The Problem with Blinkist

Alternately: In defense of all those extra words

My brother was in town just after christmas. We were catching up one afternoon, talking about something.  I don’t know what, but it culminated in an epiphany he’d had.  About something.  Again, I don’t remember.  It was important to him, and it had taken a lot of thought, a lot of effort, to get there, and then to present it to me in a way that I could understand and benefit from.

“I guess what I’m saying is: It’s about the journey, not the destination.”

And as he said it, I could see the disappointment in his face.  The annoyance.  The self loathing.  All that effort adequately summarized by a quote we’d both heard a thousand times, and routinely pasted over a stolen picture of a sunset and posted on facebook.

This is not the only time this has happened.


Today I downloaded blinkist, which is an app/service that summarizes books into their main ideas for easy and quick ingestion. I don’t know where I originally heard about Blinkist – I think it’s been quietly infiltrating my subconscious via Instagram ads for weeks, months.  Who knows? Anyway, my friend Ben and I were talking about a book, and he said it wasn’t so great, but the main idea was worth pondering, which lead to the idea of trying blinkist. So I did. And it’s great! Unless it’s not.

As I see it, blinkist as a service rests on a few ideas:

  • Learning is valuable
  • People are busy
  • Books are unnecessarily long

I think that much of the population (at least, the population that I’m familiar with) is pretty on board with those 3 ideas. To add another couple that I think are prevalent:

  • More knowledge makes a person more successful
  • To read or hear an idea is to understand and benefit from it

With this as a platform, the real bottleneck between a person and success is simply how much information they’re able to consume. And in this paradigm, blinkist makes perfect sense. So does Twitter. So does so much of our social media (and regular media) consumption.

We treat words like magic spells that create understanding. Spells that, upon hearing or reading, magically transfer the intent, the expertise, the passion of the author into the reader. All we have to do is hear the right set of words in the right order, and the rest is fluff.

So we can cut out all the extra.  All the fluff that the author put in to stroke his or her  ego.  If we can just get the author to succinctly announce their idea, their reason for writing, everyone would win.

I think that’s garbage. I think understanding takes time. Maybe very long books are the most useful simply because they force the reader to continue thinking about a single idea for long enough to actually start to get it.

I think communication is terribly ineffective. The alchemy of translating feelings and ideas into words, sentences, paragraphs is risky enough – and then you’re less than halfway there! It has to happen again in the other direction, as the reader reverses the process and attempts to turn words into real understanding. To call it “lossy” is an understatement, bordering on the ridiculous. In such an environment, the only hope author or reader have is to talk a lot. To say the same thing in several different ways, over and over again, in hopes that the reader will eventually work out the pattern – put together the bits and pieces they understand from each attempt, into something close to a whole.

So yes, there’s a lot of content out there.  Yes, a lot of it looks interesting.  No, I don’t believe the only thing stopping a person from benefitting from all this content at once is that it hasn’t been appropriately summarized, or that we havent heard the bullet points.  We’ve all heard the bullet points.  The important stuff is what comes in between them.

With all this said, I’m still kind of excited about blinkist. I think its presentation, its message is flawed – but as a way to find out what I might want to learn more about, I still think it sounds pretty interesting.

When I’m famous and this post gets summarized “for busy people”, it will be reduced to “You just have to put in the work”. And somebody will read that, pat themselves on the back for all the time they saved, and move on.

Perspectives

Those who have read some of my former books … find things that seem to be total contradictions of much that I have said before. This, however, is true only in some minor respects. For I have discovered that the essence and crux of what I was trying to say in those books was seldom understood … My intention here is to approach the same meaning from entirely different premises…

Watts, Alan W. The Wisdom of Insecurity

I’m still of the opinion that Alan Watts is mostly crazy, but apparently not so crazy that I’ll stop reading what he wrote.  Also, I found this particular thing interesting.

Code is interesting.  When you write code, you get to build something from nothing, totally out of thin air. Notably, it’s entirely made up.  It has no physical manifestation – the real shape of it, the ideas that it imbues exist only in your head.  But even so, there are rules.  There are patterns that come up, that start to reveal themselves as they are repeated through different problems.

For the uninitiated, when you write code, you talk to the computer in any of a variety of particular languages, each with their own syntax and idiosyncrasies.  There are a lot of them – and much like regular, talking-to-each-other-by-flapping-our-mouths languages, they all attempt to do the same thing – tell the computer what to do.  They all have their own nuance, flavor, quirks and sharp edges.

As a result, any problem or idea that is built in a single, particular programming language is going to pick up that nuance, those quirks, those sharp edges – the ones from the language itself.  Identifying which sharp edges actually belong to your idea, your coding style, what you were trying to build, and which ones come by nature of the programming language you chose can be almost impossible – until you write the same thing in another language.  Getting across the same idea, solving the same problem in another language begins to give the real shape of a thing – which difficulties are inherent in the problem you’re solving, or your approach, and which come from the language you chose.

Back to Watts. Watts wrote a bunch of ideas down, in two books.  But he did so from a particular perspective – at the time, he was an Episcopal priest.  As a result, his ideas got all wrapped up in that – the language he used, the perspective he was writing from – and he felt like what he was really trying to get at, really trying to explain or at least explore, was lost.  The sharp quirks of his perspective and the language he used became indistinguishable from the quirks of his ideas.  So he had to try again, from a new perspective, to get at the truth of what he was actually trying to convey.  Because communication is hard, but maybe it’s worth it.

Ideas and the language, metaphors, or perspective used to describe them are inseparable.  The only way to communicate or understand the real shape of a thing is to come at it repeatedly, from different perspectives.

Communication

A few years ago, I was sitting in the conference room of a resort in Cyprus.  Me and two other guys were sitting around a table, discussing a new development project we were embarking on.  Normally, we don’t get such an opportunity – our conversations about topics like this are done via text, or video calls, from the comfort of our own homes or offices.  This was a special occasion – we were together at just the right time to sit down and figure out how this was going to work, together.  It was exciting – we’ve built our entire business around the idea that you can generally communicate well enough remotely to get things done, so the increased bandwidth of a face to face conversation, with the nuance of body language, tone, and no latency was a special treat.

So we sat, and we talked.  And we misunderstood.  And we talked more.  And we misunderstood more.  After working for several hours through ideas and plans via discussion, hastily drawn diagrams on hotel notepads, and wild hand gestures, we realized that we still didn’t agree on a fundamental, core piece of the project – a piece we thought we all had agreed on hours ago.

We weren’t bad communicators.  We knew each other pretty well.  It didn’t matter.

Communication is hard.

Really hard.  Discussing anything other than concrete objects that can be independently experienced and corroborated through other senses at the time time – like, stuff you see in front of both of you, and can point at, see, touch, smell – is fraught with misunderstanding and miscommunication. Abstract ideas?  Feelings?  Good luck.

Wiio’s Laws

Sometime after that, in a separate conversation about communication, a friend introduced me to Wiio’s laws:

  1. Communication usually fails, except by accident.
    1. If communication can fail, it will.
    2. If communication cannot fail, it still most usually fails.
    3. If communication seems to succeed in the intended way, there’s a misunderstanding.
    4. If you are content with your message, communication certainly fails.
  2. If a message can be interpreted in several ways, it will be interpreted in a manner that maximizes the damage.

(there are more, but these are the ones that most interest me at the moment)

Osmo Anteri Wiio was a Finnish academic, among other things.  He seems to have written the laws facetiously, but it’s hard to avoid the deep, depressing, uncomfortable truths from which they spring.