April 14, 2022

Christopher Mims on seeing what’s next, filtering tools, valuable conversations, and tapping expertise (Ep17)

“I have all of these systems for blocking social media when I’m working, so it’s not a distraction. Everything that I do is about trying to keep information at bay, and spend less time on the internet.”

– Christopher Mims

Tim O'Reilly

About Christopher Mims

Christopher Mims is a technology columnist at Wall Street Journal. Before joining the Journal in 2014 he worked as a science and technology journalist and editor for a variety of august publications including Quartz, Technology Review, Wired, and Scientific American. He is the author of Arriving Today, which unveils the fascinating story of how products arrive at to our doors through the global supply chain.

Column on The Wall Street Journal: Christopher Mims

Twitter: Christopher Mims

LinkedIn: Christopher Mims

Medium: Christopher Mims

What you will learn

  • Why finding new and useful information is like language immersion (01:32)
  • How Google News can be better than monitoring social media (05:07)
  • How to vet or find deeper  information (09:18)
  • How to take notes in a simple and efficient way  (10:53)
  • What are the benefits of listening to the knowledgeable outsider (14:37)
  • How to avoid false balance by seeking differing views (16:32)
  • Why working with collaborators is important (18:15)
  • Why athletic thinking is a good analogy for information synthesis (21:54)
  • Why we have to exercise self-control in our world of infinitely available information (24:58)

Episode resources


Ross Dawson: Christopher, it’s a delight to have you on the show.

Christopher Mims: It’s a delight to be here. Thank you for having me.

Ross: Christopher, you describe what you do or part of what you do is searching for needles in haystacks and exploring all sorts of wonderful information to get there. Tell me what do you do? How do you explore this wonderful world of media?

Christopher: I do it in a lot of different ways, and it keeps evolving. I think the governing principle for me is I’m searching for valuable new information that is true, useful, helps me build a worldview, and look a little bit around the corner to what’s next. Fortunately, I am not in the business of prediction. I’m not a futurist. I am not a venture capitalist. I don’t have to really see that far ahead.

As a journalist and a technology columnist, I’m really just trying to see what is next; what is the very next thing and get to that five minutes, or a week, or six months before somebody else. Or if somebody else has already gotten to it, maybe I can explain it a little more clearly to our audience, or explain it in a different way to make it more accessible to a wider range of people.
That’s a pretty doable thing, ultimately, and making it happen is just a lot of process which has happened for me because I write a weekly tech column. It is very routine, in good ways. In that, every week, I am tackling a new topic and researching it pretty systematically. That has given me a lot of chance to just practice that process.

It’s a bit like language immersion. For anybody who has learned a foreign language, you really steep yourself in it. Part of what I’m doing as a journalist, but specifically as a columnist, is what I have long called hypothesis-driven journalism, which is that hopefully, I can learn enough about a topic that I can say, Hey, I wonder if somebody is doing like, X, or Y. It seems like if people are doing A, B, and C, they might next try D, E, or F. The second-order consequence of that might be this other thing. Then I might just go and look for that.

I sometimes feel that comes a bit from my scientific training. Science is what I did before I was a journalist. I have an undergraduate degree in neuroscience. I spent a couple of years in the lab, and it was like getting a master’s degree. I mean, I certainly did that; an equivalent amount of bench science. I’ve published papers on some pretty esoteric subjects in invertebrate neuroscience. That was good practice for being in an environment with other really smart people who are just constantly trying to poke holes in your ideas. But during the generative phase, anything goes like, huh, maybe these insects are detecting electrical fields around them directly with their nervous systems.

We were testing a hypothesis at one point with aquatic invertebrates, it turned out not to be true; it would have been pretty freaking cool if it was true. That’s what I’m doing every week. I’ll just step into a topic and be like, I wonder if the coming wave of electric trucks is going to convince a bunch of people who otherwise wouldn’t be environmentalists to “Go Green”; What’s the research on that? That ended up being a very fruitful article involving a bunch of behavioral economists. As Elon Musk has taught us if you make the green choice, the exciting choice, people will adopt it, and then they’ll adopt other ideologies along the way.

