I like to make good use of my time whenever I can, mostly because I wasted so much of it in my youth. Since I spend a lot of time online I have tried to figure out some best practices because it is too easy to get sucked into social media. I’ve discovered you can’t learn much through social media, information is too trite, it doesn’t stick. On Twitter, the best you can get is a link to a full article, or some clever take, but I have never had a beneficial conversation on Twitter. Most people think you’re a replyguy, or a nobody, or being sarcastic, or most likely, unworthy of a reply.
I used to be steeped in the humanities, things like philosophy, history, politics, economics, and psychology but I find internet-based discussion of these topics tiresome and vain. With AI becoming a current thing I’ve taken the time to read a few opinion articles and I don’t find the opinions to be of any worth, even when written by titans of the industry. What gives? Why do I find so many things on the internet to be asinine? I don’t want to be pretentious, but I’ve read clever things all my life and they never translated to real-world success. It’s like reading about workouts and diets but never going to the gym or eating a salad. We humans must implement things in our lives to give ourselves value. Who would you rather have help you build a computer? Someone who has read a lot about building computers or someone who has already built a bunch of them?
If I’m going to be online anyway, how can I make that time productive instead of a black hole of nonsense? I know I can’t spend every moment online learning to code or studying for an IT certification (both of which I’m doing). My brain is going to want diversion, it’s going to want novelty. Since I know this ahead of time, how can I set myself up for the best use of my internet free time? Firstly, I decided that I wanted to move away from the humanities and dive into technology. I’m done with theoretical stuff where anyone can have an opinion and the arguments are endless, I want to build knowledge where you are either right or you are wrong, your code either works or it doesn’t work (of course there are multiple ways to skin a cat, some things can work better, but here I am attracted to whether or not the technology is doing what it’s supposed to do). Here is what I’ve come up with as good possible uses of your time:
1. Documentaries. I now watch any technology-related documentary or show I can get my hands on. The technology can be anything, trains, planes, automobiles, computers, spaceships, boats, machinery, tools, whatever. I want to know about everything. How it works, how it’s made, what it’s used for, where the idea came from, what materials are involved, and so on. I find some of these documentaries to be inspirational in my own day-to-day work. For example, in Return to Space, a documentary on SpaceX, they kept failing and their rockets blew up. For some of the engineers they thought, “this is it, it’s over, we’re done here” but Elon wanted to build the next rocket as fast as possible and get going again. It’s a pretty big deal to blow up a rocket, the documentary showed how emotionally difficult is was, but they kept going anyway. They eventually figured it out and made the kinds of rockets they wanted, ones that can be reused. What I took away from this was that you have to let things go. Don’t let failure keep you down, use it as a learning opportunity. To give an example from my own life, if I make a blunder in chess, or even better, if I lose a game of chess when I didn’t think I made any blunders, I now see it as an opportunity to learn and then I’m on to the next game. I used to get angry and start attacking my own intelligence when I lost. This made it difficult for me to improve because I hated to lose and so I would stop playing once I had more difficult opponents. What I’m learning from documentaries is something I haven’t been able to see examples of for myself, people dealing with big difficult problems, making mistakes, and working through them patiently and intelligently. Some of us never get to work in these jobs with these kinds of people so we don’t have any monkey-see-monkey-do examples for us to latch onto. Documentaries help fill such gaps.
2. Youtube. I look for certain types of videos. Videos that teach me about a technology or showcase it. Videos about the history of a technology, or how something is made. Videos to teach me how to use a technology. Any kind of technology introductory videos. Lectures on technology, innovations, history of stuff. I even watch these videos by a guy, Jon Levi, who shows a bunch of old photographs of World’s Fairs buildings. I don’t care for his hypothesis: that these buildings were from an ancient society and we artificially repopulated areas that were “reset”; all I care about is seeing the neat architecture and landscaping from the past. I find it relaxing to look at ornate buildings and structures. Some examples of stuff I’ve looked up simply because I want to know anything and everything about modern technology: “history of the USB”, “gaskets and seals”, “how is voltage regulated”, “history of home electricity”, “how is chrome made”, and on and on and on. I’d much rather watch a short video about why washers (the metal ring, not the dish or laundry washer) are a thing and how they work over reading some hot take on Fauci or Ukraine or Silicon Valley Bank. I’ve learned a lot of construction techniques watching Youtube as well. How do I use this tool? How do I fix that hole in the wall? How do I build a deck? How do I refinish a piece of furniture?
