In praise of slow thinking in the internet age

Take it slow and don’t pretend to know. Socratic ignorance is the hallmark of wisdom.
Take it slow and don’t pretend to know. Socratic ignorance is the hallmark of wisdom.
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We live in opinionated times. Between a relentless news cycle and deep ideological divides, we feel pressure to take positions quickly, often on stories that are still developing, or on topics we know little about.

If we don’t come to a quick conclusion and choose a side, it can feel like we’re letting the proverbial bad guys—whoever they are in a given case—win. Thus, an opinion becomes a moral imperative, an act on behalf of humanity, or at least on behalf of whatever cause we support.

Consider the past month’s debate over the Shitty Media Men list, a shared Google document created in October that compiled anonymous allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault against specific men in the profession. After reports circulated that the list’s creator would be named in an upcoming essay for Harper’s, writer Moira Donegan decided to out herself as the woman behind it. In an essay for The Cut, Donegan admits that she didn’t fully consider all the possible consequences of creating a document that transformed a “whisper network” into a written record. She lost her job, as did some of the men on the list, and she found that she had no control over the circulation of the list or what was done with it. Many have been quick to defend Donegan for creating the list, while others, like Andrew Sullivan, criticized her for it.

At the risk of ending up on some bad list myself, I propose that Donegan’s experience proves that slow thinking is the antidote to the Information Age. In less than a day, the list escaped its maker. Had she had more time to reflect, she might have learned other lessons—perhaps less painful—or, at the very least, been better prepared for the fallout.

Distance and time provide perspective. To embrace slow thinking is to allow for shifts in opinion. When we’re not in a rush to reach a conclusion or take action, we’re free to explore ideas and change our minds, or just be deliberately undecided. Having no fixed position, which seems unthinkable on the internet, is actually a liberating way to navigate the world.

“It is good not to settle into a set of opinions. It is a mistake to put forth effort and obtain some understanding and then stop at that,” advised Yamamoto Tsunetomo in the Hagakure, or The Book of the Samurai (pdf)a guide compiled in Japan in the early 18th century. “[Learning] is something that will never stop for your whole lifetime. Do not rely on following the degree of understanding that you have discovered but simply think ‘This is not enough.'”

The guidance is echoed by business giants today, like Berkshire-Hathaway’s Warren Buffett and Bill Gates of Microsoft, as well as thoughtful politicians like former president Barack Obama. They make time to step out of action, for hours, days, or weeks, to read books and contemplate other peoples’ thoughts, despite having already reached great heights. And if they didn’t begin with the principle that learning is a lifelong process—which involves acknowledging one’s own ignorance—perhaps they would not have thought to seek the wisdom of others and succeeded as they did.

Obama, who was a voracious reader as a young man, committed to reading a book—not news—for an hour a day during his eight-year presidency, he told the New York Times (paywall). The practice helped him “slow down and get perspective,” which he said is especially difficult when the flow of information never stops and your job is to be in the thick of it. By deliberately stepping away from fast-paced communication and contemplating alternate views expressed in a slow form, books, he ”maintain[ed] his balance” while leading a nation for eight years.

Clearly, if a US president can take time to contemplate, so can the rest of us. After all, admitting ignorance is wisdom. The Oracle of Delphi in the fourth century BC called the philosopher Socrates the wisest guy in Greece. Socrates didn’t buy it, and sought to test the claim by conversing with a politician widely admired for his wisdom. But when Socrates asked questions for which he had no answers, he discovered the politician didn’t know much either. The difference between them was that the politician thought of himself as wise, whereas Socrates admitted ignorance.

In Plato’s Apology of Socrates, Plato writes that Socrates left the encounter thinking of the politician, “Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is—for he knows nothing and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know. In this latter particular, then, I seem to have slightly the advantage of him.“ Ever since, Socratic ignorance has been the hallmark of wisdom in Western thinking.

Eastern philosophical traditions share this view. The Buddhist monk Suzuki Roshi explained in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind that beginners have expansive and questioning minds, while an expert’s mind is closed. True Zen masters aren’t too certain or eager for followers. They claim no special knowledge, authority, or expertise, and operate from a place of openness. Their enlightenment manifests in having few preferences. Everything is a mixed bag, neither all good or bad, just a situation to be worked with and learned from.

In the words of the Taoist sage, Lao Tzu, who dictated the Tao Te Ching (pdf) in the sixth century BC, “One who knows does not speak; one who speaks does not know.” It should be noted that in Taoist lore, he was pressed to share the Tao when leaving society for a solitary life in the mountains. Lao Tzu wasn’t eager to mouth off. Perhaps that’s why his words survived, and his guide became one of the most widely read and translated works in the world.

Lao Tzu also said that “great eloquence is tongue-tied,” and that “to use words but rarely is to be natural.” Communication is like wind and rain—necessary, but most fruitful if not constant and brutal.

The way we talk online, however, is constant and limitless. So if we don’t resist the impulse to reach a conclusion fast, all our energy is wasted on debates with few rules of engagement, no end, and many unintended consequences. Exchanges are aggressive, fast, loose, and polarizing.

That’s why slow thinking is not just wise—it’s also a revolutionary act right now. In reactionary times, slowness, responsiveness rather than reactiveness, is a radical rejection of the internet’s perpetual call to action: Always be choosing sides. Deliberate undecidedness, refusing to choose and know it all, is a kind of intellectual rebellion against the relentless pressure to get with the socially appropriate program—whatever it happens to be within your ideological and informational bubbles.