The Art of Being Human as Machines Learn

When Edison industrialized performance art, he made industrial entertainment. He didn’t replace art with entertainment, and he didn’t completely separate them. His kinetograph and kinetoscope did to art what we always want tech to do: Give us access. But his inventions also did to humans what we’re becoming increasingly aware we never want tech to do: Control us.

And now, we’re waiting for what we need tech to do: Give us easier access to self-control. We just need to change some priorities first.

Humans Learning for Industry

The root of the prioritization problem was planted about half a century before Edison industrialized the performance arts. When Carnegie and those guys were just finishing up their industrialization of manufacturing, they needed to make humans work in them. And they also needed to make humans consume an industrial level of manufactured non-essentials. They did this through public education as we know it.

So I went to law school under the impression that I would find happiness by showing to others how smart I was by purchasing lots of things with a paycheck ostensibly representative of my brain capacity. Because school made up fake rewards and I thought they were real. When I finally noticed I felt precisely like a rat rapidly pursuing cheese, I started my delayed self-determination journey.

As adults we either understand or pretend to understand that external incentives, grades and fame and material possessions among them, are at best a distraction from what can actually make us happy in a meaningful sense. But our opportunities to learn about what each of us finds meaningful are increasingly limited in a very incentivized and entertaining culture.

School could help us with that. Instead of sending vulnerable humans to a place that attempts to program our human brains with the decidedly inhuman purpose of creating sameness, we could provide them a safe place and time to pursue the ultimate, most meaningful intrinsic pleasure: Human Purpose.

Humans Learning for Humans

Human purpose itself is diverse. It might be performing an act or a dance. It might be creating a piece of furniture. It might be caring for a living being in any form. It might be inspiring positive change in any form. It might be writing algorithms that help connect humans. It might be any other expression of any personal art any human can conceive.

In a certain sense, human purpose might be the ultimate source of diversity. But more importantly, it might be the ultimate source of unity. We just have to square the circle of what we’re using tech as a tool for.

In 2016 the world felt more divided than ever, and our human brains are highly motivated to avoid pain. So a lot of us have been using tech as a distraction.

And unfortunately that part of our brains is susceptible to external influence too. Even Plato knew humans would fall for fake news, and he wouldn’t be surprised by the current administration’s appeal to fear in its effort to institutionalize lies as ‘alternative facts’.

When we made schools a competition for understanding life in academic terms, we made the Liberal Elite monster. We gave humans who didn’t get good grades something to fear. Some of them retained this fear. And now they won’t look at science, because they’re scared they won’t understand.

For some, we could have cultivated a mindset more capable of academic growth, if we weren’t so busy with curricula. And for others, an academic lens never revealed their human value. But the lens wasn’t optional. And most humans were quicker to give up on finding their value than to retain blind faith that it was there. Giving up on one’s value is painful. And growing numb to the pain is dangerous.

Machines Learning for Humans

Meanwhile, tech is cited as a corollary danger with increasing effectiveness at delivering entertaining distractions.

In human learning, the problem isn’t that tech offers a distraction. It’s that humans want a distraction. It’s that our humans are afraid to learn because they developed in a culture that misrepresented human learning as something for humans to be afraid of: Something that blindly ranked the value of scale, sameness, and efficiency over the individual human.

Arts & Entertainment grew as an industry controlled by concentrated wealth that hoarded power in middlemen and contracts and deals. It was par for the industrial course of concentrating wealth and power in middlemen.

And now that we’re evolving from the industrial model, we can use tech as a tool to turn every human industry into an art and redistribute wealth accordingly.

We’ve seen it begin with innovative disruptions to industries. We’ve seen YouTube and “lifestyle” stars rise along with crowdsourcing, crowdsharing, and crowdfunding. We have new avenues to connect our individual arts into economic value. You don’t have to sign a deal to win a Grammy anymore; you just have to share your art.

Economics has always been about studying a lot more than the logistics of exchanging value. With paradigms more innovative than game theory, we’ve officially reached the point in human history at which we no longer have to funnel our transactions through middlemen with fat pockets any more. We don’t have to concentrate the wealth any more. We can organize the economy around common goals rather than competitive ones.

The often cited silver lining on Trump is our response. Tech is helping us organize more effectively than Plato ever would’ve thought possible. We’re assembling in numbers larger than most would’ve predicted just a presidential term ago.

But until we address systemic problems that preceded Trump, we need to connect the collective more. Even as some Trump support erodes, the gap between camps widen. We need more comprehensive connection before we’ll have a stable society.

For that, we have art. Plato was worried because in his allegory the people couldn’t access the media and didn’t know what it was. But tech changed all that.

Access to information was the original stumbling block for those trying to figure out how to organize society and has been ever since. So it might be a little hard to accept that social media is a viable solution.

And of course, it isn’t yet. It’s a tool. So it only works as a viable solution if we know how to use it.

And to learn how to use social media as Art rather than Entertainment, to develop our human purpose rather than to distract us, we need education to stop interfering in the Art of human learning.

Academia is inherently divisive. Art is inherently connective. Expression connects us most fundamentally with ourselves and invites understanding without prejudice. Artists want you to take your own Truth from their Truth.

Tech has equipped us with increasingly compelling, visual, real-time story-sharing abilities.

We use tech to share what we individually connect with, and we make trends with what collectively resonates. All the viral entertainment could be art. Art could be simultaneously more local and global. Art could be more favored than academia.

(And yes, the humor in cat memes is an art — it connects our collective inherent distrust of a species that almost a third of us invite into our homes as pets — it’s brilliant, so deal.)

We need art’s holistic remedy as a society. From within this society, using tech as a tool to support human diversity might not sound like a sufficient solution to our complex problems. But Elon Musk’s first principles thinking doesn’t just apply to physics.

Unfortunately, as much as Elon Musk might understand that arts creation is more urgent than job creation, I doubt any of us should expect him to succeed in his advisory position at enlightening the new president on that level. I’d be surprised if he even tried. He probably has some more personally pressing priorities. But then, that colony on Mars might not look so healthy if our human priorities aren’t in order when we get there.

Honestly, I’m not sure what I’d do if I were that guy.

But if I were the guy that took the elite exclusivity of Harvard education itself and maybe unintentionally used tech to reinvent the concept of media as a social tool, I’d go all in and use tech to reinvent the concept of education to shed elite exclusivity.

Of course, the metacognitive key for this guy would be to resist the temptation to have robots tell students what to learn. But if we eliminate compulsory curricula of any kind, students would have plenty of time to inform their social profiles with interests and goals related to their constantly evolving personal art, you know, if the algorithms promoted interesting and relevant suggestions for new goals and collaborations.

And just imagine if you gave those free creatures (I don’t know if we’d still call them “students” at this point) access to constantly evolving resources on a campus, with metacognitively developed adults who appreciate the value of informing the social network with their own interests and goals, and whose personal arts are well-matched to financially sustain such a learning commons-economic incubator.