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January 11th, 2021
There is all sorts of stuff flying around right in front of our eyes that we are entirely blind to. In the literal sense we can only see a pretty small portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, and the sliver of it that we see we call - appropriately - the visual spectrum. It’s only with the advent of technologies that can pick up other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum that we can be sure those frequencies outside of what’s seen even exist. For a moment just imagine if everything outside of the visible spectrum could be seen. If infrared and ultraviolet were all merged upon the canvas of the rainbow we see. And beyond that, the Gamma rays of distant stars visible like a different light, and even the radio waves bouncing against the atmosphere, pulsing from wifi routers. Imagine if even beyond the electromagnetic spectrum we could the unceasing torrent sea of Neutrinos that bombard every square centimetre of space we fathom.
Life would certainly look a bit different.
What we understand is a sad function of information prominence and complexity. Compare two instances: seeing a baseball that’s flying toward your face, and the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.
The baseball is very obvious once noticed, and we generally react very well to this sort of problem. But what about that carbon? Can you even see it? Aside from the quick and deceptively ephemeral blast of black cloud that pours from exhaust pipes, we just can’t see the stuff. The prominence of the information regarding it’s concentration in the atmosphere is nill compared to the notification flash from your phone, the ding, or that baseball getting larger at an alarming rate. We have to rely on technology and a decently complex understanding of chemistry in order to gain a sensible picture about what’s going on with the invisible problem up in the sky. Imagine for a moment if we could actually see that carbon, if the clear blue sky was darker because of it. Needless to say we probably would have grown alarmed about such a change many decades ago, and our alarm would have rose in pitch like the flight or flight response that initiates at the sight of a baseball on course for an unwholesome kiss.
This issue of information prominence extends even to something like learning. Undertaking any course of study with any reasonable complexity or obscurity is an exercise against information prominence. It’s often the unnatural and difficult task of avoiding the obvious distraction that tempts a certain kind of fun information, like “what happens next on that show?” in favor of a piece of information that is far less obvious and often difficult to find, like “what does this obscure coding error that turns up no results in Google mean?”
It’s worth wondering what the industry of education could learn from the industry of entertainment. Unfortunately, the efficacy of one is well tied to incentives, whereas the other is not. Entertainment is nearly always in a state of being highly tuned to the current culture - it has to be, otherwise it ceases to be interesting and fails to make money. Education on the other hand has some incentives but they are not nearly as clear cut nor prominent. The incentive for a teenager to pay attention to the revelations of Euclid are, well, piss poor. Grades don’t end up having ironclad consequences for how life is going to turn out. But even paying a kid for good grades fails to meet the point. We don’t pay viewers to watch the movies. It’s the other way around. Imagine what school would have to be like for a teenager to be willing to pay out of their often meagre stash of cash in order to go. This would require school to be more captivating and fun than socializing, movies, music, drugs, and all other variety of shenanigans that populate those younger years. Simply put, education has some crushing competition. But it still begs to wonder. There are loads of people, and kids who become fascinated by a topic and dive deep, retrieving all manner of information and revelation that is anything but obvious. Do such people just get lucky with the right mindset at the right time being exposed to just the right variety and amount of material on the subject?
It’s fun to wonder if the future of AI might not be able to read individual psychologies with this exceptionally high degree of sensitivity and tailor the speed, direction and process of an educational program in such a way that it gives rise to a fascination that supersedes all the other superficial nonsense we waste time with.
It’s hard to think the issue of education isn’t simply a matter of the correct information at the right time. Indeed, this is exactly what much entertainment boils down to. Be it a video game, or an episodic show. All of them are telling highly crafted stories which are tailored to pull at our attention and nurture that connection. It’s not just a matter of making information prominent, but toggling the availability. If it was just a matter of information than we’d all be just as satisfied with the wikipedia plot synopsis of acclaimed shows and movies. It’s not the information of the story, but the way the information is revealed. When it comes to education, the only thought that’s given to the way information is revealed is merely order: algebra is required to learn calculus, certainly, but mere order again fails to tap the nuance that is constantly honed in the world of entertainment. The best teachers don’t just know the information, they entertain with it.
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