Hacker News Re-Imagined

People mistake the internet’s knowledge for their own

  • 240 points
  • 11 hours ago

  • @nabla9
  • Created a post
  • • 165 comments

People mistake the internet’s knowledge for their own


@bitwize 5 hours

Replying to @nabla9 🎙

"Oh, and check it out: I'm a bloody genius now! Estás usando este software de traducción in forma incorrecta. Por favor, consultar el manual. I... don't even know what I just said, but I can find out!" --Wheatley, Portal 2

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@lordnacho 9 hours

Replying to @nabla9 🎙

As a coder I don't think I can do anything without the internet. Even if one specific site (maybe there are two actually, SO and GH) were down, it would wreck my day and many of yours.

My style of coding is very intimately connected to having access to online resources. I regularly search for things like how to concatenate strings or the syntax of a for loop in some language. I also use the internet for higher level things like how memory management works on some system, or how something like an ECS architecture works. I also spend a lot of time looking for the right components to put into my own systems, so if GitHub were down it would bother me.

Basically I'd be useless without the internet. The coding tools themselves, all the examples of how to use them, and all the actual knowledge about how everything works is on there.

Perhaps the only thing that's actually my own input is the judgement about what things are important, which sources are reliable, and which people are authorities.

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@omarhaneef 9 hours

Replying to @nabla9 🎙

I believe this predates the internet.

I can't remember the study now -- perhaps fellow HNers can -- but there is a study where they asked a group of people to take a side in a debate. The debate was structured so that it sounded like A was the intuitively better choice, and when polled almost everyone agreed the group would support A. One plant was armed with excellent arguments for B, and when presented with these arguments, the group switched to supporting B. When asked later, they thought they had supported B the whole time.

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@wirthjason 9 hours

Replying to @nabla9 🎙

The easy access of facts on line is a good thing. This kind of “knowledge” is shallow, assembling the parts together to synthesize new knowledge is the important step. That part isn’t easily found online.

This reminds me of leaning math. At one point “doing math” meant calculating numbers, like memorizing multiplication tables or performing long division. I was always relieved when the teacher said we could use a calculator on a test. But at some point I came to realize that math is not calculating. Math is about relationships between numbers and their general properties.

Googling facts is akin to using a calculator. Extracting meaning from that jumbled pile of facts is knowledge.

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@andai 8 hours

Replying to @nabla9 🎙

I was at the supermarket one time and tried to remember something. In the act of trying to remember it, I instinctively reached into my pocket (to Google it), and found that I'd left my phone at home, and suddenly felt like part of my brain was missing.

At that moment I realized the Internet had become part of my my "memory". The feeling wasn't "I can't look it up", but literally "I can't remember."

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@kazinator 3 hours

Replying to @nabla9 🎙

I'm sorry, this is complete nonsense.

Something you recently Googled is your knowledge, for the time being. It is not external.

You may have an inflated sense of being able to retain it going forward, but that doesn't make it external.

It's no different from any kind of learning.

If you're able to recite the information without looking at an online reference it's internal, and if you looked at it a month ago, it's even long-term memory. It might vaporize in another few months, but that doesn't mean it had been merely external.

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@Animats 6 hours

Replying to @nabla9 🎙

With Google available, there's no upper limit on programming complexity. Before search engines, programming had to be simple enough that people could learn all the necessary parts. That restriction has been removed.

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@drcongo 8 hours

Replying to @nabla9 🎙

I've seen almost this exact study before somewhere. As a side note though, how do we pronounce that domain name?

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@jacquesm 3 hours

Replying to @nabla9 🎙

All those people in this thread turning to their Significant Other for help with coding problems: you are so lucky to have that option.

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@bhouston 9 hours

Replying to @nabla9 🎙



@m3kw9 7 hours

Replying to @nabla9 🎙

It should be “Many people repeat facts written online without understanding it.”

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@t43562 4 hours

Replying to @nabla9 🎙

But don't we copy almost everything we know from outside anyhow and then think it's ours without remembering who mentioned it or where we read it? Are we really original thinking machines or do we copy most of the time?

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@dkarl 8 hours

Replying to @nabla9 🎙

Personally, I'm starting to identify a lot of cases where looking things up in an external resource is a deeper mental disruption than remembering it, even if the lookup is just as fast or even faster. (Or, it's possible that the external lookup only seems faster because the several mechanical steps compress my perception of time, like keyboard navigation can seem faster than the mouse, even when it isn't.)

For example, I find that when I'm working with an API enough that I am frequently looking up the same operations, investing twenty minutes in identifying and reviewing the important operations, as if I were preparing for an exam where I wouldn't be allowed to consult external resources, pays off in fluency and immersion.

