How we might better empower individuals to find and create answers for themselves—and for each other.

For most of human history, knowledge was comparatively scarce. It was limited to the literate and traveled slowly from place to place.

Universities grew up a millennium ago as communities of scholars clustered around the latest information technology: rare, expensive, hand-copied books. For example, the first Western university, the University of Bologna, was founded in 1088 by people who wanted to study the Byzantine-era Justinian legal code.

Today, information is an abundant commodity traveling around the world at lightning speed. (For example, the full translation of the code of Justinian is available for free here.) Many of us spend increasingly large amounts of our time trying to stanch or at least organize the rush of information. But it might also be useful to think about how this abundance of information can work to transform learning—the collective production of knowledge, and by extension, new solutions to the world’s most pressing problems.

The internet changes the possibilities for how each of us can learn.

Darlene Liebman, the founder of Howcast, an instructional video company, says that “how to” is consistently one of the most searched phrases on Google. In April 2009, a 28-year-old British naval engineer delivered his son at home using YouTube videos as an ad hoc birth coach. He got the idea because he had already used YouTube to learn to play guitar and solve a Rubik’s Cube.

Learning networks in previous decades were insular groups formed around academic journals, learned societies, and professional conferences. Today, galaxies of students, academics, professionals, and amateurs are using blogs, wikis, presentation tools like Slideshare, YouTube videos, and e-mail lists to collaborate, pursue, and present knowledge in any discipline. All are supported by, yet independent of, universities, other cultural and government institutions, and private companies, not to mention hours of volunteered time by enthusiasts.

Ideas travel faster over informal, digitally connected networks than when they are siloed inside academic departments. Such networks are especially useful in emerging, cross-disciplinary frontiers of research, where there are no established departments, and equally in extremely small, focused areas of research where practitioners until now may have been scattered and isolated.

Just now I picked an exotic-sounding topic out of thin air—Tuvan throat singing, which Wikipedia calls “a variant of overtone singing practiced by the Tuva people of southern Siberia.” In hardly more time than it takes me to type the words, I find YouTube videos, personal blogs, ethnomusicology papers on Google Scholar. A few more keystrokes and I’ve opened up a dialogue by sending an e-mail to Ted Levin at Dartmouth, who, I find, The Washington Post called the world’s foremost expert on the subject.

In my e-mail, I ask him how often he responds to queries—like mine--that he receives out of the blue. Just hours later, Levin responded:

"Yes, a lot of people e-mail me with questions about Tuvan throat singing, and yes, I respond to each and every inquiry. But I don’t respond equally. The depth of the response is commensurate with the thoughtfulness of the inquiry. . . Since I’m committed to this kind of knowledge transmission, I believe it’s my duty to share what I know with any serious seeker or researcher who comes along, whatever the portal by which he or she reaches me."

Is this kind of traipsing and trolling around really learning? Is it valuable? Can it change the course of people’s lives and lead to new discoveries the way we have traditionally trusted universities to do?

In recent years, digital philosophers have become fascinated by the potential of a humanized use of technology to liberate people from the limitations of bureaucratic institutions that have defined modern life for more than a century. Books like David Weinberger’s Everything is Miscellaneous, Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks, and Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing
Without Organizations
suggest that the unique architecture of the internet allows us to navigate ideas and accomplish tasks collectively without the restrictions of disciplines or hierarchies.

Opening up learning outside of existing institutions may be a matter of life or death. The whole project of formal education has been based on the idea of society transmitting its ideas, values, and technologies from one generation to the next, and from dominant civilizations and cultures to “backward” or “primitive” ones. In the modern era, we added the task of making and incorporating new discoveries from the world of science into the curriculum year after year. As our society has gotten more complex, we developed bigger and bigger institutions to teach more and more people more and more things.

Well, now the world is changing too fast, and the need growing too much, for institutions to keep up. Scientists say we have less than ten years to reinvent how we use energy, how we get around, and how we make things if we don’t want our civilization to collapse from the effects of global warming. And to do that, we as a species also have to find better ways of communicating, making decisions, and understanding and weighing each others’ needs.

No one person knows how to do this; it requires a new synthesis of the wisdom of the ancients and cutting-edge discoveries. Our best hope is to get better at empowering individuals to find and create answers for themselves and for each other.

Anya Kamenetz is a staff writer for Fast Company and author of "Generation Debt." Her new book, "DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education" is available now.

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