It is so easy not to be of age. If I have a book which understands for me, a pastor who has a conscience for me, a physician who decides my diet, and so forth, I need not trouble myself. I need not think, if only I can pay — others will easily undertake the irksome work for me.
If the defining image of Kant’s exhortation is Rodin’s Thinker, what is our defining image today? I’d say it is the diametrically opposite: “Don’t Think. Just Like/Follow.”
Instead of thinking for oneself, “liking” something on social media relieves the person of understanding (or, even just reading) the original post. Instead, a “like” can be conferred casually — with no cost. Indeed, likes have often become a currency unto themselves used often to barter reputation — “I will like stuff you post, if you do the same for me.” Reading now is less a matter of learning, but more a matter of social reputation building!
Here’s an interesting example: Microsoft recently experimented with a 4-day work week in Japan. This got written about in Business Insider with the title “Microsoft experimented with a 4-day workweek, and productivity jumped by 40%” which then got picked up and reflected through social media and other prominent blogs. On LinkedIn, for example, numerous people shared the Business Insider review. This, in turn, caused people to like/comment on the shared LinkedIn post which, if you think about it, is really a comment/like on a comment of a review of an original article — which is really three steps removed from the original source of truth (shown below):
Now, reading through the comments on one of these shares on LinkedIn, it becomes evident that most of the commenters have read neither the Business Insider review nor, of course, the original Microsoft article. A particular example of this was a “comment” that said:
It is obvious that the commenter had not read the original article which laid out the methodology and the way metrics were computed. The Business Insider review did not explain the metrics used but did link to the original source article. Notice, amusingly, how the commenter “wonders” how productivity was being computed (a comment that itself was “liked”) but did not take the trouble to find the answer that lurked a mere two clicks away!
At the level of “LinkedIn Share” and related comments, little by way of knowledge is being exchanged. Instead, opinions are; this can best be described as “gossip.”
If shallowness is our “new normal,” how do we adhere to Kant’s exhortation?
Think for yourself. Eschew simple answers. Avoid gossip. Author original content. Emphasize depth. In essence, add to the body of knowledge! In the argot of social media — better to author articles themselves than simply “liking.”
‘Well, this is easier said than done,’ one complains. Yes, that’s the point — this is much easier said than done. So here are a few tips that I have found useful:
We tend to want to do things at hyper-speed these days. Worse yet, chained to that mobile device on which we plant one eye at all times, we attempt to do many things at one time. The enemy of depth is speed. That does not mean that everyone who is focused on depth is slow — some indeed are quite fast. Alexandre Dumas, for example, of “Three Musketeers” and “Count of Monte Cristo” fame was, in fact, a prolific writer producing out high quality fascicles (or, parts or installments) of his books for periodic publication.
(And, as an aside, here’s something I learned when writing this article. I used to wonder why books of old were so long. I attributed their length to the fact that people (both author and reader) had nothing to do in the 19th or early 20th centuries so that authors could churn out books of great length. This may be only part of the reason.
It turns out that the authors used to write books in fascicles and release them periodically in high quality magazines of the day. This allowed the author to also get feedback from readers. Then, when all the fascicles were done, the entire collection would be published as a single book — which is why books used to be so long.)
Have something to say
This is, most often, the hardest thing. ‘What should I write that others will want to read?’ someone may bemoan. This is the wrong question: Ask instead, ‘What should I write that I myself would want to read?’ In other words, how can you learn from your own writings? That itch to learn commences the adventure.
Unique points of view develop when reading and asking questions and seeing if those questions are answered. Consider, for example, the Microsoft work-week article example cited above. Some of the questions I had when I read that article were:
- If productivity rose by 40%, is it now implemented across other Microsoft locations?
- Productivity should fall (when people work less). So why is it rising?
- Can the productivity improvements be chalked up to this experiment? What was the rise in sales from August 2017 to August 2018? In fact, what is the year-over-year sales/employee changes for different months across different years?
- If sales/employee rose by 40% compared comparable period in 2018, how can we be sure that there were no artifacts that could have skewed this? Like perhaps a giant deal with some big customer that closed in August 2019?
- How does this compare with any other experiments that others may have done?
- And so on.
Asking questions as you read helps surface avenues of interest that you can follow up on and research forming the body of material that you may use when you write.
Ben Franklin said it best:
If you would not be forgotten,
As soon as you are dead and rotten,
Either write things worth reading,
Or do things worth the writing.