Another example is that when I am reading a history book, before I start, I review relevant names and contemporary dates. Then when I find myself thinking, "Wait, at this time, how long ago was X? Has Y happened yet?" I can answer from memory. This gives me a richer reading experience than if I needed to remove myself from the context of the book to look up those dates.

I know memorization is seen negatively from a pedagogical standpoint, and schoolchildren find it alienating and discouraging, but I think when you have enough experience to understand the value of it, so that the work to achieve it isn't such a negative experience in itself, judicious application of it has a lot of power to make your work easier and your learning experiences richer.

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@Grimm1 7 hours

Replying to @nabla9 🎙

I partially judge the novelty of the problem I'm solving by the level of access to information about it I have. You realize you're on the edge of knowledge when you're deep down in the research papers and there's only a couple papers on the subject and you implement from there. The solutions you come up with from that tend to be the most rewarding and unfortunately relative to all the mundane work few and far between. I think I run into that type of problem a few times a year, if even.

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@bondolo 4 hours

Replying to @nabla9 🎙

I started developing software in the days before the Internet. It was indeed very different. My choices about what to remember and how I remember things have changed significantly since the ubiquitous availability of searchable information. I no longer have tomes of K&R, processor manuals, Inside Macintosh or Java books on my desk. The only technical book which happens to be on my desk at the moment is "Anti-patterns".

I have been "weeding" my paper books, especially technical books over the last couple of years and gotten rid of an entire bookshelf of books. I still have an entire bookshelf with Knuth TAoCP, math books, type theory, graphics, graph theory, control theory, physics and some nostalgic books like my original Motorola 68000 processor guide, Rodney Zaks Z80 book, "Adventure game programming in BASIC", Commodore 64 Innerspace Compendium, etc.

When a puppy chewed up my copy of "Linux in a Nutshell" I was tempted to buy the new edition but decided to try it online for a month with O'Reilly Safari through work and have not bothered to replace the paper copy for more than 2 years.

I would categorize the main change in style of memory as a shift from focus on remembering details and facts, which I can look up, to using memory for decision trees, processes and methodologies which either can't be looked up or are significantly personally customized. I consciously "outsource" the simpler and to me, less valuable, aspects of memory. Some of this is handled automatically by the IDE I use and the rest is done with mostly Google searches.

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@tony-allan 3 hours

Replying to @nabla9 🎙

Some additional references

Does Googling Perpetuate the Dunning-Kruger Effect? https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-athletes-way/202...

One with the Cloud: Why People Mistake the Internet's Knowledge for Their Own (2013) - http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:11004901

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@kwertyoowiyop 8 hours

Replying to @nabla9 🎙

There’s an SNL skit here.

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@bregma 8 hours

Replying to @nabla9 🎙

A frequent mistake is to confuse knowledge with intelligence or wisdom. It is neither, but a prerequisite for both.

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@kwertyoowiyop 8 hours

Replying to @nabla9 🎙

Stackoverflow makes me think I know C++.

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@secludedrelish 2 hours

Replying to @nabla9 🎙

Is there any way to actually read the paper? It doesn't seem to be available on sci-hub.

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@joshstrange 8 hours

Replying to @nabla9 🎙

When I was younger I worried a little bit about this but now I'm perfectly happy to use my brain as an index instead of a data warehouse. As in, I don't bother committing to memory things that I can reach out and grab if they fall out of my "cache". As others have noted, I regularly reach out to SO/Internet to "remember" how to do basic language features if I haven't worked in said language recently or I've just forgotten the syntax. I can speed 5min+ racking my brain and/or reading docs or I can search and find it in a few seconds. Often I just need to see an example to "remember" or kick start myself.

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@Razengan 4 hours

Replying to @nabla9 🎙

Is there ANYbody today whose knowledge is all their “own”?

How many people really learn something completely on their own?

Even tools count as the sum of somebody else’s knowledge, like the computer and language you use even if you teach yourself how to program.

Everyone builds upon the knowledge of billions who came before. It’s not a competition.

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@moosey 8 hours

Replying to @nabla9 🎙

I often hear a thought process to the effect of:

> Why learn something in depth when it can just be looked up?

And the answer is that you can't daydream about something or think about it deeply unless that information is easily pulled up from your memory. Daydreaming, out the "default mode" of the brain organizes and helps is too understand information. If I had taken the care to study and memorize information regarding, well, everything in school, via a tool like Anki, I would have a lot more information that I could use to connect disparate ideas together. The brain can't do this to the full extent possible unless that information is memorized.

That being said, it's important to know that memorization has a cost in time. The time for a single data point is low, but 20-30k data points in Anki is a serious time commitment.

If it's important to you, memorize. The benefits are huge, and it will help too ward off mental declines later in life.

