runs Brain Pickings. She’s a leading example of a new sort of content provider, based on what she calls ‘combinatorial creativity‘. Like this blog, she’s not so obsessed with the new and now as with her own interests and with what might be more enduring than the present. She looks for a combination of ‘timeless and timely‘.

We really need an antidote to this culture of “if it’s not Google-able, it doesn’t exist”. There’s a wealth of knowledge and inspiration offline, ideas still very relevant and interesting.

That’s not just true of information, by the way. Imagine if you never took a tour of the New York Public library where you can rub the marble lions, or hadn’t been to the theatre in a decade. Of course, this means that the internet is still only at the beginning of it’s potential. Popova offers a good example of how a more infovore-designed approach could help newspapers transition from the old economic model to the new. Sadly, I don’t see that newspapers correctly understood how to change their supply side.

Popova worries as well that the internet is too temporal, but blogs are an easy counter-argument to that. As more inforvores create a new infrastructure of information sharing, we will reorder the way old and new interact. As Andy Matuschak says:

Perhaps most remarkably, the powerful ideas are often invisible: it’s not like we generally think about cognition when we sprinkle a blog post with links. But the people who created the Web were thinking about cognition. They designed its building blocks so that the natural way of reading and writing in this medium would reflect the powerful ideas they had in mind. Shaped intentionally or not, each medium’s fundamental materials and constraints give it a “grain” which make it bend naturally in some directions and not in others.

The book offers excellent counter-arguments to the idea that social media makes us more stupid, that concentration spans are shortening, that Wikipedia is moronic etc etc. Good luck finding that sort of thinking in a newspaper. It also makes a gentle but strongly-argued case that we are not as neurodiverse as we think we are. And it does this despite being published eight years ago.

It is perhaps the most relevant book to read by Cowen if you are interested in him as a thinker and blogger. Marginal Revolution will be an enriched experience if you have read it. ‘A successful blog is often about the Bildungsroman, or life development, of it’s author,’ as he says. It also contains what is perhaps his best paragraph.

And it has a beautiful conclusion. I’m surprised no-one has made a film out of that ending yet. It’s certainly a way that I will start to think of human life, rather than simply the probability of life elsewhere in the universe, more and more. The idea of being an infovore in a small, distant and information based civilisation that is focussed on ‘understanding order, profundity and beauty’ is more or less what I have wanted from a young age. Reading Tyler Cowen more than anyone else shows me the role of other disciplines than literature in achieving that. The Age of the Infovore (US link) is the book I most recommend to aesthetes, humanities graduates, creatives of all stripes.

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