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Optimizing Transmission of Knowledge

In response to The Economist’s

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.
  • It scales. Likely the most significant reason our relationship with books is problematic for us is that books do not scale well as a medium for information transmission. Their production is resource-intensive, their distribution is difficult and their form is quite fragile. Digital video, on the other hand, has essentially no marginal cost, exponentially growing channels of distribution, and nearly half the world’s people carry a device on their person which can accommodate it.
  • Video represents a return to the organic. Engaging with any book is a profoundly inorganic experience in which a human will undergo a long period of stillness and focus while their eyes repeatedly scan across a series of markings which cause their minds to virtually experience or contemplate something which isn’t really there. Whereas speech is genetically rooted in our species, writing is a relatively new invention, and yet many now consider books and particularly textbooks the ‘end of history’ technology for the spread of ideas, as if it were the paragon transceiver of thought. Instead of humans molding themselves around a technology (learning on the book’s terms), video is only one step removed from human-to-human teaching, which humans are innately good at.
  • It’s iterable. Updating a textbook is a serious undertaking. Updating a video is not. If a particular explanation of a concept in a textbook fails to convey that concept to learners, the author will likely be unaware, and even if they do find out, the only tool available to them to remedy the situation is publishing a new edition. In the context of a video, large quantities of data are generated by viewership of videos which can themselves be updated and seamlessly integrated into learning resources on the web, to optimize the transmission of knowledge for those who seek it.

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.
  2. No one has really had the insight to exploit video as a way of teaching who was willing to overcome the potential regulatory and systemic barriers to achieving that goal.

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.

Written by

conscious mammalian organism, fanatical tea snob.

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