Why We Learn

There’s a reason that Stanford sells sweatshirts and spends as much on athletics as it does academics: loyalty. Universities aim to create a sense of shared identity, of allegiance to a tribe, and most importantly, prestige for the university itself.

In education, the locus of authority, of popularity, of loyalty is the school, not the teacher.

This won’t last.

In the old world, companies built their brand for decades, then leased their good name to their employees. You were a reporter for the New York Times or a writer for TV Guide. What was your name? Who knows. Why should anyone listen to you? Because you worked for an outlet we trusted.

Then, the internet happened, and journalists no longer relied on the endorsement and employment of established news companies. Instead, they built direct relationships with their audience via social media. They developed their credibility through good work, and their devotion through the intimacy, authenticity, and unscripted candor that the internet provides. Their fans followed them from project to project, platform to platform.

People used to trust brands. Now they trust faces.

The dominant media corporations are just beginning to topple. In time, every profession dominated by institutions will transform.

And no field is more ripe for renaissance than teaching.

Higher education shares many of the same characteristics that news media once did. The institution dominates; value flows to and from the school. While students cross their fingers Harvard or Berkeley – few applicants know the names of the specific professors who will teach their courses. Teachers derive their reputation from the schools in which they work. Unless they write a best-selling book, they must remain inside academia in order to retain credibility and income.

Authority is even more concentrated in primary and secondary schools. A family might move to attend a “good school”, but rarely because they seek a particular teacher. Even when teachers are beloved by their students, the value and scale of that popularity ends at the borders of their school district. If a physics teacher in New Jersey moves to California, her reputation doesn’t proceed her, and her students won’t follow. Her previous school keeps the reputation for excellence that her work created.

The next decade will upend this dynamic. The next wave of superstar teachers will distribute their lessons on Youtube, full of recurring jokes. They’ll hold office hours on Facebook with two thousand students across the world. They’ll share their academic and non-academic hobbies on Instagram. They’ll create weekly podcasts, nerding out on their favorite subjects and discussing the ways in which their field shapes the news and affects real people. They’ll earn a living through exclusive lessons on Patreon, individual and small group tutoring over Google Hangouts, and monthly private donations. Sal Khan started Khan Academy by uploading lessons to his family on Youtube. The next Sal Khan will build his following on Snapchat.

This change will bring about many of the same practical and ethical issues that have emerged in journalism over the past few years: does training and licensing matter? How do we enforce standards of accuracy and objectivity? What happens when a popular teacher accepts advertisers on their podcast? If these questions disturb you, then start thinking about them now. Ask an executive at Sony Music or the Washington Post: you can’t fight the internet, you can only prepare for it.

Unlike record stores, brick-and-mortar high schools aren’t going away any time soon. Stanford will still be sought after for the next several decades. Yet, more educators will opt to work directly with students at scale, rather than serve the needs of a stodgy bureaucracy. Salaries of the savviest teachers will rise as they create side incomes as podcasters and tutors. Schools will compete for teachers that command a loyal, global audience. And students will have direct access to the best teachers in the world, no matter what town they live in.

If you are a school administrator, then this all sounds rather stressful.

If you are a teacher or a student (and we all are, always), then the future couldn’t be more exciting.

What Came Before

The misogyny and vicious trolling that sprouted around Gamergate was, in retrospect, a foreshadowing of the ideology and tactics that would coalesce around the alt-right’s political ascendancy two years later.

For whatever reason, the video game community tends to feel the first tremors of broader cultural and economic upheaval.

A second, less doom-laden example:

Once upon a time, if you wanted to learn about the video games, you went to either Gamespot or IGN. These websites were the most trusted and visited sources for video game coverage, and by the mid-2000s had largely supplanted the print media industry.

In 2007, Gamespot fired editor-in-chief Jeff Gerstmann because he gave a mediocre review score to a game, and that game’s publisher happened to be a significant advertiser on the site.

In 2008, Gerstmann and several former coworkers started Giant Bomb, and over the next several years, Giant Bomb helped to forge the new landscape of video game journalism. They phased out written coverage and moved to 30-60 minute videos of them playing games as they talked and joked, the way you might if you were sitting on the couch with a friend. They were one of the first sites to have weekly podcasts, analyzing the week’s news and digressing into bizarre conversations and inside jokes for hours.

