The Danger of Knowledge as a Service

on February 5, 2020

Let me start by saying that I love to read. I always have. I went to university in the UK as a “mature student” (the irony that I was considered mature at 25 is not lost on me) and I would consume literature while reading whatever was required by my American Studies courses. I would read several books at the same time, but never multiple literature books together as I wanted to make sure I could immerse myself in the story. I have pretty much been reading books in English since high school trying to learn something and improve my English at the same time.

Newspapers were never something I enjoyed reading mostly because my small hands did not suit the large format of most daily papers. For news, I turned to TV or digital copies of the leading newspapers. As my travel schedule got busier, I turned to digital books so I could take more than one with me whenever I traveled.

Over the past year, I started to struggle to keep up with my reading. I have a long list of books I want to read on a diverse range of work-related topics like AI, diversity and inclusion, education, design, research technics, social economics trends and the odd novel here and there. Between work and family, though, the available time seems to be less and less. I started a subscription to Audible, which has helped to convert some of the wasted commuting time and flight time into reading time, but it has not been enough.

Reading with Purpose

I also wanted to see if something could help my reading ability, so I took a class to learn to read faster. I am not sure what I was expecting, but what I found were some useful suggestions to learn to read with a purpose. I would never use these techniques with a novel, but when reading to learn about a topic or area, I thought it was actually quite interesting to approach the book from the questions you are hoping to have answered. Read through chapter titles and prologue to get some clues as to where those answers might be in the book and go from there.

I used to finish every book I started, no matter what. This is no longer the case and I am quite happy to stop reading anything that feels like it is not adding to my knowledge or providing good entertainment. I was less prone to believe though, as my class suggested, that only about 20 percent of most books are worthwhile reading and because of that, you really should not read most of them cover to cover. Although I am not sure I will follow this suggestion, I can see the logic and I still feel in control of what parts of the book I decided to read and skip.

The more I thought about how to read fast, the more I started to think about how much-curated content I am already consuming, where I am not totally in charge of what my eyes get to see.

Curated Content

With the rise of smartphones, we have seen a number of news apps that collate articles based on a set parameter the reader picks. Content is then presented to you thanks to human or algorithmic curation. I subscribe to many newsletters that report news and provide a commentary most of these are authored by reporters and analysts I have grown to know and admire and whom I trust. I also subscribe tho some of those news services, so what I might see is more limited than what is available, but it is still the full content within those parameters I set. This is no different than watching the news only from one channel, which I am sure most people will argue could create a myopic view of the news when they represent the sole source. Bubbles are never good when it comes to keeping an open mind and a growth mindset. Curating your content too much limits your opportunity to stumble on new writers, authors, topics. So while curation helps me make sure I do not miss what is a priority to me, I leave room and time for non-curated content that comes from what is not flagged under the “for you” tab. This is no different than what I do for movies, podcasts, or even shopping.

Predigested Content

The drive to read more books made me wonder if a curated experience could help me in my quest, so I looked at Blinklst, the app that everybody is raving about from investors to Apple’s CEO.

If you are not familiar with It, Blinkist is a subscription service that provides you with Blink a 15 minute read summary of non-fictional books. The subscription has different tiers that give you access to varying numbers of written and audio summaries of over 3000 books. Blink prides itself on human editors who read and summarize all books. There is no AI involved.

At first, I thought that this would be my saving grace, but the more I thought about it, the more I felt that the service was taking curation a step too far for me. I started thinking about the fact that the 15 minutes summaries I would be reading might leave out content that could be valuable to me. This is not about not trusting the abilities of the editors who provide the Blinks. It is really more about how books speak to different people in different ways based on their life experiences. While this might be more true about fictional books, it is also true of non-fiction as your subject knowledge impacts what and how you learn.

So the question really is: is there value in reading more content that has been pre-digested for you by someone else in a way that highlights the key takeaways from their perspective, based on their level of knowledge? Think for a second about asking five people to read a book on AI and provide you with a summary. What are the chances of those summaries to be the same? Pretty slim, I say.

Everything as a service is a trend that is picking up pace, music, video, clothes, food and the list goes on. In many cases, it makes our life better or more convenient. When it comes to knowledge, however,  I feel we should be very careful in handing over to someone else the power of discovery that we hold. Technology can help broaden our horizons in a way that was never possible before by bringing us information and opinions from every corner of the world. And yet technology, disguised as an enhanced or helpful service, could turn our world into a much smaller, narrow-minded, myopic, uninclusive one.