Ross: I’d like to unpack that because there’s a lot in there. I think there are a number of pieces that will feed on themselves at some point. Do you articulate these hypotheses to yourself? Do you have a list of these ideas?

Christopher: Yes, definitely. I have a couple of files. One is things that are really on deck that I’m pitching to my editor next, and other things I’m just exploring and just gathering string on. There are certain tools that I use that help with that.
I think a really underappreciated tool if you’re really trying to just learn more and more so by immersion about a given topic is, of all things, Google News. It’s actually a better filter for me than social media. I try to just dip into social media occasionally, but not really get my news from it because there’s a lot of perverse incentives in social media that lead to a lot of nonsense and wasted time, as we all know.

Funny enough, Google News, does two things that help me a lot, the Google News app, or site, or whatever. One is, it has pretty decent AI, which does learn my interest. It is definitely watching what I’m clicking on, and opening, and reading, so it’s going to feed me more of that. Also, it has a pretty good for grouping news items by topics. Sometimes I’ll be reading about something that I’m interested in, like carbon capture, or whatever, and it’s pulling a bunch of news articles that are related to that even if they’re not using the same keyword, so it’s pretty sophisticated in that way.

The other thing that I noticed recently that it does, which is a bit unexpected, is if your accounts are all linked, if you’re just logged into Google everywhere, and you’re using the Chrome browser, Google knows what tabs you’re opening in Chrome, and it will then show me news stories on that topic later, in Google News.
That’s also how you learn a language on Duolingo, for example, is that you get exposed to something and then a week later, it exposes to you again, because there’s a certain half-life of your memory for stuff like that. In a funny way, these two different characteristics of the Google News app, one, would tend to push me toward being inside of a filter bubble, because in theory, they always feed me the same stuff or more of the stuff that I’m interested in already. But because I’m constantly just poking around researching other new topics, that is a different flow of information into my main newsreader. That helps me a lot.

Then obviously, a great deal of what I’m learning just comes from talking to people. It’s incredible how having a really engaged, exciting, earnest conversation with another human being is this incredibly swift filter for refining your own ideas, and finding out what’s meaningful in somebody’s field. I have this incredible privilege as a journalist at the Wall Street Journal, that if I email somebody, they’re like, yep, we’ll get our CEO on the phone in two days, or next week, or whatever. I get to talk to people who are sometimes the most knowledgeable people in a field, and they’re ready to boil it down for me very quickly. That’s invaluable. That’s just a privilege of where I am as a journalist.

Ross: One of the points around Google News, or any AI, or any algorithmic news filter is that as long as you are diverse in your interests, it keeps being diverse for you in what it shows you.

Christopher: Yes, that’s absolutely key. We’re all different in that way, but one thing that I found interesting recently is most people when they get past a certain age are apparently, I didn’t know this because I’m the opposite, are just listening to pretty much the same music over and over again, from some earlier period in their life. I’ve never been that person. I’ve always been this voracious consumer of new artists and new genres. I think part of the reason that I’m a journalist is that I get bored easily, and I get restless, and I just want to move on to a new topic.

Ross: That’s interesting. It’s the same for me. One of the good ways to measure personality is how recent is the music you listen to?

Christopher: Maybe it is, maybe it’s just a measure of novelty seeking, which is, of course, a pretty stable personality trait across someone’s life.

Ross: Yes. Let’s go back to the sources. Let’s say you’ve got a list of whole things that you’re interested in and you want to learn some more. Where do you go for information? Where do you find beyond the people that you can speak to, which is obviously wonderful, or any other immediate sources?

Christopher: Yes, as any conscientious reader these days are journalists. I have my mental list of trusted sources. It’s amazing how easy it is to just pop a term into Google, and it spits out a bunch of really great articles on that subject. I know which writers I trust, and which publications I trust, so that can be an infinite variety of sources.

