We live in amazing times. Digital media and the Internet have transformed how we exchange ideas, how we learn, how we think about ourselves, and even how we think at all. When I was an undergraduate in the late 1980s, the traditional ways of learning were through lectures, seminars, books, writing essays, talking about ideas with friends. Learning tended to be local: you needed to be in the same space with the people from whom you were learning, and in the room with the books and journals that could enlighten you. But times are changing.
For students and autodidacts 30 years ago, the library was everything. A world of knowledge was contained on the shelves, ready to be unlocked by painstaking reading and following through connections and leads. I find it hard to explain to my children the excitement of staggering home from a library with a bag full of old books and the joy of flicking through their pages. Today online searches can deliver reliable information, hyperlinks, podcasts, videos, complete books, and even open online courses on a wide range of topics, almost instantaneously, and usually for the price of an Internet connection. Students can carry a small library in their pocket on a flash drive or smartphone. As the pressure increases on academic publishers to make more of their content open access, cutting edge research will be available beyond educational institutions. Social media allow us to discuss ideas with strangers, and even to reach the thinkers whose thoughts stimulate the discussion. This has created a world of ideas that is simple to access, almost too simple.
Sigmund Freud famously identified three revolutions for humanity – revolutions that changed our self-understanding. First there was the Copernican revolution, when, as a result of astronomical observations, humanity came to realise that the Earth was not the centre of what we now know as the Solar System. Then there was the Darwinian revolution, when we discovered that we were descended from other animals and not radically different from them in many respects. Lastly came the revolution in our understanding of the mind triggered by Freud and his followers: the discovery of unconscious motivation, and the disturbing realisation that our minds are not transparent to us. Philosopher Luciano Floridi has claimed that we are now at the beginning of a fourth revolution, one brought about by the expansion of the infosphere – the environment of information and communication that we inhabit every day almost without realising it. This revolution is transforming most aspects of our lives, perhaps most dramatically how we communicate.
Those of us who weren’t ‘born digital’ are continually astounded and occasionally overwhelmed by what we’ve seen of this revolution so far. We spend our days differently from our parents’ generation, far more interconnected wherever we are (I’m writing this on a laptop in a café in Oxford, and will send it to the magazine by email), far better informed, and have far more access to information and to people. As we are drawn further into this Digital Age, a time as exciting and disturbing as the Enlightenment, it is easy to take for granted how far we have come.
In the fifth century BCE a strange and brilliant man wandered about the marketplace in Athens accosting people who thought they knew what they were talking about. Socrates’ awkward questions were designed to show those around him how little they knew. He was sceptical about the relatively new technology of his day: the written word. Writing looked intelligent, but gave the same answer whatever question you asked of it, he argued. The spoken word allowed irony and adaptation to audience; the written word, in contrast, was relatively inflexible. Consequently, unlike most great thinkers, he chose not to write anything down. His face-to-face real time interactions with Athenians were his philosophy and his voice was the medium he used.
We only know about Socrates because Plato and several others wrote dialogues based on Socrates’ conversations. The written word captured some aspects of these occasions, but only some. To that extent Socrates was right. How wonderful it would have been if Plato had been able to capture Socrates’ voice on tape, or better still, videoed him, but even these traces would be nothing compared with the chance to discuss ideas with him, because, like the written word, they would give the same responses no matter who consulted them. Instead of recordings of Socrates, though, we have to rely on literary interpretations and sculptures made after his death. Plato’s Socratic dialogues survived in handwritten form long enough to be copied many times by the scribes. The invention of the printing press automated a laborious craft and led to an explosion in the number of copies of books in circulation. But that development, significant as it was, has been superseded by the creation of a digital infosphere that hardly anyone foresaw.
One common effect of this multiplication of information is a form of digital helplessness brought on by the scale of information available on any topic. Fortunately a new species has evolved to help ideas-seekers in their quest for intellectual stimulation: the content curator. A good content curator is someone who has knowledge of an area, and a particular angle on it. He or she undertakes to sift content, and only pass on the links that are worth visiting. The best content curators are the guardian angels of the Internet: through websites, weblogs, and social media they steer us away from time-wasting irrelevance, and towards sites that are inspirational, informative, and enlightening.
Another development made possible by the infosphere is the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course). MOOCs emerged a few years ago, stirring universities from their slumber. Free online courses with hundreds of thousands of students sprung up almost overnight, using videos, podcasts, computer conferences and websites to provide educational materials. These are continuing to evolve, but completion rates have so far been disappointing, and in many cases, although interesting, they remind participants how much they value a real time face-to-face interaction – the most expensive and oldest model of education, but still in many respects the best. Where some evangelists saw the potential of MOOCs to replace conventional university education, many now see them as a complement to traditional teaching, better suited to some content than others. Nevertheless they have amplified the reputation and reach of the best instructors: the philosopher Michael Sandel, for example, a superb communicator who uses Socratic dialogue with audience members, has been described as a ‘rock star’ of philosophy because of his ability to draw crowds of thousands when he speaks in public. Much of this reputation comes from his highly successful Justice MOOC, based on a face-to-face course at Harvard, which in turn leads to sales of hundreds of thousands of copies of his books.
Even before these MOOCs emerged, the philosopher Hubert Dreyfus argued persuasively that while distance learning is effective for some kinds of learning, to move beyond the stage of being a competent performer in an area of knowledge requires embodied learning. This is certainly true in the area of philosophy. Drefyus argued that we best learn to make intuitive judgements of the kind that proficient and expert individuals demonstrate when we are in the presence of people who can model this type of thinking, ideally in the room with them. True, some two-way video interactions using webcams can get close to this experience, but these are comparatively rare in the MOOC world, and still lack the immediacy and risk of a conventional tutorial or seminar.
For most of us, the most far-reaching impact of the digital revolution is the democratisation of ideas. It’s now possible to explore and discuss almost any topic without having a library ticket or being enrolled in a university. It is a golden age for autodidacts. If you want to read Plato’s dialogues, hear lectures and interviews about Socrates, watch a video reconstructing Plato’s famous thought experiment of the cave, or see photographs and videos of places in Athens associated with these philosophers, then all that is possible at the click of a mouse or trackpad. Yet Socrates was right that there is something special about being in dialogue face-to-face with someone who has interesting things to say. With all of the digital wizardry unleashed in the last few decades, there is still no better and more stimulating way of engaging with ideas than having a real conversation.