I was a little disappointed by Tim Ferriss’ talk at the Long Now this evening. The topic was meta-learning which seemed like a subject with a lot of potential. It’s hard to ignore the accelerating change all around us. We must continuously learn new skills and knowledge to keep abreast of the latest developments in all fields. So meta-learning should be incredibly useful. This also ties into the “Lights in the Tunnel” meme-cloud about automation removing consumers from the economy.
The problem was that Ferriss presented a heuristic approach to decomposing and learning new subject matter which seems most applicable to rote memorization tasks or physical skills. All of his examples revolved around language acquisition or sports such as weight lifting or swimming. It was hard for me to see how his approach would help someone develop deeper understanding of complex subjects or even learn the new job skills demanded by our changing economy.
Kevin Kelly and Stewart Brand tried to draw Ferriss into a discussion about how important meta-learning would be in an era of accelerating change, but I didn’t feel that Ferriss contributed much to that conversation. He seemed more comfortable talking about his own personal experiences or specific techniques for learning than thinking about the big picture.
One thread of the conversation between Brand, Ferriss, and Kelly acknowledged the importance of self-tracking to meta-learning. Kelly of course founded Quantified Self and Ferriss was proud to reveal that he was at the first meeting. I was surprised to hear Kelly admit that he wasn’t a self-quantifier himself. He just wanted to observe the early adopters of what he thinks will become normal behavior. I personally find it hard to believe that most people will end up carefully collecting, curating, and deriving value from their personal data. Huge amounts of data will certainly continue to be collected about us, but I am afraid that the majority of us will fail to understand how it is being used to influence our beliefs and actions.
I don’t find Ferriss to be a compelling teacher. Gretchen and I lost more weight just by tracking meals via livestrong.com than we did trying to follow the 4-hour Body diet. So my final analysis boils down to this: Tracking good, heuristics bad.