It could be an article in The Economist, but it could also be a thread on Reddit or Hacker News, or something like that. Sometimes when a piece trends on Hacker News, the comments there can be quite interesting, because it’s a self-selecting community. It’s not like the comments section on a YouTube video or something like that.
Obviously, there is still a ton of useful conversation on Twitter, between experts; not when something goes super-viral, and all the bots and randos pile on, but it’s incredible how somebody can be talking about very technical subjects there. Other engineers or the kind of people I would want to talk to, start to weigh in; so that information, it feels like it’s everywhere, as long as you know what your trusted sources should be.

Ross: How do you take notes? Or how do you thread the ideas together? Do you use any note taking apps or structures, or just docs, or is it in your head?

Christopher: I’ve played with a lot of different things. I certainly had to play with more elaborate ones when I was putting together my book. At the end of the day, I’ve just discovered that the simplest is the best. I’ll just open up a new doc, a new Google Doc, or whatever, and just start dropping links and notes in there. That’s fine, the simplicity works for me. I’m not the kind of person who has a lot of patience for managing a ton of card catalog type organization; organization that I have to think about or manage.
I’ve used those branching idea tree-type services and apps and stuff. But eventually I just end up wanting to dump it all in one place, then later I can search it or scan it very quickly with my eyes. For that thing, I try to keep it as simple as possible. Occasionally, I will take notes, not pen to paper, but I’ll use a reMarkable 2 tablet or some other type of tablet because I still find that writing things down is a helpful way to think about them.

Ross: You mentioned your book, just out, it’s called Arriving Today, which delves into the delights and marvels of the global supply chain, which is a pretty big, deep, and hairy topic. That’s maybe a great case study in how you do your research. How did you learn what you needed to learn to write that?

Christopher: Any project like that, it’s always impossible until it’s done. It’s really just about breaking it into small pieces. One of the things that’s nice about the book is, once you have a structure in mind, you can break it into chapters. That’s a manageable size for me, because I spent my life writing long columns and feature articles, and stuff, and I’m so practiced at that, that I can hold the entire structure of a piece that’s 2000-4000 words just in my head as I’m working on it.

Breaking it into chapters helped. Then because I traced the path of an object through the global supply chain across the world, each one of those chapters naturally became an episode in that journey. There are chapters on transoceanic shipping, and chapters on automated warehouses of the type that Amazon runs, and long-haul trucking, and all the rest. It really was just about breaking it down into its constituent pieces.

That said, when I was in the earliest stages of it, I did use this thing called Gingko. It’s like some lone program that maintains this cloud-based thing where you can basically create index cards worth of links and information, and then just nest them endlessly in a giant tree, which is searchable.
That did help me in the earliest days when I was just immersing myself, and reading so much, and being like okay, well, here’s an interesting fact about trucking, alright, I’ll put under that branch of the tree; here’s an interesting fact about ocean-going vessels, I’ll put that into that branch of the tree; but if I had to do it all over again, I don’t know, maybe I would have just dumped that all into one giant doc, with sections for each subject.

Ross: In a way, that’s still using that hypothesis-driven in the sense of, this is the theme of the chapter and then trying to find the things which will flesh that out, or find the detail, or to create the frame for it.

Christopher: One way that I think about it as a journalist is what are the types of experts that I need to talk to, to understand this top to bottom. One is you’re looking for that knowledgeable outsider, that analyst whose job it is to look at something dispassionately, in a classic, consumer tech article, that might be somebody from Gartner, IDC, who’s going to talk to you about here’s why sales of laptops were up or down last year, or something like that.
Having been in academia, I really like to find academics, because it’s incredible when you find that person who has devoted their entire life to researching a particular subject, whether that’s long haul trucking or the fissuring of labor markets in a way that makes them more hostile to unionization. Those are both two types of experts, who really shaped their respective chapters in my book.

Then I’m going to go talk to the company leader types, the CEOs, the project leads who are on the ground doing it every day, the CTOs who have to build and maintain the IT and the robotics, sometimes the physical infrastructure that makes things work, etc. Then if I can, I’m also going to go talk to the people who are just really doing it in the real world. They might be hourly workers who are functioning within some type of system. That gives me that top to bottom. I don’t know, maybe it’s almost anthropological. It’s almost like a form of ethnography in a way, but that’s how I get my topic.

