The Decline of Unintended Peripheral Knowledge Acquisition

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 Google isn’t a few taps away, I’d have a few options:

  • Ask my friend who could be right, or just be talking out of their ass
  • First 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, and check out the recommended reading material.

Then 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 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.

Google It

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.

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.

Pros and Cons

Both options have their benefits and drawbacks. Starting with books:

Pros

  • 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.

Cons

  • Unless at a library, there’s a far greater monetary cost (read: anything more than free.)
  • 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.

Now onto the great web:

Pros

  • 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, assuming the website owner isn’t slacking, a quick reload of the page gives you the latest and greatest resource.

Cons

  • 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.
  • 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 pose, unless you explicitly search for it.

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 machine†)

† The article does a good job of summarizing, but their description of dopamine as the direct byproduct of the action performed (they give example of dopamine being “…associated with food, exercise, love, sex, gambling, drugs … and now, social media” but this I think is an oversimplification of the role of dopamine. I’d reword it saying that dopamine strengthens the neurological pathways that led to attaining a specific goal, which varies by individual. Thus, it’s not the dopamine that causes us to repeat the action, rather its the strengthened neurological pathways that lead to repeat behavior. For instance, we can say every addicted gambler has a dopamine burst when they play at a casino, but not everyone who plays at a casino has a dopamine burst. Just as some people don’t care about likes on Instagram, while others will delete their post if it doesn’t reach x amount of likes within y time. The dopamine encourages repeated actions in the behavior because the outcome of such actions produced a reward (movement towards one’s goals).

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