The Internet as Curiosity Machine


Ben Greenman has discovered a problem with the Internet. It allows children to look up information too quickly!

Recently, one of his sons (age 9) had to do a report on anacondas. Proudly displaying his finished product, Greenman Jr. informed his father that anacondas are the largest snakes in the world. Greenman Sr. wondered what the second largest snake was. Not having the information to hand, Greenman Jr. went off to look it up. Enter: the Problem.

If I had done an anaconda report, and my teacher had asked after the second-largest snake, I would not have simply turned, walked, typed and learned. I would have returned to the encyclopedia, and if the answer wasn't there, I would have ended my investigation abruptly. Or maybe, if I was especially motivated, I would have gone to the library and checked out a book about snakes, but even that would not have been a guarantee. And so I would have most likely gone on with my life in third grade, and then fourth, faintly feeling the burr of the question in my brain, continually assessing how important it was to scratch that itch. By supplying answers to questions with such ruthless efficiency, the Internet cuts off the supply of an even more valuable commodity: productive frustration.

There's a sort of weight-room logic to the argument. We need to exercise our curiosity muscles, so making it a little bit hard to satisfy our longings for knowledge should limber us up, right? Kind of like lifting weights or running laps. But every personal trainer knows that you can mess yourself up if you do an exercise badly. What if just wondering isn't a full rep? Maybe we need to wonder and be satisfied, over and over again, as we develop increasingly difficult curiosities to resolve.

If there's one thing we can say for sure about the research papers of 9-year-olds it's that they are unnecessary to the advancement of human understanding. The goal of making kids write research essays about things that society already knows, is that they'll work acts as a gateway drug to future learning. As units of knowledge go, facts about snakes (or raccoons or airplanes or George Washington Carver) are fairly pedestrian. They're basic stuff, but if you're coming from an era when there aren't search engines and online encyclopedias, they can be pretty hard to learn about.

Greenman argues those answers can be found too easily, but there is a better solution than dropping the tools that let information flow more easily: We could ask kids deeper questions.

Knowledge is fractal and our ignorance vast. For proof of this, spend some time with a curious 5-year-old. They wield the word "why" like a weapon, and it will only take a few rounds of this for you to come abyss-staringly close to the realization that you know nothing, nothing at all. You will run out of answers before they run out of curiosity.

Don't have a 5-year-old at hand? Try this alternate approach: Spend a night on Wikipedia and let your inner 5-year-old run wild, "why"ing your way from link to link. When you finally do end your investigation, I guarantee it won't be because you ran out of horizons of knowledge.

The Internet is a curiosity machine. Like the most knowledgeable and patient parent, it'll indulge your questions for as long as you can muster them, letting you exercise your interests. As you do, you'll ask harder and harder ones, until you reach the point where the answer isn't easily available anywhere. And your real work will begin.

Concluding his essay, Greenman offers a final anecdote, meant to be a sage prescription for inculcating curiosity in our young. His son asks him what the most common cause of death is in the world. He describes not knowing the answer and then determinedly choosing not to look it up.

"Not sure," I said. I expected him to get up and go to the computer, but he stayed at the table, and we speculated wildly for a few minutes. "Heart attacks?" he said. "Car crashes? Old age?" He went to bed still musing.

If I may indulge in a bit of backseat parenting, imagine what might have happened if instead he'd taken a moment to offer his young charge the answer (cardiovascular disease).

Greenman Jr. thinks about this for a moment and then wonders aloud, "Why would it be heart disease?" Ah, now there's a question worth lying awake to ponder.

Image: Christy Bros. 5 ring wild animal show circus poster. Credit: New York Public Library.