Ross: Getting the diverse perspectives or different eyes on the same thing, hopefully, they’re all complementary. In terms of your own synthesis of making sense, what happens when there are differing views on the same topic? How do you resolve that?

Christopher: Part of that is that I’m deliberately seeking people who have different views on a subject. I’m also really wary of false balance, which is something that journalism has had a problem with in politics, in the past, and coverage of climate change. People forget, but 10-15 years ago, if you were going to quote somebody talking about the perils of climate change, in the New York Times, typically, you would also quote somebody else who’s like, no, it’s nothing. It is just a liberal conspiracy.
That’s a pretty tragic example of false balance; you don’t have to quote an anti-vaxxer in the same paragraph that you quote Anthony Fauci, talking about the importance of wearing masks. I’m looking for those places where intelligent and informed people can disagree, and seeking out those different viewpoints. Again, luckily, because I’m not in the business of predicting, I’m not in the business of investing, my whole job is to represent that spectrum of opinion because I don’t necessarily have to come down on one side or another of a debate, I can just describe its contours.

Ross: You’re in a sense, not just feeding your own insight, but your job is to help others to form their own views or opinions or frame on a topic.

Christopher: Yes, 100%. I view my job as being an educator, so I’ve got to start educating myself and then hopefully take people along with me on that journey, and by that mechanism, educate them as well.

Ross: Looping back to the very beginning when you were talking about the needles in the haystack. The scanning; you’re scanning and you’re seeing lots of things all the time. In terms of that sensing of what it is that matters, that is useful, that is interesting or not interesting, or is worth following, or throw it up, is this all just framed by your hypotheses or ideas you’re searching for? Is there anything which you can introspect in how you perceive what is worth looking more at or not?

Christopher: That’s entirely at the subconscious level. I’ve learned over many years that I have to let my personal preferences guide me because otherwise, I’m just not going to be able to sustain the level of interest required to really educate myself about a topic. The only time that’s not true is when I get assigned some topic by an editor. Ironically, perhaps, unsurprisingly, sometimes those are the pieces where I learned the most, or maybe there’s the most interesting result.

Because an editor will be like, what’s going on with this thing? The metaverse, or whatever, and here I am rolling my eyes, trying to avoid the topic because I think it’s marketing nonsense. But just being forced to dig into it sometimes, I come away thinking: “Wow, I’m really grateful that happened.” This is why I work in a news organization, instead of being one of these solo journalists who just support themselves with Substack, or whatever.

I think that raises a really important point, which is that I’m just a very strong believer in the songwriting duo mode of creation, which is whether I’m a writer, working with an editor, or imagine John and Paul, writing songs for the Beatles, or F. Scott Fitzgerald, and his interaction with his editor.

Many people don’t know this but The Great Gatsby was a completely different book. He basically rewrote it in the margins of that original book, after a dialogue with his editor. The great American novel was written in the margins of a much worse novel, because of that creative collaboration.
A lot of what I do, or what I try to do is a meeting of minds and is really bouncing ideas off of other people, whether that’s in interviews, or in other contexts, and relying on them because there’s that hive mind that happens interpersonally or on the Internet, which is just irreplaceable. It’s integral to how humans function and the success of our species, in a way that we don’t often acknowledge, we are truly hive-minds almost like the ants, termites, and other eusocial insects, like bees, I think we all think of ourselves as individualist, especially in America; but it’s kind of nonsense. We’re a giant hive organism.

Ross: Yes, and more that we tap the value of collaborative thinking, the better outcomes we get to.

Christopher: For sure, up to a limit, and people have studied that. This was so-called wisdom of crowds. Say what you will about markets, it’s always “find the right price for an asset”; but that’s one thing. As we all experience if a group of collaborators gets above a certain size, its value breaks down. So small groups. I think Jeff Bezos called it the two-pizza team or whatever, no teams larger than can be fed by two takeout pizzas are a key to innovating in thinking in that way.

Ross: Around the frame of synthesis and pulling it all together, obviously, that’s a mental faculty, where when you’re exposed to a lot of things to pull out, the gestalt is how it comes together. Is that just part of the process for you? Are there any ways in which you facilitate or nurture that state of mind to be able to pull all the pieces together and synthesize them into a broader view of your topic?

