The signal-to-noise ratio
Can you learn everything from the internet?
Conventional advice goes like this: “Your computer is a portal into this massive web of knowledge and information where you can learn anything you want. You can learn to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, con a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly.” (Well, actually, a hefty chunk of that is a Heinlein quote, but it flowed so nicely and I just had to borrow it.) Theoretically, you can learn literally anything because all the information is out there.
In reality, plenty of folks are perfectly happy to pay for teaching, coaching, training, guidance. You’d think the internet perfectly sufficient. After all, someone can get quite good at dancing by watching free videos on Youtube and practicing. Or they can become a skillful writer just by writing a lot and submitting their drafts to get free critiques. Yet dance teachers and music teachers and athletic coaches exist. Something is missing from the standard way of thinking about learning.
Something isn’t adding up.
I’ve noticed a pattern in online learning where there are all these “SUPER AWESOME COMPILATIONS OF GUIDES FOR X”. When I ran into them, this is what often happened:
I get all excited,
click the guide,
toss it in my bookmarks,
eventually realize I never actually started a single tutorial or doing anything on that list,
crack open one of the guides in the compilation,
discover that it’s incredibly difficult to understand and unhelpful, so I toss it out,
try a different one with the same result,
It’s obvious to anyone who understands the importance of finding a good teacher, but it’s not trivially obvious to everyone. It sure wasn’t obvious to me. I just assumed that more information, more data, more words and numbers and facts and figures, more was good. More was always good. But what I’d seriously missed was how much relevant information there was, relative to the total amount. The signal-to-noise ratio.
I only started to change my mind when I started to meet people who actually understood the value of good signal-to-noise. They bought books instead of pirating them off a website laced with digital chicken pox. They didn’t feel pangs of guilt from taking private lessons and talking to mentors and getting real, meaningful help. And the results spoke for themselves.
They learned. Fast. Every lesson was tailored exactly to what they needed. No more gradual osmosis-like absorption, no more wading through vast amounts of verbal vomit to find a gem buried in the deluge.
Truth be told, you can learn just about anything you want from the internet. But that carries with it a lot of assumptions. You can learn whatever your heart desires, if you know where to find it, if you know how to sift through the dust, if you don’t get buried in a pile of irrelevance.
So we know that good teachers can be really important, because they have something meaningful to say. But what about stuff for which we have something meaningful to say? Maybe it seems obvious to us, but not to others. What then?
Rehashing old ideas can actually improve the signal
How many of us have heard (or even said ourselves) something like this:
“That’s already been done before.”
“Does the world really need another take about this?”
Don’t worry, I’m guilty of having done this too.
Our intuition tells us that restating known ideas makes the signal to noise ratio worse. The reasoning goes: if we don’t actually have any insight that’s completely new, then we’re just making more noise. And therefore, if we care about improving the signal-to-noise ratio, we shouldn’t create or write or speak about already-known ideas unless we have something new to add. That probably feels like an incredibly reasonable take.
It’s also incredibly wrong.
I’ve realized that ideas I’m intimately familiar with usually aren’t nearly as obvious to others. We watch our own lives through the high-resolution lens of experience and others’ lives through the low-resolution lens of words and actions. It takes care to share these thoughts meaningfully, but it’s entirely possible to blow someone’s mind with the sort of stuff you just assume everyone knows, and vice versa. And in fact, since we’re more familiar with the ideas we think about repeatedly, it’s way easier to talk about them meaningfully than talk about things we’re less familiar with but feels more “advanced” to us.
There are a lot of cynical critiques floating out there. They’re dripping with sarcasm and laced with contempt.
“Wow, what an aMAZING rediscovery of (trivial idea that’s an oversimplification of the original one)!”
“Not everything you make needs to be photographed and shared…”
“Imagine thinking this.”
This sort of sentiment is never going to discourage the blathering loudmouth from spewing their bad takes with a keyboard and a basement, but it sure will push away all the introspective, quiet, genuine folks. But it’s all too common (especially on the internet, of all places) and often it’s tremendously mistaken.
Being surprised by the lack of meaningful discussion in the presence of commentary like this is like being surprised by a lack of forest after burning the saplings to ash.
I love seeing people who see the cynicism and decide to ignore the haters and share their thoughts and write and create art anyways.
To be clear: a high signal-to-noise ratio is often difficult to maintain and often expensive to access. Not everyone can, for various reasons, drop everything and hire an expensive tutor to learn what they want or need to learn, no matter how effective it is. I’m not here advocating that we must always chase concentrated signal or that it’s an either-or deal. It’s not all or nothing, and it’s reasonable to decide to not obsess over optimizing for maximum progress all the time in all things.
Rather, the main way of seeing things that I personally found helpful was being conscious that sometimes it would be worthwhile thinking about how to make it easier to find the little gems of knowledge in a pile of unrelated distractions. It brings nuance to the situation: sometimes it’s more useful to find a good teacher, and sometimes it’s more worthwhile to just dive in, learning efficiency be damned.
A good way to tell if something is an area in which high signal-to-noise matters is if it’s something is easy to do intuitively. This varies from person to person, but it’s pretty safe to guess that casual pickup basketball is intuitive in a way that scuba diving isn’t. There’s a lot of nuance here though! If it were high-level competitive basketball, which gets incredibly complicated compared to the average YMCA pick-and-roll, you’d absolutely need a helpful coach or four. And after someone really gets the basic principles behind scuba diving, it’s not so hard for them to explore a whole lot on their own, because the basic principles make the rest of it intuitive.
I owe a lot to those who’ve taught me, for helping me understand the basics. It’s the easiest and hardest thing I’ll ever learn.