World After Capital: Freedom to Learn

This post is by Continuations by Albert Wenger from Continuations by Albert Wenger

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NOTE: Today’s excerpt from my book World After Capital continues the discussion of Psychological Freedom by examining how we can make ourselves free to learn.

Freedom to Learn

Young kids ask upwards of three hundred questions a day. [122] Humans are naturally curious, and it’s precisely this curiosity that has driven so much of our progress. At the same time, our curiosity in some ways didn’t match well with the Industrial Age. If you want to employ people in a factory job that has them performing the same action all day every day, then curiosity doesn’t help; on the contrary, it hurts. The same goes for many service jobs today, such as say operating a cash register or delivering packages on time.

The present-day educational system was built to support the Job Loop of the industrial economy. No surprise then, that it generally tends to suppress rather than encourage curiosity. educators hardly ever state “suppressing curiosity” as an overt goal, many of our educational practices do exactly that. For instance, forcing every eight year old to learn the same things in math discourages curiosity. Teaching to a test discourages curiosity. Inadequate funding resulting in cutbacks to music and art classes discourages curiosity.

A critical way that we undermine curiosity is by evaluating many domains of knowledge according to whether we think they will help kids get a “good job.” If your child expressed an interest in learning Swahili or wanting to play the mandolin, would you as a parent support that? Or would you say something like, “But how will you earn a living with that”? What about yourself? What were you excited to learn but did not because it does not pay? The latest iteration of this thinking is that everyone should learn how to code because there are high paying jobs in software. Instead of encouraging curiosity about coding, either for its own sake or as a tool in science or art, we force it into the Industrial Age logic of the Job Loop. This will not end well, as software development too is subject to automation.

We need to free ourselves from this instrumental view of knowledge and embrace learning for its own sake as part of the Knowledge Loop. Again, a Universal Basic Income (UBI) can go a long way to making more people overcome their fears that they won’t be able to support themselves if they let their curiosity guide their learning. But will we have enough engineers and scientists in such a world? Historic evidence suggests so. For instance, we accomplished the Apollo program and moon landing at a time when Math was not mandatory in high school. If anything it is likely that we will have more engineers and scientists than under the current system. Forcing kids to study something is a surefire way to squelch their natural curiosity.

The digitally accelerated Knowledge Loop brings to the fore other limits to learning that we must also overcome. The first of these is confirmation bias. As humans we find it much easier to process and accept information that confirms what we already believe to be true. Today, we can access a huge amount of content online, confirming any of our pre-existing beliefs instead of learning something new. Collectively, we risk becoming ever more entrenched in these views, fracturing into groups that hold and perpetually reinforce strong beliefs. This phenomenon of the “Cyber Balkans” [123] becomes even more pronounced given the automatic personalization of many Internet systems, with people living inside a “filter bubble” that screens out conflicting information [124].

Another limit to learning is the human tendency to jump to conclusions on the basis of limited data, another well documented and understood cognitive bias. After a study came out suggesting that smaller schools tended to produce better student performance than larger schools, educators set about creating a lot of smaller schools. A subsequent study found that a lot of smaller schools were also doing exceptionally poorly. It turns out that this finding in part amounted to a statistical effect: The more students a school has, the more likely that school is to approximate the overall distribution of students. A small school is much more likely to have students who perform predominantly well or poorly.

Daniel Kahnemann in his book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” discusses the fundamental problem underlying these biases. We employ heuristics that result in confirmation bias and storytelling because many of the older systems in the human brain are optimized for speed and effortlessness. In a world with an analog Knowledge Loop, more time exists to correct for these biases. But in a high velocity, low cost digital Knowledge Loop, we must work far more deliberately to slow ourselves down. Otherwise, we run the risk of passing along incorrect stories without taking the time to verify them resulting in an information cascade. In fact, a recent study showed that at the moment rumors spread online at many times the speed of truths [125].

The bulk of the systems we currently interact with online are designed on purpose to appeal to our cognitive biases instead of helping us overcome them. Companies such as Facebook and Twitter become more valuable the more attention they capture, as they then resell some part of that attention in what is known as advertising. Capturing attention is easier through appealing to what Kahenmann calls System 1, the parts of our brain that require no effort and are responsible for our cognitive biases. You are much more likely to look at a sequence of cute animal pictures or status updates from your friends than to read through an in-depth analysis of a proposal for a carbon tax. Fake news and propaganda efforts have understood this inherent flaw in the existing systems, making large scale manipulation possible.

New systems can help here. We might imagine, for instance, an online reader that always gives you opposing viewpoints to a given story or perspective. For each topic, you could explore both “similar” and “opposing” views. Such a reader could be presented as a browser plug in, so that when you’ ve already ventured beyond the confines of a social media platform and are perusing content you could still bring that exploration with you [126].

Fundamentally though, each and everyone of us has to actively work on engaging what Kahnemann calls System 2, which is the part of our brain that requires real effort but lets us think independently and rationally. Having some kind of mindfulness practice is a key enabler for overcoming biases and freeing ourselves to learn.