Knowledge comes from depth, not breadth

by Dirk Knemeyer

What search engines do best is immediately give us lots of scattershot information. It may be relevant, or it may not. It may be timely, or it may not. It may be useful, or it may not. While search engines used to be magic, as we become more mature users of connected computing devices, increasingly their results are clumsy. While it remains remarkable that they can bring us so much so quickly, the uneven nature of what they are providing is increasingly frustrating as we continue to expect more.

Seemingly every day I am more aware that what I crave - and what actually makes me smarter as opposed to simply passing or even wasting time - is depth in what I read. This is already reflected in the periodicals I choose to subscribe. I'll bet many of you have never heard of Foreign Affairs, Kill Screen, or The New Criterion. They're not mainstream for a reason: they require effort, attention and investment to read. They take a deeper, more thoughtful look into topics than the typical publications that we subscribe to or read at the doctor's office. Within that depth is knowledge, valuable morsels that "stick" to your brain and give you more context and insight to share with others or use in a broader assessment of the world.

More recently I'm noticing my Internet news habits are tipping decidedly toward a thirst for depth. To be clear, the stories that interest me are not always particularly important or interesting. For some reason they've "hooked" me and I have a thirst for more information, to try and understand the topics. The most recent example was the odd release of football player Randy Moss by the Minnesota Vikings. Other stories I can remember that have captivated me in this way include whenever there is a sinkhole - I find them awesome, scary, curious and absolutely fascinating - as well as the Air France crash in the Atlantic last year.

When I am so captivated with a powerful story I just keep looking for new and interesting information about it. This is typically a painful exercise: most news stories or analysis on news stories offer nothing or very little more than what you've already read. So the ongoing searching, browsing, link-clicking and reading that accompanies trying to get inside the story can take a lot of time without much payoff. The sinkhole stories are a good example of that: despite investing significant time into digging you really don't find much more than the original shocking pictures and most basic of facts.

On the other hand, when you are rewarded it is surely worth it. Going back to the Air France crash, especially in the hours and days after it, I was repeatedly trolling for more information. In the process I found a link to a blog by a pilot that was giving incredible inside information and providing so much fascinating, helpful and illustrative information that I was not finding anywhere else. The author was supposing at reasons for the crash days before anyone else even dared to. He was early with the known Airbus issues (which became what the mainstream press settled upon as the likely cause), and brought a gripping insider's perspective to everything he wrote. It was truly marvelous, unlike literally anything else being published at the time.

Here's the problem: he was hard to find then, and is impossible to find now. I read him religiously during and shortly after the story, then moved on to other things - as did he, as he started writing about other aviation-related topics. When I Googled today to try and find the blog I can't. Under the search term "air france crash pilot blog" (without the quotation marks) going 10 pages deep into the results I can't find the darn thing. The one source out of thousands - and I checked out dozens, if not hundreds, of them - that was truly exceptional and it is loss amidst the search engine morass.

Too often that is the case: can't find the good stuff to begin with and, even if you do, nobody else can usually find it either. Thanks to Twitter and other "viral" media there are ways to try and spread the love but, as the search engines remain the gatekeepers for information, it is demoralizing that so much of it doesn't add any depth to the news item.

Maybe it won't be search engines that solve this problem, but it badly needs to be solved: replace the numbing breadth - which is largely tantamount to simulacra of the same wire reports - with compelling depth, quality, and unique and interesting content. There is precious little of it out there. I had to read a lot of Randy Moss stories before I read the first one that reported the very enlightening specifics about Moss' tirade at caterers last week, ahead of the much-ballyhoed press conference after the Patriots game.

After all, when we are interested in something we are trying to learn. While one might argue that learning about Randy Moss' situation is trivial and superficial, I happen to find human motivation and conflict resolution incredibly fascinating topics. How a player can go from one of the most feared weapons and worth trading a high draft pick for to being surreptitiously released in a seeming tantrum-like fashion by an embattled head coach gets at the most interesting things about humanity and why we do the things we do. So don't tell me for the 1,000th time that Moss gushed about "Tommy Boy" at his press conference; help me understand what is going on behind-the-scenes with these people that makes them behave in self-destructive and contradictory ways. From that, I can learn.

Topics: search, content, Analysis, Blog