Christopher: I think anybody who has to do this work eventually notices their patterns of mental acuity. It’s worth thinking of yourself as, it’s going to sound absurd, my eyes are going to roll back in my head, but you’re like a mental athlete in a way. But it’s true. The brain is a muscle, consumes 20 to 30% of all of our calories. There’s a lot going on there, and you have to respect it. You have to know that when you’re doing this synthesis, if you’re doing it after the right preparation, when you finally have enough information to really get it all down on paper, or describe it to somebody else, you’re doing it at the proper time of day, you’ve rested, you’ve gotten some exercise, and had a little coffee, you can do more in two hours than you could in two weeks of working in some other sub-optimal way.
What is it? I think people have researched this and for really intense knowledge work, you really only get four to six hours of it a day. Maybe you can push that, but you’re going to pay for it at other times. Like anybody, I’ve learned that mind-body connection is incredibly important, and if I want to do this work well and consistently, I’ve got to treat my body and my brain as a machine. It’s up to me to maintain it. Part of that also is my training as a neuroscientist. I think I have a very mechanistic view of the brain and the mind, which is just the brain.

Ross: Creating a part of it, then creating conditions where your mind’s ready to engage, to dive deep, and to pull the pieces together.

Christopher: Right, but also, as Steve Jobs said, “Real artists ship”, I’m not waiting around for inspiration. I’m sitting down every damn day and just doing the work. I always think of the tour of Hemingway’s house, which is a great pilgrimage for any writer. They take you through his house, and they show you the attached studio where he would write.

Even though Hemingway was a severe alcoholic, and had all of these untold relationship dramas in his life, because also he was bipolar and not diagnosed, and not medicated, he was a guy who woke up at 6 am every morning, went to his office, and wrote for six hours. Then he drank, and fished, and womanized, and made all kinds of unfortunate life decisions, which is how he wrote all those novels. It’s like bricklaying, or anything else. It’s a craft. Even mental work is a trade, I would say.

Ross: Pulling this together, Is there anything that we haven’t covered? What would be any advice you would offer to people to thrive on overload, to make sense of information? Either distilling what we’ve discussed or any other points, what else people can learn from you about how they create value from information?

Christopher: I think that you have to keep in mind the information environment in which we evolved, which was a relatively low information environment for most of human history. Even after the printing press, books are expensive and rare. I think that we have evolved to seek out gossip, which has tremendous value, and seek out new information, for a curious person, which is most people. But now we live in a time when the internet gives us infinite access to that. It’s way too much.
I think the term “infobesity” applies here. Humans evolved in an environment where most of the time, we were just trying to not starve. We evolved very intense craving for foods that are probably not for good for us ultimately, and will cause all kinds of metabolic disorders, so we have to exercise some self-control in our world of infinitely available calories.
In the same way, we have to exercise that self-control in our world of infinitely available information and the truth is, for everything that I’ve just said about, oh, here’s how I find new ideas and everything, the number one way that I find those needles in haystacks is I say, No, as often and as clearly as I can, to new sources of stimulation, additional sources of information, and more articles that I could or might want to read.
I have all of these systems for blocking social media when I’m working, so it’s not a distraction. Sending every article that I find interesting straight to the article saving service Pocket so that I can read it later when I have the time; if I have the time. Avoiding lots of social media. I’m purposely bad at email because the faster you respond to people, the more correspondence you’re going to have with them.
Everything that I do is about actually trying to keep information at bay, and spend less time on the internet, because we live in an era of infinitely available information and it is seeking us out. It’s being pushed to our phones in the forms of alerts. I think that this environment is so different from the one in which we evolved to seek out information that the key to navigating is to honestly try to avoid it as much as possible.

Ross: Yes, absolutely. That’s the starting point to be able to find what we want is to get rid of everything, which doesn’t serve us.

Christopher: Yes, 100%.

Ross: Thank you so much for your time and your insights, Christopher. That’s been really valuable.

Christopher: Yes, it’s fun to talk about it. I appreciate that you’re so curious about this topic.

Ross: Thanks.

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