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@danielrpa 9 hours

Replying to @nabla9 🎙

Isn't internet access at your fingertips a form of transhumanism? So maybe it's ok, people do indeed "know" more in an objective sense.

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@nescioquid 8 hours

Replying to @nabla9 🎙

As I understood the abstract, participants are given general-knowledge questions (e.g. who was the fourth U.S. president), participant looks up the answer online, sees "Madison" and then thinks they must have know that (Washington - Adams - Jefferson - Madison). The participant will then predict that they will do well on subsequent questions without using the internet for reference (at least that's how I interpret "... [participants] predict that they will know more in the future without the help of the internet").

That's a foible fit for satire. I'm curious whether there is a process of rationalization like I just imagined, or whether there is just a fundamental confusion by the participant about whether they knew the information prior or knew it from the recent internet search. If the later, that could be horrifying (imagine you needed to find out how long Oceania and Eastasia have been at war).

I've read about teachers struggling to convince students of the need to actually memorize things despite the ubiquity of easy reference: you just won't make new connections or insights if you don't have any information already in your head. I would say this study would suggest the teacher's task is even more difficult if people misattribute recent searches for prior knowledge.

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@notacoward 6 minutes

Replying to @nabla9 🎙

I think this finding is closely related to the fact that people think they're good at multi-tasking but they're really not. Think of your brain as a cache. People sit at work, filling up half of their cache with random data from HN or YouTube or whatever, then when they need to pull up a fact actually needed for their work ... oops, cache miss. Instead of milliseconds pulling it from memory, they spend seconds to minutes looking it up on Google or Stack Overflow and don't even realize how much these interruptions repeated many times a day slow them down. People who will spend hours hyper-optimizing their editor and their window manager and their shell environment won't spend any time at all keeping the "working set" for their job in memory. It's kind of crazy, really. This is where those 10x differences between developers come from. A bit of talent will get you far, but a modicum of good old-fashioned focus and self-discipline might get you even further.

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@msla 5 hours

Replying to @nabla9 🎙

https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Phaedrus

> At the Egyptian city of Naucratis, there was a famous old god, whose name was Theuth; the bird which is called the Ibis is sacred to him, and he was the inventor of many arts, such as arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts and dice, but his great discovery was the use of letters. Now in those days the god Thamus was the king of the whole country of Egypt; and he dwelt in that great city of Upper Egypt which the Hellenes call Egyptian Thebes, and the god himself is called by them Ammon. To him came Theuth and showed his inventions, desiring that the other Egyptians might be allowed to have the benefit of them; he enumerated them, and Thamus enquired about their several uses, and praised some of them and censured others, as he approved or disapproved of them. It would take a long time to repeat all that Thamus said to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts. But when they came to letters, This, said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit. Thamus replied: O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.

So this is not a new concern.

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@1970-01-01 8 hours

Replying to @nabla9 🎙

No internet connection is required!

Q: You won more than US$2.5 million dollars over 75 episodes of “Jeopardy!” How did you do it?

Jennings: I’ve always considered myself to be a very curious person by nature. If I don’t know the answer to something, it’s like a mystery I need to solve; it spurs me on to find out more information. I read just about everything I can pick up, I watch a lot of movies and I also like to enter my questions into Encarta; it’s a great digital encyclopedia with the answers a mouse click away.

https://news.microsoft.com/2004/12/06/q-what-are-ken-jenning...

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@nathias 8 hours

Replying to @nabla9 🎙

There is no knowledge on the internet, only data.

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@hogFeast 8 hours

Replying to @nabla9 🎙

If you word a question correctly, you can also find evidence for almost any belief with Google (it is Nietzsche, you ask Google, and Google asks you). It is actually quite bizarre to have a conversation with someone online, that person has literally no real knowledge of the topic, they pepper you with "sources" (usually those sources do not provide evidence for what they are saying, they don't know enough to know that), and then (and this is very 2020s) act outraged when you point they are wrong and have no actual knowledge of the topic beyond Google.

In my experience, these people have usually integrated Google fully into their own perception of knowledge. They view themselves as totally rational, their views are all evidence-based because they can type the magic phrase into Google and get justification...but, of course, the feeling comes before the source and they have no real understanding of what "evidence" actually looks like. It is very odd trying to have a conversation with someone who is totally irrational but believes heavily in rationality (this is the "source? source? source?" meme of Reddit).

I think this is distinct from the SO stuff. Programming languages are very explicit so it is easy to forget exactly how to do something basic if you do it infrequently (for example, I can never remember how to get an env variable in Python, I do it in every project but usually only a handful of times per project...it is easy to forget) Once you get into more complex problems, you can look stuff up on SO but you still won't be able to do it unless you actually understand what you are copying (in my experience, I have usually copied something, something is slightly different, and then I spend time going through it/reworking/understanding).

