Start at the Beginning

This post will have two kinds of readers:

1) The few who have read the posts on this blog from the beginning, in chronological order, and who are now reading this one simply because it is the only one you have not read yet.

2) The vast majority who did not do the above.

For the first category, I don’t have any particular suggestion at the moment. Well done. That is the right way of reading this blog.

For the second category, you would do much better to stop right here in the middle of this post (without even finishing it), go back to the beginning, and read every post in chronological order.

….

So you are now in the first category? No? Since obviously you did not take my advice, let me explain both why you should, and why you will not.

It is possible to understand something through arguments, even if manipulating symbols may be an even more common result. And since conclusions follow from premises, you can only do this by thinking about the premises first, and the conclusions second. Since my own interest is in understanding things, I intentionally organize the blog in this way. Of course, since the concrete historical process of an individual coming to understand some particular thing is messier and more complicated than a single argument or even than multiple arguments, the order isn’t an exact representation of my own history or someone else’s potential history. But it is certainly closer to that than any other order of reading would be.

You will object that you do not have the time to read 300 blog posts. Fine. But then why do you have time to read this one? Even if you are definitely committed to reading a small number of posts, you would do better to read a small number from the beginning. If you are committed to reading not more than one post a week, you would do better to read the 300 posts over the next six years, rather than reading the posts that are current.

You might think of other similar objections, but they will all fail in similar ways. If you are actually interested in understanding something from your reading, chronological order is the right order.

Of course, other blog authors might well argue in similar ways, but the number of people who actually do this, on any blog, is tiny. Instead, people read a few recent posts, and perhaps a few others if there are a chain of links that lead them there. But they do not, in the vast majority of cases, read from the beginning, whether to read all or only a part.

So let me explain why you will not take this advice, despite the fact that it is irrefutably correct. In The Elephant in the Brain, Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler remark in a chapter on conversation:

This view of talking—as a way of showing off one’s “backpack”—explains the puzzles we encountered earlier, the ones that the reciprocal-exchange theory had trouble with. For example, it explains why we see people jockeying to speak rather than sitting back and “selfishly” listening—because the spoils of conversation don’t lie primarily in the information being exchanged, but rather in the subtextual value of finding good allies and advertising oneself as an ally. And in order to get credit in this game, you have to speak up; you have to show off your “tools.”

But why do speakers need to be relevant in conversation? If speakers deliver high-quality information, why should listeners care whether the information is related to the current topic? A plausible answer is that it’s simply too easy to rattle off memorized trivia. You can recite random facts from the encyclopedia until you’re blue in the face, but that does little to advertise your generic facility with information.

Similarly, when you meet someone for the first time, you’re more eager to sniff each other out for this generic skill, rather than to exchange the most important information each of you has gathered to this point in your lives. In other words, listeners generally prefer speakers who can impress them wherever a conversation happens to lead, rather than speakers who steer conversations to specific topics where they already know what to say.

Hanson and Simler are trying to explain various characteristics of conversation, such as the fact that people are typically more interested in speaking than in listening, as well as the requirement that conversational participants “stick to the topic.”

Later, they associate this with people’s interest in news:

Why have humans long been so obsessed with news? When asked to justify our strong interest, we often point to the virtues of staying apprised of the important issues of the day. During a 1945 newspaper strike in New York, for example, when the sociologist Bernard Berelson asked his fellow citizens, “Is it very important that people read the newspaper?” almost everyone answered with a “strong ‘yes,’ ” and most people cited the “ ‘serious’ world of public affairs.”

Now, it did make some sense for our ancestors to track news as a way to get practical information, such as we do today for movies, stocks, and the weather. After all, they couldn’t just go easily search for such things on Google like we can. But notice that our access to Google hasn’t made much of a dent in our hunger for news; if anything we read more news now that we have social media feeds, even though we can find a practical use for only a tiny fraction of the news we consume.

There are other clues that we aren’t mainly using the news to be good citizens (despite our high-minded rhetoric). For example, voters tend to show little interest in the kinds of information most useful for voting, including details about specific policies, the arguments for and against them, and the positions each politician has taken on each policy. Instead, voters seem to treat elections more like horse races, rooting for or against different candidates rather than spending much effort to figure out who should win. (See Chapter 16 for a more detailed discussion on politics.)

These patterns in behavior may be puzzling when we think of news as a source of useful information. But they make sense if we treat news as a larger “conversation” that extends our small-scale conversation habits. Just as one must talk on the current topic in face-to-face conversation, our larger news conversation also maintains a few “hot” topics—a focus so strong and so narrow that policy wonks say that there’s little point in releasing policy reports on topics not in the news in the last two weeks. (This is the criterion of relevance we saw earlier.)

The argument here suggests that blog readers will tend to prefer reading current posts to old ones because this is to remain more “relevant,” and that such relevance is necessary in order to impress other conversational participants. This, I suggest, is why you will not take my advice, despite its rightness. If you think this is an insulting explanation, just bear in mind that blog authors are even more insulted by Hanson’s and Simler’s explanations, since the reader at least is listening.

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4 thoughts on “Start at the Beginning

  1. There is a third kind of reader you neglected to mention–those who have read all the blog posts in chronological order, but have forgotten them, and really should start again but instead are reading the recent ones.

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  2. Perhaps. I certainly wasn’t thinking of that. On the other hand, you don’t really forget things completely and totally. So that would be an intermediate condition where it might or might not ultimately be clear which is better, depending on the degree of forgetting and all that.

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  3. Finally did it. I’d read a large majority of your posts out of order by following links backwards, but just finished reading the whole blog chronologically, starting right after you offered this advice. Your writing always bears fruit in re-reading, thank you.

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    • That’s impressive.

      I still haven’t fully implemented my own advice, actually. As I said in the post, this argument would mainly apply to almost any blog. And in fact I have done it with the blogs that I learn the most from. But there are lots of others where I haven’t, and I kind of know I wouldn’t be willing to. The real question in those cases is whether it is really worth my time to read them at all, even the new stuff. And in many cases the answer will probably turn out to be no, it isn’t.

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