Figuring Shit Out With Anna Gát

What are some themes that you think you have an informational or knowledge edge in over your friends and peers? In other words, if you had to shamelessly talk someone’s eyes off about certain topics, what would they be?

Oh, God, I have so many topics I cannot stop talking about!

One of my pet topics is definitely the history of ideas: I’m near-obsessed with how certain ideas evolved and mutated from other ideas; who came upon which idea when and where; how did they iterate from it; what events did that lead to.

From the development of literary canons, religious texts, money or game theory all the way to Simon DeDeo’s paper where he identified — through an analysis of Darwin’s multi-decade reading journal — the point where Darwin started figuring out the truth about our origin, I like to devote sleepless nights to mapping out the “migration of ideas”.

One of my favourite maps, if you allow, is the many aftermaths of the Alhambra Decree, March 31, 1492. While this event was the culmination of a long political and clerical process, it also acts as what screenwriters call an “inciting incident”. It had insane, disproportionately massive consequences on the development of science, religion, philosophy and geographical exploration. Without going into too many details, this one event made

(1) Columbus speed up his process of raising money from the Jewish VCs for his ships → in a 100 years the geopolitics, economics, agriculture and religious practices of the entire European continent were to have changed beyond recognition.

(2) The scientific and mystic traditions of the Iberian Jews now expelled travelled in two significant directions. The first direction was the North: here commerce and industry saw a strong middle class much bolder in their intellectual explorations. We know what happened when the Spinoza guy turned up. I’m particularly interested in how these new atheistic ideas mingled both with Protestant ethics and the Far Eastern traditions the now-exploring Jesuits brought back from their travels. We know that Leibniz — who visited Spinoza in the Hague in 1676 — found out about the I Ching through the Jesuits of La Flèche (in France) and developed the first Western binary system based on it, and also — thanks to Alison Gopnik’s discovery — that Hume got acquainted with Buddhism through this same monastery a few decades later. Follow this thread, and you can weave your way down history all the way to The Wealth of Nations and On the Origin of Species, and of course the major revolutions these works prompted and determined what kind of life we live today.

(3) A lot of the mystical stuff from Spain, on the other hand, travelled eastward, to Eastern Europe, particularly to what is today Poland — if we can believe Scholem and IB Singer, via worn-out manuscripts. The spreading of these ideas in the crisis-torn region led to the much-chronicled messianistic cults, and gave rise to the first wave of *physical* Zionism, i.e. for the first time the vague idea of physically going to Israel, as opposed to metaphorically, came up among the Jewish diaspora. A lot of the things that shape our world today cannot be understood unless you go through the entire chain reaction started by the expulsion of the Castile/Aragon Jewry after the Decree. Isn’t this mind-blowing?

Imagine that one event to have recently taken place might have been such an inciting incident too — and in 600 years people will marvel that we, who were there, didn’t notice!

My other favourite topic is of course language and its future. I have a lot of questions around the *spatial* — or geometric — nature of language and I like to explore these. One being the space filling and shortening qualities of verbal language — think shortening the space by yelling “Hey!” as opposed to having to go there and poke a person, exerting authority over a space via sound or text volume, but also about how for example I tend to visualise theories I’m reading about as spatial structures, 3D… and what all this means. This might sound as synesthesia, and it’s true that all of us who can read — see Stanislas Dehaene’s work — repurpose areas of our brains originally meant for vision for understanding texts. I’m intrigued by possible further implications.

I remain convinced that brain-machine-interface is not too far ahead, and I’m very curious what this, and the intermediary stages, will mean for human language — verbal, written, spatial. Exchange, understanding, bonding, collaboration…

What can you tell us about your intellectual journey?

I’ve had a really weird intellectual journey, so I don’t know if I could highlight which stops along the way were the most important. I like to say my brain is like a boring head (pun!), in that it always just keeps going into the same topic for years, but I also progress along some path of deep curiosity, cyclically, from topic to topic and then back — and forth — again.

