Do we really need to learn anymore? [Part 1]

People of the millennial generation loathe helping people over fifty how to utilize technology. We might seem like we’re chipper and patient, but that’s either because a) we’re being paid for it or b) we must recompense for not calling our parents enough.

There’s a trick to teaching people to fix ANY tech problem. You teach them how to google. That’s it. Even though, to us youngins, googling feels like second nature, it’s actually a skill we’ve just seamlessly acquired. We intuit keywords, phrasing and source-finding as easily as we take a breath. We dip into the pool of infinite knowledge without a second thought.

With a flick of my finger, I can learn practically anything. Take that to it’s logical conclusion and you find yourself faced with an odd question: If we can just dip into the pool of knowledge at any time…why do we go to school? Do we really need it? A simple “Ok Google…” can find me anything I want, so what does taking a class really do for me?

My wife and I play a little game where, if you can’t remember who was in a particular movie, you have to sit and try to remember instead of using IMDB. We literally simulate what it might be like not to have all the answers, for fun. Inevitably, we give up and ask. “Of course! Christopher Walken! Again!”

IMDB is a good example of modern “information exchange.” I put that in quotes not to make a dubious sexual reference, but to examine how the concept of “information exchange” has radically changed. So lets hop into our Delorean/Phone Booth/Hot Tub, set the dial to about 200,000 years ago and explore how information exchange has developed.

First stop, Words! (Technically there’s a zeroth stop if you want to count genetic exchange, but I’ll let Matt Ridley help you out with that one. For our intents and purposes, we’ll forgo the saga of evolution.)

Words, or at least proto-linguistic grunts, were the first step in information exchange, and they were a huge one! Let me break this down for you. Humans learned how to transmit thoughts…from their minds…to the minds of other humans. I cannot overstate how important this is, but I’m going to try:

Learning how to make words was the most important step in evolution that ever happened to a living species maybe in the whole fucking universeThe step from *silence* to “Berries here” is as miraculous as the step from prokaryotic to eukayrotic organisms or the step from empty warm pool to first instance of life.

However, my friends, “Berries here” is not exactly Beethovin’s Ninth, so the importance might be lost, but it was information exchange nonetheless. The attributes of “Berries here” are as follows: Non-complex, hyper-local and transient. It was nothing abstract, it didn’t travel far and it died upon utterance. So the glory of transmitting information (as monumental as that was) was hit with some pretty big barriers right off the bat. Let’s leap forward a bit and see if I can get impressed with the next step.

Second stop, Writing! Think of writing as the first giant leap toward human immortality. By introducing the written word, we’ve crushed one of the big limitations of Ooog the cave-person just saying “Berries here”: transience. Now instead of the words just evaporating, they can be saved. They can be written down and given away later. So after your death, your thoughts, knowledge and discoveries can be passed down to further generations.

Talk about hacking evolution! Evolution is based on the principle that only the fittest survive, but with writing, the fittest can pass a cheat-sheet up a few generations to help them survive. Think of any big historical text–Hammurabi’s code, The Koran, The Wealth of Nations, Mao’s Little Red Book–as a cheat-sheet for how to structure the world. Most people attach their life to one these texts and simply do what it says. Even though it doesn’t feel like it, most of us are just coasting on repeated philosophies and statutes our whole lives. Thank goodness someone wiser than I wrote down how to live! Otherwise, we would need to figure it out from scratch each new generation!

So we have some complex, enduring information exchange, but it’s still pretty local. Parchment was quite expensive and writing was a skill for the elite, so we’re still a little stuck. What’s next?

Second and a half stop, the Printing Press! I’m only giving the printing press half a stop. I know, I know, it’s revolutionary and all that, but really, it just accelerated the access to writing. It didn’t introduce a new concept. 

What it did do, however, is work to crush that last hindrance on information exchange: locality. With books being churned out, mass distribution of information became much easier. Gutenberg and company no longer had to employ scribes to spread the good word. Instead, they had a big meaty machine to church out and disseminate knowledge. In all, it was an invention that ushered in equalization–as the price for knowledge dropped dramatically–meaning middle and lower class people could access it more easily.

So the printing press was good, but it might as well be a sky blue crayon compared to our next step.

Step three: the internet. AKA the invisible, instantaneous, personal printing press.

The internet is the be-all and end-all medium for information exchange. It is complex, permanent, world-wide and literally lightning-fast. The internet has inexorably changed the way we communicate socially, the way we sell things, the way we stand in line, the way we learn and the way we think.

It’s been a long trek from “Berries Here” to Google Chrome, but we’ve done it. We’ve gone from simple to complex, from transient to permanent and from hyper-local to global. We have access to nearly all the knowledge in the world–certainly more information than we could ever digest in our lifetimes.

So finally, I can return, at long last, to my initial question. Do we really need to learn anymore? If the past humans have done all this work, accrued all this information for me AND figured out how to make it all instantly accessible at almost any location, why do I need to learn? Why am I spending the first fourth of my life in a classroom–where human-to-human information exchange is mostly inefficient, ineffective and expensive?

Well, I’d be a pretty terrible teacher if I left it at that.

In the next post, I’ll propose two reasons why learning is still a worthwhile pursuit.

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Do we really need to learn anymore? [Part 1]