“Literature is the original Internet”

Maria Popova tweets 60 times a day but fears the Internet’s information overload. She told Max Tholl how to strike the balance and not conflate the amusing with the interesting.

The European: You call “Brain Pickings” a “human-powered discovery engine for interestingness”. What’s your definition of “interestingness”?
Popova: Anything that moves me and impresses upon me some fragment of truth that leaves me different, even slightly altered and more enriched – intellectually, creatively, and spiritually.

The European: Do you think that that concept has changed in the digital age?
Popova: Not at all! What has changed is that we’ve conflated the amusing (cat slideshows! silly quizzes!) with the interesting, the temporary diversion with the deeper dimension of personal growth. The most “interesting” ideas are invariably timeless.

The European: How much do interests reveal about a person?
Popova: Kurt Vonnegut once wrote: “The most damning revelation you can make about yourself is that you do not know what is interesting and what is not.” No doubt it’s an intentionally cheeky sentiment, but there’s a grain – perhaps a boulder – of truth. We are a collage of our interests, our influences, our inspirations, all the fragmentary impressions we’ve collected by being alive and awake to the world. Who we “are” is simply a finely curated catalog of those.

The European: Do you have any idea who your readers are?
Popova: Based on the letters I receive, my readers cut across nearly every imaginable occupation, age group, and life path, so it’s difficult and misleading to attempt lumping them into an archetype or two. Just yesterday, I heard from a high school student in the Netherlands and a retired educator in Nebraska within minutes of one another. I think the only common denominator is that, like me, they are people interested in what it means to live – what it means to lead a good life, a fulfilling life, a purposeful life – which is, in turn, the only common denominator between all the ideas I read and write about.

The European: How do you select the things you present on “Brain Pickings”?
Popova: With that same lens: Is this something that’s both interesting and important, shedding light on some corner of human existence? Is it something that helps me answer even a tiny portion of that grand question of how to live?

“I still write for an audience of one”

The European: Do you think that it is easier to establish consensus in the digital age because like-minded people can easily share what they like, thereby establishing a consensus about certain things among that group?
Popova: I’m not sure “consensus” is the right term, but people are certainly better able to gravitate toward like-minded others. The downside of that, of course, is that it creates a kind of echo chamber – or what’s been called a “filter bubble” – where we become even more firmly rooted in our existing beliefs through peer affirmation. It takes a constant practice – an increasingly urgent discipline – to seek out ideas that challenge us and stretch us. It’s a form of intellectual hygiene that has always been necessary, but never more so than in the digital era, where it is so easy and so frictionless to surrender to the filter bubble.

The European: There is such a huge availability of information on the Internet. Does this make it easier or more difficult to gather information and thereby knowledge?
Popova: I don’t think knowledge results from “gathering” information. If anything, the correlation is probably negative. The Internet does make it easier to gather – aggregate, as the jargon goes – information, but not necessarily to make sense of it. An overabundance of raw information devoid of context and interpretation can actually be detrimental to knowledge. Knowledge springs from the act – the art – of interpreting, digesting, and integrating new information with our existing understanding of the world. That’s why the human element is so vital in the age of algorithms, because we’re very far from having artificial intelligence advanced enough – morally and creatively, as these are necessary components of sense-making – to do this interperation and integration for us.

The European: Do you think that, because of this huge availability of information, people have more interests today?
Popova: I can’t speak for others, but I’ve found in myself a tendency to retreat deeper and deeper into my existing interests as a form of self-defense against the abundance of demands for my time and attention. Again, it takes a certain discipline not to do that and to continually expand one’s ideological comfort zone, as it does not to scatter oneself too chaotically across a multitude of diversion.

The European: Anne-Marie Slaughter described “Brain Pickings” as “like walking into the Museum of Modern Art and having somebody give you a customized, guided tour.” Is that an accurate analogy?
Popova: It’s a very generous one. I certainly try to do this for myself – Brain Pickings remains a record of my own becoming, so I still write for an audience of one – in a more metaphorical way, of course, taking “art” to mean the art of living, encompassing everything from philosophy to science to design.

“The label is irrelevant”

The European: You do draw a lot of inspiration from books. What are books better at than the Internet?
Popova: Literature is the original Internet – every footnote, every citation, every allusion is essentially a hyperlink to another text, to another mind. The difference – the advantage, for me at least – is that in books, those “links” don’t beckon as immediate demands for our attention, redirecting us elsewhere before we’ve finished the present thought, but serve instead as gentle invitations to extend this thought once we’ve finished absorbing and digesting it. There’s something to be said for the value of slow, continuous, deliberate thinking, which remains the forte of books and the Achilles heel of the vast majority of the web.

The European: Do you think that digital curation is a greater threat to traditional print papers than regular online journalism?
Popova. I’m not exactly sure what “digital curation” even means anymore – certainly not something I identify with at this point. But I do believe the editorial and the curatorial live on a spectrum. Every nonfiction writer is essentially a curator of ideas – whether this means the selection of academic and clinical studies to be cited in a Malcolm Gladwell-style pop psychology book or the snippets of articles highlighted and contextualized in a day’s worth of Andrew Sullivan’s blog. At their best, journalists – writers, editors, “curators”, or whatever we choose to label them – help people figure out what matters in the world and why. The label under which they do it is irrelevant.

The European: What was your favorite “Brain Picking” so far?
Popova: In a way, what has propelled me to do this for nearly eight years now is the longing for perpetual growth, for self-expansion and self-transcendence, which requires a hope that each new day brings a better “favorite”. That said, when “Brain Pickings” turned seven in the fall of 2013, I wrote about my seven most important life-learnings from those years, and those remain at the heart of what I write about and how I live, so that particular article is something I keep coming back to whenever I need to re-center.

Did you like the conversation? Read one with Errol Morris: “People expect me to throttle Donald Rumsfeld”

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