Too Much Wisdom

Written on June 6, 2022

I wonder if it’s getting easier or harder to be effective in modern times. That is, to be productive and focused and move towards your goals. On one hand, we have endless learning resources at our fingertips thanks to the internet. Nearly every question we can think of has a clear and articulate answer waiting for us on the other side of a google search, and where yahoo answers once held monopoly over the Q&A space online, we now have more mature alternatives like Quora and Stack Overflow.

On the other hand, we have more distractions than ever before. I remember the days when the main tip given by teachers on how to effectively study was ‘leave your phone in another room’. Back then, if you were studying on your computer, there were things on the internet that could derail your productivity, but you would need to go to them, they would never come to you. Those days are over, and these distractions appear in the very places where you most want to escape them. What’s worse is that they are better disguised than ever before.

Life was simpler when the biggest distraction on a web page was something like this:

Unless you’re an aging woman going through an identity crisis, the temptation to ‘LEARN THE TRUTH’ is small.

What happens when the distraction is a little more enticing?

Today I was trying to create a pong game as a first step to learning Unity, a game development app. My ball kept going straight through my paddle and I had no idea why. I googled it and here are some results that I thought might contain the answer I needed.

My Journey Begins

Quora

Starts off fairly harmless, with some related questions on the side that might better answer my original question. But after you scroll through the answers and reach the bottom of the page unsatisfied, you see this:

What are the dirty secrets of Thailand? I went on holiday to Thailand recently, it’s possible that Quora knows this and thinks I might be interested in a ‘Top Story’ on the same topic. And of course because humans are the ones using the site, the top stories are going to be the things most likely to attract clicks, which in this case means dirty secrets. The middle story sounds like something out of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, and the one on the right is actually a question I’d like to know the answer to, partly because I’m Australian. But I didn’t come here to learn about urban planning, I came here to learn about Unity. It’s time to try another website, this time one that’s dedicated to technical stuff.

Stack Overflow

The side panel here contains some fairly innocuous links. I didn’t come here to ‘Meet the Bots that Help Moderate Slack Overflow’ but I do think meta announcements like that can build trust in the platform and I don’t find them too tempting.

Below that are a couple of job postings. Nothing better to keep you focused on a specific programming task than remembering you’re an insecure human being who either wants to eventually get a job in tech or wants to see whether you’re currently being paid what you’re worth.

But I get it, Stack Overflow is a company that wants to make money and letting recruiters advertise is a valid means of achieving that. Next down is related questions, which in my opinion should have been at the top like Quora does, because they actually relate to the question.

And then at the bottom, just like Quora, we have a heap of completely unrelated ‘Hot Network Questions’. You’ve reached the bottom of the page, you haven’t found the answer you’re looking for, you’re demotivated, and so now you’re at your most temptable.

Never has it been more tempting to find out how to cut a cake into three equal portions with only a knife. And what about the famous scholar with the unpublished draft? I simply must know!

Trying another page, I come across another top Hot Network Question.

A bolt of righteous indignation surges through my veins. The nerve on some teachers! To punish somebody for coming from a different culture, with impunity! I want to click the link and verify that the world recognises how wrong that is, in the form of the top-voted answer taking my stance, but once again I remember, I didn’t come here to think about social justice, I came here to learn about collision detection in Unity. So I move on to…

Youtube

At some point you need to bite the bullet and accept that you simply lack a proper conceptual understanding of a topic, meaning it’s time to build some foundational knowledge through tutorials instead of floundering around on stack overflow. So I go to the official unity learning center and begin my proper learning journey (I only need 2D knowledge but I’m sure 3D is no different):

And of course the videos on this page are hosted on… Youtube. After completing the first video I get these recommendations:

These are not personalised recommendations. I specifically disabled that in my Youtube settings. Somebody with 10 years of making video games has condensed all his wisdom into a short youtube video? How could I pass up that opportunity! Oh wait, that’s right, I haven’t even spent ten minutes making video games at this point. I have a feeling that wisdom can wait until after I’ve learnt the basics.

In the middle-right, Adam Grant gives a TED talk on the surprising habits of original thinkers. Maybe I should watch that so that I can ensure my game ideas are original. Above that, it turns out that ink cartridges are a scam. At the bottom right I can find out how somebody hacked a starbucks with a raspberry pi. I’ve just ordered one of those, maybe I’ll learn something useful watching that. Or… maybe I should just continue on to the second tutorial video on this page.

For every single tutorial video I watch, The Devil once again tempts me with a smorgasbord of of portals that will take me from the boring, intimidating world of learning actual skills, to a fun shiny world of charismatic presenters teaching me the hidden secrets of greatness where I can learn all about what it takes to be successful and how really intelligent people did really intelligent things while regular people were too busy… watching Youtube.

Why?

Every site that I hope to find refuge in to learn some actual skills is littered with bear traps of temptation. Everybody wants to pull me into the abyss of interesting but ultimately useless distractions. The question of how to cut a cake into three even slices is an interesting one, but it has nothing to do with collision detection.

At least it’s obvious to me that I can happily live my life without knowing how to evenly cut a cake with only a knife, but it’s not so obvious that I can afford to miss out on the wisdom of famous programmers, or or the expertise of pyschology experts on the dirty secrets of original thinkers. That’s where things get especially pernicious. I have no doubt the people who make these TED talks sincerely want to improve the lives of their audiences with their wisdom and experience. But it’s a sad reflection on us, the consumers feeding our clicks into Youtube’s algorithms, that we care more about hacking our brains or comparing our own personality traits to those of the typical ‘genius’ than we care to learn what’s required to make pong while there are devs out there working on the next Red Dead Redemption.

I don’t blame these websites. Being ultimately ad-driven, they want to drive engagement within their ecosystems, and ‘top stories’ or ‘hot network questions’ or ‘trending videos’ are an effective strategy to achieve that. In most cases, you can use adblock’s element selector to hide that crap anyway. I don’t blame the original posters or the video creators; they’re asking interesting questions, or making genuinely useful content, or have real wisdom to bestow after years of trial and error. And I don’t blame the people whose clicks surface these links to the top. They’re just as curious and/or insecure as I am.

But wisdom porn has no place in my study itinerary. I’ll happily indulge if I’m having a lazy day or if I’m satisfied with the work I originally set out to do, but with the understanding that it is an indulgence. Probably the noblest form of indulgence, but an indulgence nonetheless. If you trick yourself into thinking ‘well I started off wanting to learn Unity but who knows when this tenured developer rockstar’s advice could come in handy’ then you have lost the game.

Regardless of what personality traits decided the creative and technological heroes of yesterday, I suspect that the single trait that will decide the heroes of tomorrow is the ability to say no.

So if you came across this post while you were trying to focus on something a little more challenging, I hope you enjoyed the read! But next time, say no.

(I originally wrote this a while ago but nothing has changed since!)