Technology, Culture, & Emotional Intelligence

Are You Snorkeling or Scuba Diving?

The cost of taking the time to go deep is worth the payoff of greater understanding.

Are You Snorkeling or Scuba Diving?
Photo by Hiroko Yoshii / Unsplash

Recently, I’ve become a connoisseur of sensational headlines.

You know the ones I’m talking about. The ones your friends and family share on Facebook and X, with a short smirk-of-a-comment designed to provoke those they disagree with or virtue signal to their socio-political peers. Of course, when you actually click to read the article it’s never quite what it seemed to be in the headline — for good reason. The content people write the articles, but the marketing people write the headlines. Here are some of my favorites:

“The Myth of the Broke Millennial” (i.e. What a bunch of whiners)
“Jesus Never Existed” (i.e. The evidence is irrefutable)
“The Coming Collapse” (i.e. There is no hope)

Headlines like these are intentionally designed to produce clicks. Which is why they are often intentionally provocative, oversimplified, and even misleading. This wouldn’t be a problem if reading the article filled the knowledge gap created by these headlines, but recently, I’ve started to notice just how often they don’t. And it’s not just articles and blogs; it’s all of our short-form content — YouTube essays & explainers, TED Talks, and yes, even the beloved podcast — that seems to leave me feeling like something is still missing. I think I’ve thought of a metaphor that explains the problem.

Snorkeling & Scuba Diving

When I was 13, I went snorkeling for the first time. We were dropped into open water above a coral reef just off the coast of Mexico, and each of us was able to explore the area and look down upon the amazing world living just beneath the surface.

It was a perfect experience for a child. I was tucked safely in a life jacket and kept close to the surface, but I could swim freely. I was in the ocean but never really in danger.

The one thing I couldn’t say after the experience, however, was that I had really experienced the reef. I had been above it; I looked down on it, but I wasn’t in it. No matter how good of an experience I might have had as a snorkeler, I was no scuba diver—and for good reason. Scuba diving requires classes, certifications, and extra equipment. And it isn’t nearly as safe.

For people who love to dive, all that work and all those risks are worth the reward. Divers are the ones who truly experience the reef — they are surrounded by it, immersed in it — not just floating above it. That’s why this is a perfect analogy for how we learn today.

Whether in an article, a video, an interview, or a podcast, any short-form content method is inherently reductive. There is no way to understand the Millennial generation in 800 words, just the same way as there is no way to understand a housing crisis, a war-torn region, or a political philosophy in a twelve-minute video. This wouldn’t be that much of a problem except that most of us think it can. Coming along with the “shortification” (yes, I like to make up words) of content on the internet is a growing belief that possessing information is the same as understanding.

In a 2009 TEDx talk entitled “Be Suspicious of Simple Stories” (yes, I see the irony), the economist Tyler Cowen warned listeners about the effect that overly-simplistic stories have on us. These stories, he suggests, impose a structure on events that distort the facts and blind us to the distortion. He was particularly concerned about moralistic stories that divide the world into good and evil. He proposed that “as a simple rule of thumb, just imagine that every time you’re telling a good versus evil story, you’re basically lowering your IQ by ten points or more.”

Because simple stories and short videos give us more information than we had before, it’s easy to assume that we now know everything we need to know to understand the subject. It’s like snorkeling safely at the surface and then coming home and telling our friends that we’re not sure what everyone is so worried about — the reef looked just fine to us.

Abraham Lincoln, Two Ways

A few weeks ago, I clicked with interest on a podcast that had dropped in my feed. The episode, entitled “The Contradictions of Abraham Lincoln,” was an interview with an author who had just written a book about Lincoln. In the 53-minute episode, the host jumped from topic to topic, focusing mainly on the juicy stuff. The point was made, over and over, that while Abraham Lincoln was the signer of the Emancipation Proclamation, he would still be considered a bigot today for his views on race and society.

As I drove, listening to the episode, I felt my hands gripping the steering wheel tighter and tighter. My emotion came not from the unfair treatment of Lincoln (the man certainly held views I don't agree with) but because I had just finished reading a 945-page book about him entitled, “Team of Rivals.” I listened to the book, actually — it took 40 hours. The difference between a 40-hour in-depth exploration of the man and his world and a 53-minute episode on whether or not he was a racist by today’s standards revealed to me the biggest problem with snorkeling for information rather than diving for it. When we take the time (and it sure takes more time) to go deep — to really immerse ourselves in a subject — we get something you can’t get from any version of short-form content: context.

Would Abraham Lincoln be considered a racist by today’s standards? Of course, he would! So would 99.9% of white people alive at his time — north or south, conservative or progressive. How this man’s stances would hold up by today’s standards is actually a terrible question. It’s a bad episode. It’s the host taking 10 seconds after the introduction to simply say, “badly,” and then move to close. The more interesting question is, how did Lincoln’s views compare to those of his time? Even more than that, what progressive ideals did he fight for even though it could have possibly cost him an election, a popularity contest, or even a war? The cost of taking the time to go deep is worth the payoff of greater understanding.

And listen to me here. I’ve read exactly two books on the guy, and I’m writing like some kind of expert. I heard a researcher once say that you can’t truly understand a subject until you’ve read at least five books about it. But, honestly, all it takes is just one book on a subject in today’s surface-level, life jacket-wearing world to see just how shallow things have really become.

There is a short phrase I heard recently: Caveat lector. Caveat lector is a Latin phrase meaning "let the reader beware." It means that when reading something, the reader should take careful note of the contents and undertake due diligence on whether they are accurate, relevant, reliable, and so forth. I think we could all use a little more Caveat lector today. That’s why I’d encourage you to take some of that time you are devoting to YouTube, podcasts, articles, and episodes, and instead, pick a subject you’d like to understand more and immerse yourself in it. Dive down deep and swim around for a while. Once you start going deeper, you’ll laugh at the headlines, too. I guarantee it.

Subscribe to Andrew McPeak

Sign up now to get access to the library of members-only issues.
Jamie Larson