I used to be a pretty smart guy. I took three years of college calculus and two of physics, including relativity and quantum mechanics. I knew how a computer worked inside out. I could hold up my end of the conversation with just about everyone I knew. It was a rare day when there was a discussion that I could not follow. Occasionally I would be reminded that there were still things about which I knew almost nothing, such as when I cracked open "Superstring Theory" (Volume 1, Introduction) by Green, Schwarz and Witten, and got lost on page three. But it was pretty easy to put that book back on my bookshelf and ignore it.
Today, that's not so easy to do.
The Internet has made immense amounts of information available
at the click of a hyperlink,
and most of those links point to things of which I am mostly ignorant.
While trying to understand monads,
I went to Wikipedia.
monads as used in computer science derive from
I followed that link, and within a few hours was amazed at how much
there was about category theory and related subjects
that I did not know.
When I backed up to review my
a subject about which I thought I at least knew a little,
there were far more links to things I did not know about than to
things I did know about.
Even when chasing down topics in computer science, my college major,
there were all sorts of little pieces with which I was not familiar.
Each little piece was no problem to read and understand, but it's not
like a book where you can read through it and be done.
With hyperlinks, they just go on and on and on....
no matter how far you go, there are always more links leading to little
corners that you don't know about, from which the links sometimes open
out into huge unfamiliar areas.
So much to learn!
The Internet has also made it much easier for me to find people
smarter than me - or at least people with
way more knowledge about certain topics.
I recently started paying a lot more attention to functional languages,
and found a couple of groups in my area that get together occasionally
to discuss topics in functional programming.
There are generally five to ten people in these meetings,
with one person making an informal presentation and the rest of
the people asking intelligent questions.
I'm not used to being the stupidest person in the room,
but that's how I feel at these meetings.
I struggle even to ask cogent questions.
Either these are really some of the smartest people in the area,
or I am not nearly as smart as I once thought I was.
I have joined some mailing lists for specialized subjects, including
Scala mailing list.
These can be even more humbling than going to the local meetings.
Likewise when reading blogs and responses.
There are some really smart people in the world;
mailing lists and blogs make it seem like they are all living on my block,
and I'm just the local slow boy trying to tag along with them.
Other people have also
if the internet makes people stupid.
had an article in their
July/August 2008 issue
by Nicholas Carr
"Is Google Making Us Stupid".
The article says the Internet provides people with little snippets of
information, and that people no longer have the patience to sit down
and read a book.
The author claims this makes people's knowledge superficial, because they
don't delve deeply into a subject as they would with a book.
I don't know who he talked to about that, but it wasn't me.
I have spent hours digging into technical subjects on the Internet
that I never would have bothered to pursue if I had to go out and get
a book on the subject.
When I say the Internet has made me stupid, I am saying something quite
different than Mr. Carr in that Atlantic article.
The Internet has humbled me, but that's pretty easy to live with
when I consider how much of an opportunity it has given me to
continue my education.
Rephrasing the words of
"As our circle of knowledge expands,
so does the circumference of darkness surrounding it."
The Internet has helped me see a whole new magnitude of darkness.
Update 2009-05-27: In his article
"The importance of stupidity in scientific research",
Martin A. Schwartz writes
about learning "that the scope of things I didn't know ... was, for all practical purposes, infinite."
He learned it through research; I learned it from the Internet.