When I was a kid I wanted to be either a monk who studies theology or a military strategist. I also read a lot of fiction from a very young age, particularly stuff I shouldn’t have. I loved books meant for grownups! At university I studied English, linguistics and philosophy and completed two master’s degrees in Budapest (at ELTE) where I then taught for two years. Somehow, gradually, I became more and more interested in science and systems theory, and annoyed by what I saw as a no-consequence obsession with Continental thinkers without any encouragement to scrutinise those ideas from a factual or utilitarian point of view. By this time I was reading evolutionary biology and psychology, ethics and moral philosophy, foreign relations and economic theory extensively in my private time.

This wasn’t at all considered attractive, womanly or appropriate where I come from :) I think they would have preferred me to stay in the family business (TV) and work as a screenwriter. I actually did a 3rd master’s here in London in that field, at Goldsmiths, on a scholarship that enabled me to move here. But by this time all of my screenplays had been hardcore sci-fi, and I realised I really only cared about the “sci”, not the “fi”! I started working with investigative journalists analysing secretly taped dialogues as well as startups on information strategy, because I increasingly felt I wanted to work for real people on real problems. But I’m a constant neophyte who knows nothing, so I always just browse, read, ask, and hope not to embarrass myself too much in the process. It took me a while to understand what the areas where I can actually put my original academic studies to use are without missing out on the “being useful” part.

Tell us a bit about your reading process.

In Hungarian — my mother tongue — we have a jokey expression “szétolvasni”: it means “to read apart”. When you devour a book, read it into pieces. I kind of approach books that way — won’t leave a morsel. But at the same time I’m quite slow and read in hypertext fashion which is a method I wholeheartedly recommend to the fellow insane! It means that you start reading a book and whenever another book or writer or idea is mentioned that you don’t know, you put down the original book and go read that, and then whatever you find in that one too, etc., and then around two years later you may find your back to the book you started with! :) Taking notes along the way helps, I found.

On a normal daily basis, I enjoy “Wikipedia rabbit holes” for the same reason.

What does learning on the internet mean to you?

I know “democratising knowledge” is a cliché, but let me use it this way: for me the internet levels passive learning and learning-as-dialogue as near-equal. I can both read a finished text by a dead author, or just listen to other people’s conversations, go read what they’re discussing, and then come back and join the debate. This has expanded my knowledge in truly weird directions, and I often feel positively fluid between countries, political sides, generations and disciplines. Very refreshing.

A few years ago I started reading only first-source texts — where available — and only then someone else’s analysis or iteration. This gave me a lot of confidence in my own judgement and a healthy amount of skepticism in that of others. OK, maybe this is not healthy, we’ll see!

What did you did a deep dive in recently? How did you start exploring it? What did the learning process look like? How do you gauge how much you know about that topic now?

It’s very cyclical for me so I’d be reluctant to say I have any too “recent” interests. Perhaps AI ethics is an area where my interest grew in parallel with the building-out of this new field of inquiry, especially because it coincided with my founding my own AI company. So nothing of it has been theoretical — we have skin in the game.

I started by reading the founding texts, talking to experts, asking dumb questions shamelessly, travelling to talk to Anders, Miles, Eric and Owain at Future of Humanity Institute in Oxford, talking to Rumman — reading into overlapping fields where language, debate, social cohesion and shared knowledge are discussed.

My signature method I think is going straight to the world expert whenever I have an important question. I do this all the time and mostly get figuratively punched in the face or at least benevolently ignored. But on the rare occasions when this doesn’t happen, the gained knowledge and guidance are invaluable, and wonderful friendships are formed.

Tactically, walk us through how you keep up with what’s going in areas you are interested in.

I’m a very textual person who gets the structure of any text and its arguments quite quickly, so for me to listen to podcasts or watch educational videos takes an extra effort, like talking in a third/fourth foreign language. I can do it, but it’s not my comfort zone.

So I mainly do long, fun, Victorian-style email correspondences, Twitter sprees, papers in a number of disciplines, physical books and occasionally Kindle. I read a lot of stuff on my phone, especially in Pocket. Very rarely I use the Pocket audio to read up an article for me on double speed. No audio books, or very rarely.

I also try to apply the Socratic method on myself, and whenever I have an idea ask myself jerk questions to test it. It’s mostly: OK, you know X is true but what if X is not true. Oh boy, the calamities this leads to!

