The Epistemology of Google

e·pis·te·mol·o·gy — the theory of knowledge, 
especially with regard to its methods,
validity, and scope
— Google Definitions

“Daddy, what is the meaning of life?” says the child.

“It’s complicated,” says the dad.

“Why don’t you ask Google?”

Laugh if you will but the question makes perfect sense to kids. Google knows everything doesn’t it? “What’s the weather?,” “How do I get to San Francisco?”, and even  “Why is the sky blue?” The big question is: “What doesn’t Google know?” Or, stated another way, “What knowledge can’t we outsource to Google?”

Knowing Facts vs. Gaining Understanding

It really comes down to two different kinds of knowledge: knowing facts and gaining understanding. The Farnam Street blog has a good description of this  and there’s a great video of Richard Feynman explaining it.  In summary:

  • Knowing Facts. You know what something is called and what it looks like. This is the type of information that Google is very good at.
  • Gaining Understanding. Taking various bits of information and really making it your own? This is the type of thing that you can’t ask Google because it’s about changing who you are (i.e., learning).

One good way to know the difference is the difficulty of what you’re reading or watching. If you can read it quickly you’re probably reading for facts. Reading for understanding requires you to sit down at the foot of the author and realize that things may not make sense in the beginning. I think of true learning as fundamentally changing myself. Kind of like in the Terminator 2 movie where the T-1000 changes his shape in the face of adversity.

Knowing Facts

So what does Google know:

  • Define a word (like epistemology)?
  • What’s happening in the news?
  • Who starred in the princess bride?
  • When is Mothers Day?
  • How many teaspoons are in a tablespoon?

Rad Bradbury had a great section on knowing facts in Fahrenheit 451. The book is a metaphor on how books can be explosive with ideas. But the government can provide so many facts that people don’t have room for ideas:

“Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of non-combustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving. And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change.”

Filling in the Gaps

Data and facts can be useful but you need a framework to use them. William Poundstone has a great book on the topic called Head in the Clouds: Why Knowing Things Still Matters When Facts Are So Easy. Poundstone’s key point in the book is that Google can’t teach you what you need to Google. In order to do that, you need a framework of understanding.  Facts are like bricks in a wall of knowledge. There can be some gaps and the wall will maintain its structural integrity. But if we remove too many, you have bricks hanging in midair and the wall collapses.

Gaining Knowledge

Gaining knowledge is about more than gathering facts. The best guide to gaining knowledge is from How To Read A Book by Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren. The book was written in 1940 and revised in 1972 and it holds up incredibly well. The key idea is that to read a book well, you don’t just read the words or learn the key points. You need to understand the knowledge inside that book and let it change you — which takes effort. For a summary of the key points, the Farnam Street blog does a good write up. But if you really want to learn from these guys, you really have to read the book.

In short, the book says that an engaged reader needs to ask the following questions:

  1. What type of book am I reading? What do I hope to gain by reading it?
  2. What is the author’s high level points / argument?
  3. How does the author make this argument? At this point you don’t agree or disagree with the author by bringing any predefined prejudices to the argument.
  4. After reading the whole argument, going back and asking “Is it true in whole or in part?”
  5. For the pieces that you find true, “What are you going to do about it and how does it change your world view?”

In Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury talks about what makes an engaged reader. These are the people the government is concerned about. As one of the rebels says, there are three things needed to engage with a book:

  1. Quality Information: “What does the word quality mean? To me it means texture. This book has pores. It has features. This book can go under the microscope. You’d find life under the glass, streaming past in infinite profusion. The more pores, the more truthfully recorded details of life per square inch you can get on a sheet of paper, the more `literary’ you are. That’s my definition, anyway. Telling detail. Fresh detail.”
  2. Leisure: “[When] you’re not driving a hundred miles an hour, at a clip where you can’t think of anything else but the danger, then you’re playing some game or sitting in some room where you can’t argue with the four wall televisor…. It tells you what to think and blasts it in. It must be, right. It seems so right. It rushes you on so quickly to its own conclusions your mind hasn’t time to protest, ‘What nonsense!'”
  3. Action: “The right to carry out actions based on what we learn from the inter-action of the first two. “

If this all sounds difficult, that’s the point. You can’t expect to have other people do your thinking for you. You need to pose questions and answer them. You need to argue with the author once you’ve understood him or her.

Why is this Important?

Google in many ways is like the world’s most awesome encyclopedia or your friend with a photographic memory who watches TV all the time. He’s  a great guy to have around but not someone you should trust with important decisions. In an age when you can type a few keystrokes and feel like you’re changing the world it’s hard to put in all that effort.

But getting back to the original question, the reason that Google can’t answer “What is the meaning of life?” is that it needs to be figured out by living. It’s a question that’s only answered by learning and discussion. Basically, it requires gaining knowledge throughout your life.

The Goal by Elihu Goldratt

The book The Goal by Elihu Goldratt is one of the best business books I’ve read. I was assigned the book in business school but it holds up even better in the real world. The key idea is that in a factory, the entire production of any part is limited by the machine with the least capacity. And similarly, the entire production of the factory is limited by the capacity bottlenecks. So you can have a whole factory at work, all the machines are working as fast as they can but they’re just piling up inventory in front of that key machine that has limited capacity. In a software development shop, it’s the IT operations group might be the bottleneck like in the book The Phoenix Project. In a strategy shop it’s the amount of time people want to devote to reading and implementing these projects. When looking at any knowledge business you see lots of people doing work but most of these people are creating work that prevents the constrained resource from getting its critical work done. Once you look for the constraints, you start to see the world in a very different way.

The other thing about The Goal is the way the book is produced:

  1. Goldratt hired a co-writer Jeff Cox, a novelist, who brings out the lessons of the book in a very easy to digest format. He even ties in some personal problems and office politics to make the book more engaging.
  2. The audio version of the book is dramatized as a play. There are a host of actors playing the different parts. When Alex is on the machine floor, you can even hear the machines at work. This is certainly the best produced business audiobook I’ve ever listened to.
  3. Apparently there’s also a movie that can be used for training purposes. It’s the most expensive DVD I’ve ever seen at $895 a copy! However, for those of you who are fans of the book, you can see an excerpt of the famous Herbie scene online for free!

Amusing Ourselves to Death

One of my favorite books is Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman. 30 odd years ago Postman wrote about the transition from written media to visual (or now digital) media — at the time focusing on the move to radio and television from print. It holds up surprisingly well even as the move accelerates. Postman’s son wrote a great piece about how the book holds up after 30 years in the Guardian “My dad predicted Trump in 1985 – it’s not Orwell, he warned, it’s Brave New World. The ascent of Donald Trump has proved Neil Postman’s argument in Amusing Ourselves to Death was right.” The forward of the book is one of the most interesting pieces I’ve ever read so I’m reprinting it here:

We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another – slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions”. In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.