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Our Relationship to Learning

I wonder what learning looked like before the Internet. There are the obvious scenarios that come to mind; a woman in a poodle skirt in a library. A family gathered around the living room radio cupping their ears in anticipation. A tall man with slicked back hair nodding emphatically to a stern but wise professor pointing a stick to a board. Well, that’s what I imagine.

history of learning

But what about before that? My imagination seems to cap out around 1950, for some reason. Let me ask the Internet, because my guesses now seem less and less useful for this exercise. Oh Good! There’s an infographic! You’ve probably already noticed it.

Ignoring the obvious product placement, it paints a handy timeline (albeit simplified) for how learning has evolved. My take: it seems people became monks or nuns (European Culture), worked for political office (Chinese culture), and/or had an apprenticeship (mostly all cultures).

However, these opportunities were not available to everyone. For the populace at large, learning happened through oral tradition from the community and through one’s immediate social circle.

So, before the Internet popped up and wowed us all with instantaneous and ubiquitous access to information, my hypothesis of how people learned is simple: they didn’t.

For most of human history, the public has been uneducated by today’s standards. The cognitive ability was there, but the barrier to information was nearly insurmountable. Mostly, people relegated learning to whenever they could find someone who would answer whatever they chose to ask. The rest of the time they’d just be on their grind.

While there are many ways that the Internet has revolutionized the way we learn, it is still an incredibly new phenomenon, and is ever evolving into infinite complexity. I want to take a fine tooth comb and ask some questions about how technology shapes us in little ways.

It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.

― Arthur Conan DoyleThe Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes

We notice big things as a society, but the smaller things tend to “slip through the cracks”, right beneath our noses and straight on past our cerebral cortices. Without proper critique, we may never realize the value of the little things until they are lost.

One little thing I wish to preserve (by means of blogging about it right here on the Internet) is the art of asking people questions.

I prefer to ask people my questions rather than ask the Internet. I fear this preference is now taboo, and I worry about what this means for the future of learning.

Case in Point: Let Me Google That for You. If you’ve never heard of this website, you should know it is one of the snarkiest tools the Internet has ever created. The premise is simple: someone asks a (seemingly) stupid question, and in response they receive a link that takes them to a site that Googles their question. It is the Internet equivalent of this dog’s response to whatever its human said or did:

For those of you who can’t waste 9 seconds on a dog vid, I think this quote of the video sums it up pretty well: “It’s more than a sigh. Like notes of citrus and the earthy taste of soil only a trained tongue can detect in wine, buried somewhere in that sigh is a slight undercurrent of sarcasm. It’s the passive-aggressive attitude in another form.” Charming, right? But that’s only for the more enterprising among us. It is not uncommon for people to simply say “idk, Google it” and that’s that.

There is this bias that going “straight to the source” is somehow the absolute where knowledge is concerned. This “source” may have the answers, but this bias of techno-culture misses the point of the sacred motivation behind asking questions. Often we are looking to gain much more than an answer, or something else entirely.

Sometimes we ask in order to understand our confusion. Sometimes we ask because we want a certain individual’s opinion. Other times, we ask a question in order to start a conversation about a certain topic in such a way that no one feels attacked and all parties are enriched by the dialogue that occurs

As iron sharpens iron, so people can improve each other
 – Some Historical Text

It seems this adage is no longer useful in our current understanding of learning.

The internet is a marketplace, and everything that lives there was paid for by someone who wants you to see it. If our primary source of learning is the Internet, then the information we are granted access to will always be limited to what other people (often the people with the most money, i.e. large corporations) want us to see.

If our primary source of learning is the network of our social circle, then we gain two distinct advantages: the first advantage is that we can learn on our terms, in a natural and welcoming environment; the second is that we do not have to wade through other, dubious influences (see previous article) that we may not be able to account for in our quest for answers.


If you like what you read, feel free to share. Basic Rules: Be civil. We are all people and deserve respect. That’s a hard and fast rule, by the way, it is not optional. Other than that, anything goes.

Interested in many things, but nothing captivates more than technology, entrepreneurship, futurism, and humanity's quest to problem-solve.