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@grouphugs 43 minutes

Replying to @nabla9 🎙

people still think musk started spacex

look, the nazis got tricked into buying an entire countries worth of guns and ammo because the nra told them obama was gonna rewrite the constitution. i bet we can trick them into killing each other with all those guns, and i believe that's the right move

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@beloch 5 hours

Replying to @nabla9 🎙

There is an inherent and not entirely unfounded bias evident in this article that external knowledge is inferior to internal knowledge. It is certainly true that reaching the point where you don't have to look something up usually means you have a deeper understanding of it and are more competent and fast using it. Quality of knowledge matters, but there are limits to how much knowledge a single person can internalize.

Quantity has a quality all it's own.

Having vast amounts of external knowledge available for rapid access offers unique capabilities. Skill at searching as well as quality of search tools can enable people to do things that would have taken far longer just a couple decades ago when any given search would have involved dead-tree books.

Perhaps we should start thinking of google and other such tools, not as poor substitutes for knowledge painstakingly internalized, but rather, an augmentation of human intelligence that grants humans rapid access to far more knowledge than any single human could possibly internalize in a lifetime. As these tools improve, this augmentation effect will become more pronounced, as will the deleterious effects of being cut off from the internet.

The blurring of lines between internal and external knowledge may also intensify with future technologies. e.g. Wetware out of a William Gibson novel lets people with data jacks install modules of mental expertise at will. Will an article like this even have meaning once people can look up a module of deeply internalized knowledge and install it in an instant?

One day, the Internet's knowledge may be indistinguishable from our own.

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@hyperpallium2 4 hours

Replying to @nabla9 🎙

> erroneously optimistic predictions regarding how much they will know without the internet

People experience tools as extentions of themselves. If you always have the tool, does it matter whether you've misattributed (and if you have the tool, have you misattributed?)

Are we not tool-users?

Carpenter don't perform as well without hammers; cyclists without cycles; surgeons without scalpels; engineers without mathematics; writers without language.

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@buescher 9 hours

Replying to @nabla9 🎙

Even before the WWW, I remember being taught that the next best thing to remembering something was knowing how/where to look it up.

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@ineedasername 2 hours

Replying to @nabla9 🎙

It would be interesting to see if these results replicated when the target was "home encyclopedia set" or "university library"

Probably not possible these days since it would be hard to test when people already have internet access l, and part of that access can include these things.

But I suspect this phenomenon is not unique to the internet, and would be more generalizable to any readily available source of information. Though the effect would probably increase with ease of access, so the internet would produce a larger effect. I acknowledge this is just speculation though.

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@faizshah 8 hours

Replying to @nabla9 🎙

I feel like people take for granted the ability to ask the right question with the right words. I get that this study is talking about general knowledge questions but I can’t tell you how many times I have tried to search for an answer for something in another field only to find that I need to find the right keywords for the question first. For example a social network in humanities is a complex network in physics is a graph in mathematics is a network in ML (but sometimes its also called a graph) this is very annoying cause all these fields have different ideas on “community identification” (clustering). I’m sure people must have the same problem for general knowledge questions as well.

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@nsonha 4 hours

Replying to @nabla9 🎙

knowledge is part of reality, my mind is just a cache

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@ksec 5 hours

Replying to @nabla9 🎙

I am not sure if this is related.

It isn't the access of information ( Internet or not ) that is a problem. It is the access to "answer" that is the problem. Or more precisely access to answer without explanation why this is an answer. People no longer "think" if this answer is correct or not ( misinformation ), but presume it to be true. And then they built up a mental model using that information. Which leads to all sort of wrong conclusion. In the old days access to information ( library ) tends to be much better because quality of information is likely millions times higher.

This leads to "way" less thinking. And "thinking", the process to digest information is critical to gain knowledge. The more access you have to answers, the less thinking you have to do. Which ends in a negative feedback loop.

I have been teaching kids these days and making this point extremely clear. It is not the answer that matters, it is how you arrive at the answer that is the most important. Especially in the day of Google. But generally speaking they do ask a hell of a lot "why" :) Part of the joy of working with kids.

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@lvl100 5 hours

Replying to @nabla9 🎙

I think of it as my own RAM. Search used to be quite slow and you had to have knowledge stored in your RAM to be proficient. Memory was valued but you also had to deal with human limitations.

Fast forward to today and search can be done quite a bit faster. And your internal RAM effectively multiplied or perhaps your storage (SSD) became faster and bigger. In that sense what’s become more valuable is not necessarily how much information you can physically retain in your brain/memory but how FAST and EFFECTIVELY you can look up things.

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