I used to be a book monogamist. I would start a book and read it — forsaking all others — until completion did us part. Then I would find another book and start the process over again. You could say that I was a serial monogamist.
Now I’m a book polygamist. Rather then reading an entire book from start to finish, I read randomly selected chapters in more-or-less randomly selected titles. I’ll read a chapter in Book A, followed by a chapter in Book B, followed by a chapter in Book X (ooh!), followed by Book D, and then back to Book A. I started doing this because I’ve read about the mashup theory of innovation, which suggests that innovations are frequently a mashup of two (or more) existing ideas. You mash up a Broadway play with a circus and get — voilá — Cirque de Soleil. Mash up a sports car and a sedan and you get – hier ist — a BMW.
Since most books really only have one idea (if that), I thought it would be useful to mash up ideas from multiple books at the same time. What do I have to show for my efforts? Well, I’m probably one of the few writers to mash up the Global Innovation Index with the World Happiness Report (click here). I’m about to mash up those two with measures of national cultural dimensions. I’ve also discovered that countries become more egalitarian (as measured by the power distance index) the farther north you go. I’d like to mash that up with another little-known fact — the incidence of multiple sclerosis increases the farther north you go. I’m not sure what egalitarianism has to do with MS but, at the very least, it’s an interesting question to ask.
At the moment, I’m reading The Big Sort and The Big Short more or less simultaneously. Given their titles, the two books seemed just perfect for mashing up. The Big Sort is subtitled, Why The Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart. The basic idea is that we have sorted ourselves into homogeneous thought clusters. As the author points out, “The result is a country that has become so polarized, so ideologically inbred that people don’t know and can’t understand those who live a few miles away.” (For my previous article on The Big Sort, click here).
The Big Short, subtitled Inside The Doomsday Machine, tells the story of how a few people made bazillions of dollars by recognizing the mortgage bubble and betting against it. Of course, the mortgage bubble also triggered the biggest financial crisis since the Depression. Both books tell fascinating stories about modern America. By reading them together, I’m trying to mash them up. Could it be that thought clusters led to the doomsday machine? By separating ourselves into “ideologically inbred” clusters, did we help establish the conditions that produced a massive bubble? I’m still trying to tease the two together but, if nothing else, it’s another interesting question to ask.
I once took a course called Comparative Literature. Among other things, we compared the epic Spanish poem The Cid with Albert Camus’ The Stranger. We found surprising parallels in plot, structure, and description. What I’m doing now is really not that different. It’s a surprisingly good (and easy) way to come up with interesting insights. So, what do you think? What books would you like to see mashed up?
When I walk the dog in my neighborhood, I meet a lot of people. They don’t all look like me but — according to Bill Bishop in The Big Sort — they probably think like me. Bishop argues that we’ve sorted ourselves out less along ethnic lines and more along religious, political, and philosophical lines. We tend to live with and talk to people who agree with us. Bishop argues that’s bad for our country. It tends to exacerbate our differences. We think everybody thinks like us because we only speak to people who think like us. Anybody who doesn’t think like us must be a small group of weirdos who can safely be ignored.
Sorting ourselves out may also be bad for us as individuals. According to recent research, one of the best ways to keep the brain stimulated — and to avoid dementia — is to read or listen to contrary points of view. If we only listen to sources we agree with, we’re simply reinforcing existing pathways in the brain, not creating new ones. What does that have to do with the Internet? The Internet makes it much easier to find and consume only sources that we agree with. In the old days, we would read the family newspaper and be exposed to multiple points of view on the editorial page. With the Internet, it’s much easier to isolate ourselves in an echo chamber.
So, will the Internet cause dementia? It may already have. Watch the video.