Over the past decade or two I’ve become very aware of the importance of depth of knowledge, and how technology has changed our ability to obtain that depth. Reading books and newspaper articles has been replaced with news soundbites. superficially-researched blog posts (uh… ahem…), and 140 character tweets. I grew up in the 70s in the middle of a military dictatorship in Peru, with three quasi-government TV channels and where it was often not a good idea to go out of the house in the evening. Reading was the only entertainment, and I embraced it.
Several years ago I got out of the habit, and even subscribed to a service that provided short 2-3 page summaries of business and leadership books. Hey, most of those books are fluff and the concepts can be easily summarized, right? I thought so. Then, after a concerted effort to read more – on many topics – I realized that what I had called “fluff” was actually the depth that provided context and understanding. I’ve cancelled the summary service and now read the entire book – even the boring sections – and believe that what I’ve lost in breadth I’ve easily gained in depth. Breadth becomes a function of time, while depth is a function of intent.
While technology has increased our breadth and connectedness, you can see the negative impact on depth almost everywhere. From politics to science to social issues, we increasingly believe we understand the topic but it’s really just the superficial concept, not the complexity that lies beneath. It’s not really the rise of the “low information” consumer or voter, but “shallow information.”
As part of my attempt to read more, I’m always on the lookout for new books, preferably on topics that stretch me a bit. Over the last few weeks I came across a couple articles mentioning that the like of Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg thought one particular book was especially important to them. Usually I’m pretty skeptical as those suggestions can be irrelevant or sometimes, as with benchmarking, even dangerous. But this one was a little different. They were recommending a book that dived deep into the history of violence, Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.
An 800 page book filled to the brim with the statistics and history of violence over the past 5,000 years? Why? It seemed odd, so of course I had to order it. I started it one morning, and read it nearly non-stop for the next two days. It really is that good.
The book is exceptionally well-researched, the statistics are presented in a manner that even I can understand – and stay engaged with, it challenges perceptions driven in part by our sound bite world, and provides many underlying leadership lessons if you look for them.
Fundamentally, as Pinker says, “As one becomes aware of the decline of violence, the world begins to look different. The past seems less innocent, the present less sinister.” It really does change your perception of the world, on many levels.
Violence really has declined to a tiny fraction of what it once was, even since the end of the Cold War in 1989. News soundbites make it seem like jihad and terror are rampant, but even compared to just a couple decades ago, statistically violence is down.
So what causes this? Pinker dives into this in detail, but fundamentally it is driven by an increase in connectedness among societies, leading to an increase in both understanding (and reasoning) and the value of individuals. Technologies have allowed information and reason to be shared and consumed. An increase in reasoning leads to solutions that support the common good and to debunk superstitions.
The ominous thing is that the book is also a warning. Will the statistics continue to improve? Or are we at the bottom? Over the last few years we’ve seen an increase in separatism… people want to only associate with others that believe just like themselves instead of using differences to increase understanding. Science, even when 99% of scientists agree, is discounted, and any news that doesn’t align with what you want it to be is considered “fake.” Instead of understanding a complex issue in depth, we rely on news soundbites, Facebook, and Twitter – and only from sources we self-select as “trustworthy.” Will the Flynn Effect start moving in reverse? There are indications, none yet statistically relevant, that it might.
Consider the importance of depth. Immerse yourself in the detail of fluff. Better Angels is a great read and a good place to start.