What most differentiated Giant Bomb was that the creators were the stars. Their personalities, insights, and senses of humor were front and center. They didn’t hide their preferences and non-gaming obsessions. Newcomers visited Giant Bomb for the first time to hear about games, but fans returned daily to hear from Jeff, Brad, Ryan, and Vinny, regardless of the topic. As a result, they’ve dabbled in spinoff podcasts about pro wrestling, Formula 1 racing, and life advice.

Giant Bomb happens to be the site where you can hear your favorite people talk about games; if those people leave Giant Bomb (particularly Jeff), the brand ceases to have value beyond its SEO ranking.

This shift in authority from institution to individuals has rippled out beyond video game journalism over the past five years. We see it across all media. Not long ago, if you were a politics journalist, there were a half-dozen publications that might be your ultimate goal: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, etc. If you worked for The New York Times, your reputation was derived from your employer and the 150 years of credibility behind it. If you left The Times, the readers wouldn’t know or tell the difference.

Now, the opposite is true.

Nate Silver built his FiveThirtyEight blog on the strength of his work and participation in social media around the 2008 election. When The New York Times bought FiveThirtyEight in 2010, they didn’t give him credibility – he gave them credibility (and huge traffic). And when Silver left in 2013, he took his fans with him.

Starting with video games, the power of publications to grant legitimacy to people has shriveled. In the age of the internet we care about individuals over institutions. Journalism and entertainment were the first industries to change in the new climate, but every industry historically dominated by institutional authority is at-risk.

And schools are next.

Why We Learn

If you are open-minded and do not fear harm to your reputation, then there is a way to receive a world-class education for free. In order to explain how, we must first observe two phenomena:

  1. The internet provides us with immediate and abundant access to experts in all fields.
  2. We have a psychological need to correct stupid statements.

We will use these facts to create an individualized, graduate-level curriculum taught exclusively by the leaders of any field.

All you need to do is be an intentional idiot. Here are the steps:

  1. Find an internet forum dedicated to the topic you wish to study.
  2. Start a thread that offers terribly inaccurate advice to novices. Declare with certainty.
  3. The comment section will fill with experts on that subject emphatically correcting your idiotic advice. This is the goldmine. Scholars and experienced practitioners will clearly lay out everything you need to know about the subject. In many cases they will even debate amongst themselves, in doing so highlighting relevant controversies and opportunities for more research.
  4. If you need to drill down on a particular, simply challenge a expert with a qualified assertion like, “well that may be true, but then why X.” They will happily (angrily) get into the nitty-gritty.
  5. Take notes!
  6. When you feel satisfied with your expert tutorial, close out the thread by saying that you stand corrected, repeat back what you’ve heard (helps the commenters feel understood), and thank them for a new perspective. This is important. Experts spend most of their time arguing with other experts, so for them, the greatest feeling in the world is convincing somebody else that they are right. Since you are piggy-backing on their hard work, they deserve that gift.

This is how you troll for a world-class education.

I haven’t seen this method described anywhere else. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

To see trolling for education in action, check out this Reddit thread on avocados.

Why We Act

A confession: I used to be a person that rolled my eyes at the superstitious. When friends searched for wood to knock on, or kept a charm around their ankle, or pointed out the presence of a full moon, I’d puff my chest and poke holes in their mystic caution.

I might ask: Well, what exactly do you think will happen if you don’t touch wood? Why would that have any effect? I’ve never done that and nothing bad has happened to me, isn’t that weird, hm?

With the asphyxiating condescension of a true nerd, I’d insist on reason, logic, proof.

Later that weekend I would watch professional wrestling.

The next morning I’d bark to blank faces about the heart-rending rivalries between these athletes: years-long tales of kinship and betrayal, cowardice and grit, of heroes and heels scratching and clawing, inch by inch, setback after setback, toward the grand prize, the golden belt, the roaring fans, to immortality itself.

My friends reply: “Mm, yeah it’s fake, right?”

