A few thoughts on internet conversation and learning new things

Okay, so it turns out writing stuff to put on the internet is a lot harder than I thought.  Because the whole point of putting your opinions out into the world is to listen to people’s responses, right?  Otherwise you never learn anything at all.  And sending blog posts out into the ether feels a little like a one-sided conversation.

Think about the conversations you’ve had in your life with people who are truly good listeners – people who seem to think carefully about everything you’re saying, and ask insightful questions that stretch your ideas in new directions.  When I have conversations like this, I feel invigorated / excited / nourished in the mind and the spirit.  It’s not satisfying to just talk at someone.  When I meet people who do this, they always strike me as perpetually fed up – fundamentally unfulfilled in some way.  They’re so self-assured that they never learn anything new.  This is rude, for sure, but it’s also a little sad.

Making sense of the infinite complexity of our world, assimilating new information into our existing frameworks for understanding things – this is what humans do best.  If cheetahs are exceptional because they run fast, and giraffes because they can eat the highest-up leaves, humans are exceptional because of how well we learn.  I’m not kidding.  Did you know that, almost from birth, human infants are learning the building blocks of language?  As babies, we pay attention to the syllables being spoken around us, and we notice how often certain sounds tend to follow others.  Months and months before we utter our first words, we’re parsing the massive amount of linguistic data that’s being thrown at us all the time, and identifying the patterns with remarkable accuracy.  When you think about how complex, flexible, and ever-changing language is, it’s sort of incredible that we learn to use it at all, let alone learn it well enough that we can write poetry and explain astrophysics and convey our emotional landscapes to other human beings.  And as far as scientists can tell, we’re basically learning to do this from birth!  It’s so commonplace and necessary that we don’t even really think about it.  But isn’t it sort of a miracle?

This is all to say that I think something is fundamentally lost when humans stop wondering about the world around us.  When we grow complacent in our knowledge and our own little spheres, when we stop asking questions and listening to people who can tell us new things, when the well of our curiosity runs dry, we lose a basic characteristic of our humanity.  And it’s no coincidence that language is a tool that we learn early and uniquely well; the sheer amount of new information that can be conveyed through language is pretty much unparalleled.  We learn it so well, and so quickly, because it’s the gateway to pretty much everything else we’ll learn for the rest of our lives.  And there’s just so so so much cool shit out there that we can know more about.

So how am I supposed to get on here and have a conversation with myself?  Where’s the joy in that?  And I don’t mean to imply this is anyone’s fault.  If there’s anyone out there even reading this right now, I’ll be stoked.  I know you’re busy.  You don’t have to write me back.  But if you feel like it, I would love to hear about something that excites you.  Leave a reply and tell me about something you think is really cool.  And maybe we can talk about it.

– Ben

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