What do you think is the greatest contributing factor to human intellectual development over the years? If you ask me, I believe it is our ability to disseminate information. Let us take calculus as an example. Some 350 years ago, this concept didn’t even exist. What at the time was considered bleeding-edge mathematics is today taught to 17 and 18 year olds in high school. I find that incredible. Issac Newton himself, in his 1676 letter to Robert Hooke, popularized the saying:
If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.
And how right he was.
Imagine for a moment that every man, woman and child had to rediscover all the laws of mathematics and physics, or had to develop a sense of prose with no literature to draw inspiration. All progress would stagnate. Instead, we can study and learn from the years of toil by magnates such as Aristotle, Galileo, and Shakespeare. I therefore posit that progress and development relies wholly and entirely upon the capacity for humanity to pool and distribute its collective knowledge.
But we do not have to limit ourselves to pure academia. Everyone above the age of, let’s arbitrarily pick 25, has experienced some facet of life that you have not. For instance, say I wanted to start my own business. Furthermore, let’s assume that I have no contacts that have also started a business from whom I could draw on experiences. I may be able to compile some research here and there, but as in programming, you will never be able to find all the bugs before testing. I will inevitably fail and make mistakes that many before me have made, and which could have been avoided if such information was passed down. It could potentially take years to learn something that could have been communicated in minutes, but I did not have the resources available to learn from the experience of others.
Personal Relationships and Learning
This speaks towards a more general, and far more important, point on the importance of personal relationships. I have a real penchant for learning, and I will often find myself going down rabbit holes in pursuit of some interest. After spending hours, or even days, researching and arriving at an understanding, I can generally summarize my findings in a 10 to 15 minute conversation. This is because much of my time was spent trying to learn what to learn. You know the feeling I’m sure.
As an example, let’s say you want to learn about the current war in Yemen, so you visit the Wikipedia article.
In the second sentence alone you are dismayed to discover you only recognize 50% of the words. Wow, we’ve got some work to do. You dive deeper and deeper into the context of each faction until, finally, you have come to an elementary understanding.
Never mind, for the moment, media bias in reporting or the complete lack of nuance and perspective in the understanding you are bound to have at this stage of learning such a complicated topic. You know more than you did, but that was not without its price. When you first embarked upon this journey, you, as the classic saying goes, didn’t know what you didn’t know. Now, in hindsight, you can see that “wow, if I’d have just started there, then learned that, I could have streamlined the entire process!” But the path of discovery was necessary without having someone there who could walk you through the subject step by step.
Contrast this with having a Middle Eastern policy expert sitting across the table from you. You can ask him to start developing the context from what (s)he, in their advanced understanding and comprehension, perceive to be the beginning of the context behind the current conflict. As they begin to teach you, anything you don’t know, you can inquire about further. At this point they can say “give me 5 minutes more to develop the story and then you will understand.” You just saved an hour of going down a rabbit hole you weren’t ready to comprehend. By the end of the conversation, they will have fully developed the necessary context and given you a far more nuanced and comprehensive understanding, and in a fraction of the time.
Now that you’ve developed a more intimate understanding, you probably don’t want to put all of your trust into one source. But now you know what to cross-validate. Now you have one expert’s testimonial to shape your research. So long as you can recognize potential spinning of the given narrative, certainly having an understanding closer to that of the expert is more helpful in continuing your studies than when you started fresh. As your knowledge and expertise in the subject grows, you will eventually reach the point where you, too, can now explain the context necessary for comprehension in a wholistic yet succinct manner. Then, and only then, have you arrived at an understanding. Einstein once said:
Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.
If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.
And that, in the end, is the point. I am of the opinion that I could learn more in a 30 minute conversation with an expert who can explain a concept simply in its entirety than in 2 weeks of studying, attempting to build the context, piece everything together myself, etc. The internet can be helpful if the information is formatted in such a way, but it often is not and leads instead to an eternal struggle to piece together an ever-expanding puzzle. The myriad of sources and points of view may give one a more wholistic perspective, but at the cost of significantly more time spent. The margin of diminishing returns is just not in favor of this approach.
If you are interested enough in something, I implore you to find a way to connect with an individual in the area. A good place to start would be looking at meet ups in the field. I think it would be a worthy goal to make information dissemination more personal again. But that is another topic for another day. For now, reflect on the important of sharing knowledge and then, if you feel so inclined, share with me a bit of knowledge in the comments.