Read The Paper. Don’t Be A Victim of Algorithms

There are a few lessons I’ve learned in life. The first was about reading hard things. I started my career as an ASIC/FPGA designer, and I often designed chips that had to connect to other integrated circuits. These ICs often had specification documents that described how they worked that were over 100 pages long. I found it difficult to read through them, and I could rarely find what I was looking for, so I frequently asked colleagues questions about those ICs. They would get frustrated and point to page 70 where I could find the answer. And so I realized that I needed to suck it up and learn to read these dense technical specs.

The surprising thing that came from that is after a year of doing it, it became much easier. The specs started to feel “normal” and easy to read. They made sense and didn’t seem as dense as they did when I started. I even became more willing than most people to read the dense specification documents, and thus became a valuable resource to my team as everyone knew if they had a question I had read the spec.

I’ve maintained this view since then that occasionally struggling through dense writings is valuable, and does something to your brain that shallow writing doesn’t do.

That is part of the reason I never gave up on the paper. I’ve been a regular paper Wall Street Journal subscriber since 1996, when I was in college. And today I also get the paper New York Times, and a handful of tech and business paper magazines. The reason I stuck with paper is because I realized in the early days of the internet that the dense stuff rarely gets popular online, and online algorithms, even the early ones that were mostly just crowd sourced, focused more on linkbaity kinds of content. If I wanted meatier information, I had to stick with paper.

But over time I realized something – that by sticking with the paper version of these things, I get a more balanced view. Why? Because when an editor has to choose what goes into a paper that is going to be distributed to thousands of different people, and the format is unchangeable, it can’t be highly personalized, and they can’t put in much linkbait. The very fact that the paper has to go to a whole neighborhood insures it will have more even-keeled content than online algorithms.

I know. I know. It’s terrible that editors are gatekeepers and are in control of what you see if you read the paper. They suppress things sometimes. I understand that. But, it’s naive to think any other systems are better. Reddit or Hacker News? The crowd is the gatekeeper. Google or Flipboard? The algorithm is the gatekeeper. There is too much content in the world, so in every scenario there is a gatekeeper, and those gatekeepers are changing what we read. Once you accept that fact, you ask yourself a different question – what are the incentives of that gatekeeper? And I believe a human editor is the gatekeeper that has the strongest incentives to stay the most balanced.

One way to be less of a victim of the online algorithms or crowd based information cascades is to read the physical paper. It is more difficult for a medium to control what you think when it can’t hyper-personalize the information to your specific needs and wants. And that’s a good thing.

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