Semi-relevant irrelevancies

Should we try to keep up with absolutely everything? Technology enables so much, and of course, here at BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, we're all for the beneficial aspects of technology. Then there’s semi-relevant irrelevancies...

Nicholas Carr, amongst others, has recently been making the case that our reading is now much broader because of the internet, but also much shallower. No time for real contemplation, deep meditation and so on.

I would read his book, but I don't have time...

There are many interesting points arising from this sort of discussion. For example, how much stuff do you need to keep up with for your work? As I glance through my RSS feeds, Twitter groups, Pearltrees, email inboxes, gadgets, gizmos and all the rest it does seem as if I do too much reading, not enough doing. And it’s not deep reading.

My thinking on this was crystallised a little by a blog comment (of course!) on Carr's Rough Type blog. It was about the experience of physicist Richard Feynman on trying to keep up with the literature of his field, and what happened when he stopped:

'The following is from a review of Richard Feynman, A Life in Science by John Gribbin and Mary Gribbin: "Some time towards dawn, (Goodstein after reading Watson's book "the Double Helix") looked up and commented to Feynman that the surprising thing was that Watson had been involved in making such a fundamental advance in science, and yet he had been completely out of touch with what everybody else in his field was doing.

'Feynman held up the pad he had been doodling on. In the middle, surrounded by all kinds of scribble, was one word, in capitals: DISREGARD. That, he told Goodstein, was the whole point. That was what he had forgotten, and why he had been making so little progress. The way for researchers like himself and Watson to make a breakthrough was to be ignorant of what everybody else was doing and plough their own furrow. [pp. 185-186].

'What had gone wrong for Feynman was that he had begun taking too seriously the idea that modern knowledge is a collective enterprise. Just trying to keep up with his field had suppressed his own sources of inspiration, which were in his own solitary questions and examinations. This, indeed, is the fate of most research in most disciplines, to make the smallest, least threatening, possible addition to "current knowledge." Anything more would be presumptuous, anything more might elicit the fatal "Don't you know what so-and-so is doing" from a Peer Reviewer, anything more might invite dismissal as some off-the-wall speculation -- not serious work.

'So Feynman "stopped trying to keep up with the scientific literature or compete with other theorists at their own game, and went back to his roots, comparing experiment with theory, making guesses that were all his own..." [p. 186]. Thus he became productive again, as he had been when he had just been working things out for himself, before becoming a famous physicist.

'New ideas do not come from committees, and although this dynamic is so well understood as to be part of folk wisdom, researchers in many areas of science or scholarship are so blinded by their own herd mentality, or collectivist ideology, or rent-seeking behaviour, that they commonly act, both for themselves and in judgment of others, in denial of it. Of all the "curious" lessons of Richard Feynman's life, this is one of the best.'

The full post is here:

It's an interesting comment isn't it? Of course, I'm no Richard Feynman, having genius obscured by a deluge of 'semi-relevant irrelevancies' as I'm suddenly going to call this phenomenon. But perhaps there's something to the focus that Feynman evidently pursued.

So does this mean I am going to eschew the blogs, feeds, apps and more that I nibble at, read, scan, glance at and generally... there's no other word for it, surf, every day. No. We journalists are broad and shallow.

Comments (2)

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  • 1
    Guy Cosnahan wrote on 27th Jul 2010

    If you are the inspiring 1% that is all well and good but for us perspiring 99% we need to keep reading the abstracts to smooth out the previously ploughed furrows and see how rim and spoke improvements are enhancing the wheels.

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  • 2
    Gordon Watt wrote on 30th Jul 2010

    My take away from the anecdote is that you need to read enough, to know that the challenge you are addressing has not already been resolved, but no more. More will take you down the dead-ends which have trapped everyone before you.

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Brian is Head of Content at BCS and blogs about the Institute’s role in making IT good for society, historical developments in computing, the implications of CS research and more.

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September 2017