Do you have a system in place to educate yourself on topics you are interested in outside of work?

No, I wish. I tried a bunch of stuff and tools. But I’m fastest and most efficient when I just play by instinct. I eat when I’m hungry, for as long as I’m hungry, and what I’m hungry for. Try and stop me :)

You probably come across several interesting things on the internet daily. How do you curate?

I’m very conscious of curating my Twitter feed and who are the people I have daily conversations with (not counting of course close personal relationships, which is a whole different type of selectiveness). So right now I have a fantastic group of people in my teams, on Twitter, and in my general network, who I don’t always agree with, but whose judgement I can trust when they bring something to my attention.

And I take responsibility to be such a person for them in return.

On Twitter, I proactively manipulate the algorithm by visiting certain profiles regularly, hoping this will keep them in my feed. I regularly message people I find interesting so they recommend me new people to follow either in certain disciplines I’d like to know more about — I remember a “follow-campaign” I did last year with neuroscientists — or intro me to people whose politics are very different from mine. (As I’m moderate left that’s basically all of Twitter!.) I like to hear different thoughts, opinions, points of view on a daily basis.

What I remain most fascinated by is cognitive breakthroughs. I like to nibble on ideas for years without having any in-depth understanding, and then at one point you feel that the information content you have amassed in your head has passed some threshold, and you suddenly understand! In those blessed moments when this happens to me, I feel like new areas and groups open up, and new conversations in which I can take part. The best feeling in the world.

What is a topic that you think you know little to nothing about today?

I’ve been planning for years to go back to studying music theory, but that is one thing that’s just not happening, I’m not in the mindframe for it. I do play music, but alas no theory. I know one day I’ll just wake up and dive back into it, but can’t force it. As I’m saying this, all the books are here waiting and looking at me all lonely and guilt-trippy! :D

With the benefit of hindsight, if you had to devise a curriculum to teach teenagers how to best use the internet to advance intellectually?

I’m not a very clique-minded person — I grew up and have always worked in environments where crossing the Looking Glass back and forth and then entering another was the norm. (This has led to a few problems in my social life because I’ve never understood this thing when I’m not supposed to talk to X person because they also spoke with Y person who doesn’t like Z person. Ah, guys, why?) As an immigrant in London who’s working in GMT, CET, EST and PST, this is all the same — overlaps, but no fixed walls. So I’m very fluid in this as well, and like to trespass and connect and poke and find patterns between seemingly different separate things.

But I notice this is less the case for a lot of young people to whom the internet works primarily on a small-community level. This is great when it comes to personal relationships and communication, but from the intellectual exploration POV, can be a huge loss. So if I can give any tips, it’s for everybody to dare and go on adventures online — walk in and out of specialised communities, read up on their stuff, ask dumb questions, and give yourself time to smart up to those present. Be like a Verne character, pack up knowledge everywhere and make sure you also share!

Do you keep a track of what you have read and learned on the internet?

Yes, I have both personal and team archives, plus Pocket, folders — I print out the most important papers, some stuff goes to Dropbox, or is saved just in Gmail, and I have a physical backup too.

Reflecting back on what you have learned in the past 6 months, what is a good estimate of how much money and how many degrees would it take for you to learn more or less the same material through a traditional college?

Ha, such a good question — I do think about this a lot! I honestly don’t know. As much as I like to criticise my many uni years, they did give me an in-depth arsenal that is just so much more difficult to acquire on the go. I’m an autodidact and never shy to tip my toes into anything that beckons me, but I also know this isn’t the same as full-time adult education. I really liked many of my profs and never felt any of it was in vain. (I do feel they missed out on a lot though!)

Right in front of me is a picture of Isaac Asimov, above my desk, with the quote “Self-education is, I firmly believe, the only kind of education there is.” Let’s hope he’s right (I like to sometimes shake my fist at him, just in case he isn’t).


The interviewee is Anna Gát — CEO and co-founder of Actual (actual.chat) and Editor-in-chief and co-founder of Ixy Labs (ixylabs.com). I very much recommend following her on Twitter.