Other people: sometimes they know stuff


I used to think that I could find anything I wanted to know online.

With a few exceptions, the sum of useful human knowledge is available if you search long enough on the internet. When the the apocalypse comes and the lights go out, many of us will fumble and falter, because we have offloaded our knowledge to the machines. Hoary-whiskered ancients will become the new currency, passed from one tribe to the next for their wisdom like exchanged bottle caps.

Before the nukes soar and the zombies rise, however, we still have access to this mammoth digital library. Despite the fact that there are now at least 2.64 billion pages on the known Internet, it’s easier than ever to find what you’re looking for, thanks to ever-improving search algorithms.

I used to think this was enough. Just Google it! But recently I’ve realized that my mindset has totally changed. Maybe I’m less arrogant, maybe I know more about what I don’t know, maybe I’ve just had some new experiences — I don’t exactly know. What I do know is this:

There is no better source of learning than another human being.

I know that sounds a bit Malcolm Gladwell, but it’s a truism that risks being disposed of with the rest of the old ones that have fallen out (like “you should strive to be a company man,” or “one should always change before dinner”.) As evidence of this just look at how poorly educators salaries have kept pace with those of other professions — that is, not hardly.

Information is worthless as long as you have no way of organizing and prioritizing it. Human beings who are talented in a particular field have surrounded the specifically practical facts they know (widget X can be used to adapt thingmy Y) with an immense neural scaffolding: a subtle, vast net of context.

On a basic level, this is why Google can tell you how to start a fire with some sticks, and a person can tell you to buy a box of matches.

It may be somewhat trite to say “find a smart person and learn from them”. No great revelation there, perhaps. But what about the people you have to butt against in your everyday life? I firmly believe that everyone has something to teach. It might not be the knowledge you were looking for, but occasionally it might be the knowledge you needed.

In today’s instant-media culture I find it very easy to fall into the trap of relying on the little glowing rectangle in my pocket as my sole source of information. But I’m starting to realize that whilst it might have all the answers, it doesn’t always provide the best questions.