A Note: Propagation of Learning

I’ve finished reading Neal Stephenson’s Anathem some days ago. As is usual with all his works so far, I enjoyed it immensely. This is the kind of book that grips your attention and never let it go, the sort of reading experience that many people don’t get to enjoy very often past a certain age. Other than some technicality like how stable elements from one universe can remain stable even in another universe (and if it is because the physical laws are the same, what caused those elements to be different enough to be incompatible with life forms in another universe) that keeps on nagging at the back of my mind, I see no reason to criticize the book in any way. Of course, Neal Stephenson won’t be winning Nobel prize for writing the Anathem, but he never meant for it to be that kind of work, did he?

The premises of Anathem is obviously reflective of that of the current world we live in, notably the ubiquity and evanescence of information. The fact that most people lack learning of significant depth (which isn’t really all that much of a change from any other time in history) while becoming increasingly irreverent of the devotion to learning itself is a trait of the modern world frequently discussed in variety of media. Anathem also devotes quite a number of pages to discussion of the issue, and I hit upon a simple idea while thinking about a section on dangers of unintentional misinformation born through insubstantial learning.

In conventional process of teaching and learning, an individual opts to become a node of a degree of knowledge. The individual-node then connects with other individuals of varying degrees of learning and transmit his/her learning to those individuals in a process reminiscent of propagation of thermodynamic equilibrium. Currently the system of public knowledge-the web-is like an ever expanding vacuum. Lack of reliable sources of data and knowledge combined with abundance of random bits of knowledge that remain nonetheless incoherent and worthless in light of a greater system of thought is the symptom of such a vacuum. Maybe this symptom can be alleviated once the academic sector of the knowledge network begins to open its data to the world at large? Maybe the web itself can become a coherent learning environment through steady injection of respectable nodes of knowledge that expands along with the noise of the internet vacuum. I believe we already have the beginnings of the groundwork for such a project in the guise of openscience/science 2.0. If the openscience movement remains unhampered by the increasing haranguing of special interest groups and economic fundamentalists, we might be able to observe a true renaissance of human learning some time in the future that makes current advances in human network and information technologies pale in comparison.


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