3. Basic search and ChatGPT. I’ve searched for tank and airplane makes, cables and tools, and I’ve asked ChatGPT many questions about electric engineering so I can better understand the stuff in my house. Whenever I want a straightforward answer, ChatGPT usually delivers. Human made sites can get wordy or answer a different question or your answer is buried and difficult to find. For example, I asked ChatGPT how multimeters work (the multimeter is a tool that measures electricity) and I got an answer, but the answer wasn’t quite what I wanted to know. I used what I learned from my first question to ask a deeper question: how do multimeters internal circuits measure electrical quantity? ChatGPT came up with a more detailed and descriptive answer and this is where I can pick up new things like shunt resistor and voltage divider circuit, which I then google to see images of these things. I could keep asking it questions and go deeper and deeper, but sometimes I find I go too deep, I’m merely curious, I don’t want to have to build my own multimeter, I’m okay with cursory knowledge. There was a final paragraph in ChatGPT’s answer that made me curious to ask another question: what is the effect of temperature on electricity? I asked this because it said there were algorithms and other circuits meant to control for variable factors like temperature, linearity, and noise. By asking my question I learn that higher temperatures is detrimental to electricity, it’s flow struggles more. Then I asked it, what temperature does it have to be for changes to be noticeable? It gives me an answer with precise degrees in F and C. I also learn new vocabulary I can now search, like Temperature Coefficient of Resistance (TCR) and thermistor. I decide I don’t remember exactly what a coefficient is, so I ask ChatGPT to explain coefficients to me in simple language. I get an answer that makes me understand a little better, then I go back and ask for an example of TCR with a random material. It responds and explains the TCR of carbon in a way I can now better understand coefficients. This is what I love most about ChatGPT, the ability to deep dive whatever you want to know. Isn’t that a better diversion than reading yet another reddit thread asking about sex? I finished my time with ChatGPT by asking it who came up with the idea of TCR (Lord Kelvin and later, Siemens) and then I asked what improvements to our understanding of TCR have occurred over time (because, apparently it wasn’t discovered and that’s that, it’s been improved over time). I learn that TCR is kind of a big deal. All this from wondering how a multimeter works. I’ve also used ChatGPT to come up with random class 101 syllabuses, like Carpentry 101, Home-made Rocketry 101, and Factory Machinery 101. With any of these 101’s I can ask for it to go into more detail and list references or study materials for any of the listed topics it gives. The possibilities are endless and you can craft and create your own weird little introductory courses. Having access to ChatGPT is like having a very smart person you can ask the most tedious and random things and you’ll get direct answers and the ability to ask follow-up questions.
4. Chess. Lastly, when I’m burnt out on learning about technology I turn to chess. It’s a more fun way to think and solve problems and pass the time and there’s a large community of people you can play against online at any given time. If I want chaotic fun I play Bullet chess (1 min games), otherwise if I want to examine the board more closely I’ll play Blitz or Rapid chess (5 and 10 min games). This leads to me wanting to learn opening strategies and watch Grand Masters play chess (I watch a lot of Hikaru Nakamura Youtube videos). Chess can be a fun way to unwind and disconnect from the world, you can get into a pretty good flow state. If you find yourself getting frustrated then it’s almost as good to watch others play. It’s helpful to see the best players in the world make blunders, not know what to do, or get completely destroyed and they all take it in stride. If Magnus Carlsen can make a huge blunder or miss an incredible play and be impressed with it instead of angry then why can’t I?
5. Tech News and specialized websites. If all else fails, meaning, I don’t feel like talking to the AI, I don’t feel like watching videos, and I don’t want to play chess, I will browse various tech news sites and related sites, maybe I’ll even go on archive.org and look for old technology magazines. I don’t have any go-to sites to browse, I’ve been running back and forth between whatever and I will occasionally get inspired to learn something. I haven’t found reading these sites to be nearly as informative and educational as the first 3 methods, so I typically use them as a last resort or when my brain is fried and I’m less interested in retaining the material. I’m also open to any blogs I can find, it’s nice to see what other people are up to.
I’ve been using these methods to become as self-taught as possible in as wide-range as possible of modern technology. I find it to be a much better use of my time spent on the internet then when I would get addicted to social media, making comments, tweets, and reading about political opinions and takes on current things. To be honest, I wish I had spent my time using the internet like this for the past decade or two, there is so much one can learn and become knowledgeable about for free.
Technology and engineering are practical and, to me, interesting, but you may not be that way. There are other things one can use these methods for if you wanted to make better use of your free time. If cooking is your thing, then why not watch cooking and chef shows and documentaries, read about recipes, read about food and agriculture, where stuff comes from, ask the AI questions about improving your cooking, ask for recipes, ask how to use what you have in your cupboards, ask for 101 class syllabuses. Read about the latest news of cooking improvements and techniques and tools. There are other things as well you can use each method like exercise, sports, war, history, politics, deep-dive one specific technology like cars, hobbies, finance, movies, music. Ultimately, I don’t care what you would learn about, so long as you are learning things and not absorbing the nonsense on social media and what passes for news these days. Those things have their place, they can be highly entertaining and who doesn’t like a bit of drama, but they never leave me feeling good, I’m almost always drained and melancholy afterward. When I spend my time looking things up and learning I feel inspired and invigorated.
What are some of the most productive alternatives to social media you’ve discovered on the internet? Share in the comments if you feel inclined.