The Last Tab

February 12, 2018

When I “research” or shop for things on the internet, I usually fall into an easy comparison shopping mentality. I open all my options in a giant blooming tree of tabs, and as my browsing reveals reviews or insights, I prune branches until I arrive with one last tab left. It’s a powerful and effective means of choosing a product, and in the world of Amazon Prime, it’s an easy and common workflow.

Traditional critical thinking skills start out with nearly the same gathering process as comparison shopping. We set out through the world, exploring linked topics and an ever widening tree of facts, hypothesises, and opinions. At some point we take each claim and fact, compare it with our worldview, our experience and research. We consider whether to accept or reject it. We borrow, remix, and reform the information we’ve collected into an opinion of our own.

The difference between the two modes is whether the information is gathered naively or with a critical mindset. It is a subtle difference, and obtaining that time-honored perspective has become harder in this age of immediate information access. I am not that old or wise, but I’m old enough to remember a time before AOL, where my search for knowledge was enabled by reams of books and tempered by the speed of which I could return to a library or find that book I lost. The search was interwoven with gaps in which I daydreamt and thought, considered and reconsidered, doubted my assumptions, re-read old information with new insights.

Unfortunately, I think that because this comparison shopping, “last tab” method of choosing is so convenient, I’ve been reflexively applying it to choices that deserve more thought. Many times I tend to do more “shopping” for my opinions than I do forming my own. I tend to do less collecting and critical analysis in favor of more instinctual pruning, winnowing opinions that seem to be conflicting from my own. When I find myself with “one tab left” I tend to just adopt that as my own.

I’m afraid of the intellectual atrophy my mind has undoubtably suffered as a result. I’m convicted that eliminating less desirable “tabs” narrows my world and diminishes my compassion for those who disagree with me. Most of all, I suspect that by surrendering what little sense God has granted me to Google, I endanger myself and my family by resigning from my social awareness and decision making.

It is one thing when I’m choosing a shoe: However creative I may be I can’t make a running shoe from scratch. It’s entirely another if I adopt the author’s opinion or persona when considering a news event… or theology.

Comparison shopping is not entirely an anathema. I don’t have the time or funds to purchase, evaluate, and become an expert on twenty pairs of running shoes. It is wise and useful to consult the incredible resources available to us on the internet to make a good decision. However, I want to thoughtfully return my brain to a back to a mode of critical study, internalization, consideration… to no longer simply winnow through opinions and pundits until I find the least terrible option.

I was talking to a wise friend… when faced with any problem he is choosing to forgo the dash to search google for other people with the same problems. While this is a useful skill, he has found the value in stopping. Considering. Praying and meditating upon truth and God’s character… taking time to understand the problem and himself. He’s not alone in this: Warren Buffet famously spends hours in thought each day. The more I think about it, the more this pattern is identifiable in history or even in really simple (although naive) tests for what is desirable.

I want this to be a part of my life… not to entirely give up the information superpowers we have received in this day and age, but to understand how the convenience of search has programmed me to lazily trust in the seemingly infallible web. Hopefully, with practice I will learn to choose a moment of consideration before leaning on the crutch of “the last tab.”

What I’m reading: