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Collective Learning Is Our Superpower. Social Media Hits It Like Kryptonite.

Feb 21, 2024 | Children, Education, Future, Michigan, Social Media | 0 comments

When I was a kid, I devoured stories in my Superman comics. Fly through the air, see with X-ray vision, use super strength to battle a bad guy — what boy wouldn’t fantasize about that? In the most gripping stories when someone exposed Superman to kryptonite, though, his superpowers disappeared. He would often have a near-death experience.

Recently, I discovered all of us have a superpower. It is called collective learning. I learned this idea from a video course on Wondrium called “Big History” by David Christian. Christian’s idea of big history is to put human history is context by starting with the beginning of the Universe 14 billion years ago. He traces history through the birth of stars and planetary systems, to the beginnings of life on Earth, and finally to us.

When he reaches the birth of the human species, he raises a key question: How did humans learn to dominate the other organisms on Earth? His answer is that we developed the ability to use collective learning.

Individual animals can learn through observation. A species can also develop “hard-wired” instincts through evolution. Only humans, though, can pass on what they learn through language. Collectively, we can become smarter with each generation. This process of cumulative learning works much faster than waiting for evolution to embed new instincts in a species.

Lately, I wondered if our superpower has found its kryptonite in social media. Will social media make each generation in Michigan stupider than the last? The more it gets us hooked on the weird, the whacky, the sensational, and the conspiracies, the more advertising they sell. The more we — and our kids — mistake these fringy posts for reality, the stupider we get. Collective learning works in reverse.

Louis Rosenberg, a tech entrepreneur and author, wrote an article about how to fix this. It is worth a read. He says,

“The biggest problem with social media is not the content itself but the machinery of targeted distribution, as it damages our ability to build accurate mental models of our own society. And without good models, we can’t intelligently navigate our future.” We get stupider.

Rosenberg thinks we can fix this with transparency about how social media companies are targeting us. If you got a message with a post that the social media company only sent it to 2% of their users, you would know you are not in the mainstream. If a post saying Neal Armstrong’s moon landing was faked only went to 0.0003% of users? You would know you were on the lunatic fringe. Interesting idea. It might help our kids make better mental models of the world.

Let’s hope we find answers soon so our kids have accurate mental models of their world when they become adults in the 2040s. If have distorted mental models and can’t navigate reality, bad things will happen.

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