Optimizing Transmission of Knowledge

In response to The Economist’s The Future of the Book

To me, the really fascinating thing about books is the ecosystem they've given rise to. Books have essentially promulgated a set of cultural artifacts and institutions which allow them to replicate and disseminate themselves safely throughout our world. As Richard Dawkins writes in ‘The Selfish Gene’, information has an extraordinary capacity to simultaneously insulate itself from but also radically alter the physical world, and as vehicles of information, books fit neatly within that idiom.

Books have dedicated machines to their production, an economy around their invention (with people paid to naturally select the most fit for wide reproduction) and a variety of places dedicated to them, notably libraries and book stores. Books even have a piece of furniture especially for them. But perhaps most notably, books have established themselves as the primary symbols of passion for the advancement of humankind, garnering themselves a number of ardent defenders dedicated to their survival: scholars and librarians alike fight to preserve and protect them. In our culture, books are both sexy and sacred, at once mundane and almighty.

This makes them very difficult to replace.

There exists one particular category of book we would do well to replace, and that is the textbook. The reasons to find some technology to supplant the many of textbooks’ use cases are compelling: textbooks are fairly expensive per unit, not particularly portable, and deeply inefficient at their primary task: the transmission of knowledge.

I posit that video constitutes a superior alternative for the following reasons:

  • Video conveys more information, more densely. Although many can read at a faster clip than regular human speech cadences, the density of information that can be transmitted visually is much greater than the information density of words, which undergo a much slower decoding process than that of images. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then we can read using pictures roughly a thousand times as fast. Video allows for an abundance of diverse images to illustrate its theses, which enables a richer interaction with knowledge, but also a more efficient one.

Video has proven a successful medium in the transmission of stories, especially fictional or dramatized stories. There exist as many institutions around ‘movies’ as there exist around books. But in non-fiction, video lags far behind books as a mechanism for teaching and learning. There exist two possible causes:

  1. Video is not a viable means of teaching beyond that which documentaries and similar such media already provide. Video is only good for fiction.

I believe the latter is the truer representation of reality. Video is not as widely employed as a teaching tool as books are not because it isn't an effective teaching tool but because of a dearth of investment in the production of high quality educational video content. Those who seek to make purely educational content seem locked into older paradigms, and don’t exploit the full potential of video effectively (as is the case with Coursera, EdX, etc..). Others who seek to make educational content for entertainment purposes find they have a hard time competing with fictional content without sensationalizing the truth some (as is the case with documentaries).

Reading a well-crafted book is an incomparable experience. There exist books with a depth of insight and quality of rhetoric which stirs the soul. I have had the pleasure of reading a number of such works of human intellect and passion, but most of the world does not share that privilege.

We need to make videos which are as powerful, meaningful, and educational as the best books. We need to free the notion of the transmission of knowledge from the physical incarnation of the book. We need to do these things in order to teach better, faster, and at scale. And we need it now.

conscious mammalian organism, fanatical tea snob.

conscious mammalian organism, fanatical tea snob.