In that moment, I understood the meaning of a full moon:

Superstitions shine a light toward the limits of our understanding. They are a ritualized reminder that disconnected events can harm us (or help us) in ways we can’t predict. Take them literally, or don’t. Like pro wrestling, to challenge the reality of superstitions is to miss the idea entirely. In their unreality, they amplify our human truths.

In a scientific age, our superstitions form a lonely tribute to the weird, the wonderful, the dancing inexplicable.

Why We Create

Watch closely, stand quiet. Something exquisite is about to unfold.

The first thing she notices is how light the camera is. It feels empty, almost cheap compared to her Nikon DSLR. The body is boxy and thin. The dark gray plastic is softer than her own camera, yet the textured perimeter grips her fingers. Four dials line the top, settings that her Nikon handles from a touchscreen. She twists each knob in turn: carefully, carefully. Places her brow to the square viewfinder. Her left hand holds the lens firm and, without thought, rotates the field into focus. The tip of her finger sweeps the right corner to find the shutter release. She lines up the shot.

We’re used to seeing the amateur fumble with new strings and the master effortlessly handle well-worn grooves.

But when an expert meets new equipment, this is a sacred moment.

At once, they regard the strange camera, guitar, rifle with gentle respect and firm confidence. Their hands move to familiar positions, and they pause at every subtle variance. Surprise is one of the few thrills deprived from the seasoned. For the veteran, this is a religious affair.

She’s shot a hundred thousand photos. But this one will be different.

Watch closely, stand quiet. This is the electric silence before the summer storm.

Why We Fuck Up

There are those that would ask for a summary of The Great Gatsby, yet read every page of whatever business book is en vogue among founders and VCs. The irony is that most books on business can be fully summarized in a few pages, while a hundred books can be written about The Great Gatsby and never capture it in full.

Pay attention to what expands and what contracts.

What Came Next, Why We Talk

On days when I need a pick-me-up, I remind myself that the first extraterrestrial life we encounter will be likely be indifferent to us, just as fish and grasshoppers and ducks are broadly disinterested in human swimming, jumping, and quacking.

Of course, when we meet our aliens we can’t assume that. Of course, we are scientists, so we will demand a rigorous examination of the alien-hopping-fish-duck’s capacity for intelligible conversation.

Carefully, thoughtfully, the eggheads will concoct an elaborate light and music show in an attempt to communicate without language. We’ll spend months crafting the proper message and two of the lead scientists will get into a fist fight over the use of a diatonic rather than pentatonic scale (with some implications of racial bias). They’ll later apologize to each other over email, both agreeing that they were very tired and have been put into a stressful circumstance with a very tight deadline, that this is water under the bridge as far as each party is concerned.

Following twenty tense months of deliberation, composition, and review, we play our light and music show for the hopping-fish-ducks. Then we hold our breath.

They seem to just be hopping more-or-less in place, like they always do. Wait, did one do a little dance just there? It was quick, but it looked like it perhaps shimmied slightly before its little hop. The lead zoologist leans in: Yes, there is a possibility that the shimmy was an intended response. We will require a follow-up investigation.

An application is submitted to concoct an elaborate dance routine for the hopping-fish-ducks. We can’t rule shimmying out. We can’t rule anything out.

Why We Do Better

A surprising property of group personality: it is exponential, not linear. Two charming people are four times more charming than one person. Three boring people are eight times more boring than one person. Ten funny people are more than a thousand times funnier than one person (e.g. The Simpsons’ writing room, 1992-1998).

Therefore, you and I have two opportunities to create incredible value in the world. First, we can connect great people. Second, we can prevent not-great people from connecting with each other!

We celebrate those who excel at the former, because their successes are visible. However, the latter are rarely recognized, and never rewarded. We sweep them into disgraceful obscurity alongside QA testers, effective policy makers, and all other professions that successfully prevent disasters from ever occurring (and thus cannot be praised for their foresight). Yet they are no less heroic. No less vital to our collective progress as a species.

So let’s take a moment to raise our glasses to the disconnectors, our unsung protectors, preventing our nation’s idiots from stumbling into one other.