Under Microscope

It's another world under the microscope.

Old School Learning: Reading

I think it has already been established in many people’s minds that we no longer write with a pen or pencil. Typing is the new writing method, and nobody is challenging this transition anymore. The move from using a pen to typing does not change anything fundamental about the act of writing. Ultimately, what we achieve is to record what is in our mind for other people and maybe even ourselves to read at a later time. Typing is, in many ways, superior to handwriting. In a digital format, you can edit whatever you typed as many times as needed. The resulting text is always legible and if there is any issue about the legibility of the text, it can be resolved by increasing the size or changing the typeface. These are certainly great advantages over the practice of handwriting. I love writing manuscripts, meaning handwritten texts. There is something intimate about the unique nature of handwriting. Nevertheless, I do not mourn the fact that handwriting is no longer the dominant form of writing text. I am perfectly happy with the new role of handwriting, which is in a way nostalgic.
A similar change is happening in the way we learn. This is regarding the act of reading. In the past, if someone wanted to learn about something specific and a tutor was not immediately available, they had to read. Some illustrations were also available in some subjects, but these were only there to support the written text. Today, we are seeing a shift from reading to watching. Nowadays videos are almost exclusively how people learn. Unfortunately, this shift may not be as innocent as the shift from handwriting to typing. I believe some other changes are also happening as we are switching from reading to watching and these changes are destructive in nature.
Firstly, the video format has a much lower information density. A documentary can last over two hours and the transcript of the documentary can be less than twenty pages. Unlike their older counterparts, recent documentaries have a much lower density of narration as well. Some sections without narration can be as long as ten minutes. At this point, these videos are more movies than documentaries. Many young people now watch these documentaries and believe that they learned a great deal about the subject. Their standards for learning are lowered by the changing trends.
While documentaries remain the best form of video for learning, the video world is full of other formats that claim to educate and are even worse than recent documentaries. Haphazardly created internet videos are the norm for learning about a subject. Since these videos are created in such a wide range of subjects, it is difficult to judge their content quality. However, the lack of gramer and the ample existence of simple mistakes are evidence for the lack of effort, time, and refence. I am an engineer, and I regularly run into “educational” videos that concern my area of expertise. Unfortunately, I have to admit that these videos are almost entirely incorrect where they are not trivial. Obviously, when we refer to a resource for information our hope is that everything that we already know is in agreement with it and everything that we just learned is correct. Unfortunately, most of the videos online are correct in areas that are common knowledge, which creates the illusion of expertise, and they are incorrect in everything else, which misinforms the audience.
In this age of information, we are hungry for more knowledge, which in itself is a positive development. However, what we learn and where we learn it matters a great deal. Unfortunately, the democratization of information was not a positive development. Information, knowledge, and expertise are the only areas where a democratic approach makes no sense. Expertise is elitist and that is all right. Nobody complains that they do not get to make their decisions and share their ideas about a surgery that takes place in a hospital. Everybody who is not a doctor accepts that this subject is beyond their understanding and their input would be less than useless. However, in some other but similar areas people started to get more and more confident about their irrelevant and baseless ideas. I believe the main driver behind this dangerous change is the shift from text to video formats in learning. In the past, if you wanted to talk about, say, history and make some controversial statements, you needed to read archives, documents, and books about the subject. This did not mean that you needed to be indoctrinated on the subject like the new kind of pseudo-intellectuals claim. This meant that you needed to actually learn from sources with reliable references. I want to stress this again. I am not only referring to the quality or reliability of the information. A pseudo-intellectual could know as little as ten pages of information about a subject and this does not seem to stop them from starting a podcast and establishing a community of uninformed idiots. The scariest part of this new reality is that because their standards of information are entirely skewed, they are not even aware that their ideas are baseless and not even comparable to the ideas of a properly trained expert. And again, I believe the main driver behind this is the fact that videos create the illusion of intellect. Videos are far more approachable than books. Books are just as accessible but unfortunately, not as approachable. To watch a video all you need to do is to sit and watch. We like to see and hear. Reading, on the other hand, is difficult work, which might be the reason behind its declining popularity.
Let us hope that people at some point will realize that being an expert on a subject requires far more knowledge and far more effort than just watching a few superficial videos. However, the way the world is changing, I would not bet on a positive development in this regard.