Anki's philosophical paradox

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I’ve been a diehard fan of spaced repetition systems like Anki for a long, long time. I’ve published a deck or two on some niche learning material here and there in my life, which notable others have called “the best of all the ones I’ve come across”. And yet, as I pump through review after review, a question always seems to be lurking in the back of my mind: this definitely works, but is what I’m stuffing in here useful?

It’s a deep question. In days of yore the answer almost certainly would have been “Yes”; and in situations where knowledge should be personally available at your fingertips (almost all formal education, many kinds of modern job interviews, speaking a foreign language - most people will judge you a lot more harshly if you say “I can speak X fluently” and then whip out a translator 5 minutes in than if you just owned up to your lack of investment into your own neural architecture) the answer is still “Yes”, at least for large bodies of knowledge. If I were reverse-isekai’d into the body of a South Korean 5 year old with everything I know now the first thing I would do is get an iPad and an Anki deck started to make sure I can pass those brutal, brutal exams.

No, the problem is the outside world. If you were floating in a blank white cube until the end of time, absolutely protected from and unable to affect anything outside of it, then the only value anything would hold is the intrinsic worth of knowing it.

But that’s not the world we live in. In fact, I’m pretty confident in saying that’s not the world most of us would want to live in. I don’t know if Porky retrofitted a Nozick machine in there, but I’m not interested either way. I’ll take 1 ticket to baseline reality, please, where my actions really matter.

But living in baseline reality comes at the cost of accepting some unavoidable chaos in life. I call it a cost, but I really think it’s the only thing that makes life truly special in a philosophical sense. I call it “the Jitter”.

The Jitter is a natural artifact of being a wee beastie in a big, dark wood. Too small to accurately predict what the next move is going to be, a fight or an escape or a sunny patch of ground to rest in. Small enough to still be at the mercy of black swans. A friend once put it to me as the kind of thing that made being witness to God’s creation more valuable to her than being God herself. God cannot fundamentally be surprised by His creation, not unless we take “omnipotence” very literally; and if God cannot ever be truly surprised by the workings of his own design, he is in a sense accursed to always remain distantly professional towards it. Surprise is the cardinal sin of professionalism.

The Jitter necessarily hamstrings our efforts to make the world into a perfectly orderly, predictable, controllable place. And that’s good. You wouldn’t want to live without it. Its cost is you can never be absolutely certain that what what you elect to learn about now is going to be useful in the future. That’s true in general, not just Anki. Any act of dedicated study is a bet on the future.

So where does that leave us? It leaves us with a paradox. Fortunately, the only thing at stake for ’losing’ the paradox is spending a few extra seconds or minutes of your life studying things which, in retrospect, you probably could have just left on the table; and even then, the cost is minimized quite a bit by just enjoying the process of studying in the first place. I say: Trust your instincts. Learn what calls out to you, and, if you want to artificially extend the lifespan of your own memories of learning, don’t shy away from Anki.