In Search Of A Liberal Arts Education For The Modern Era
At this summer’s Exosphere Academy we had a wonderful participant by the name of Lucas. Initially a member of the Philosophy Stream, he decided to switch to Biohacking after learning about the cool stuff that its members planned to work on. So at the end of the orientation week he took his bag, moved into “the Biohouse”, and began to learn “how to science the shit out of nature.”
One of the very first lessons saw him attempt to take meticulous notes on flora in the area surrounding the Campus. Unsatisfied with his skill in sketching a particular flower, he got frustrated with the laborious nature of this process and asked our Biohacking Fellow Gabriel Licina why they had to do this. “Can’t we simply take a picture and be done with it?”
The conversation that followed led him and the other members of his Stream to a number of profound insights about what it means to think and work scientifically. More than that, it revealed how much we humans struggle with perceiving the world around us accurately, building robust understanding out of it, how difficult we find it to communicate all of this to others, and how fragile this human enterprise we call “science” turns out at times.
“Why not take a picture?” 📸
Yes, why not take a picture of the flower instead of (badly) sketching it? After all, the fidelity of a photo dwarfs that of a sketch by several orders of magnitude and you can always print it out and stick it in your notebook. What do we gain by spending a lot of time for so little in return?
Well, Lucas, you gain a lot, but you won’t find it in your notebook. Instead, you’ll find it between your ears, in your fingertips, and your eyes. See, we can draw a meaningful distinction between seeing and remembering a thing. When you “lay eyes” upon that flower, the rays bouncing off of the thing hit your eyes and your brain forms an impression: a memory. But the story doesn’t end there, because what your brain does with that memory can radically change it.
Every time you recall a memory, your brain alters that memory before putting it back. So seeing something once gives your brain very little to work with and makes errors in your perception that much more likely, and therefore consequential.
“But isn’t that the perfect argument against sketching and for photo taking?”
No, because the point of recording an impression of it lies not only in having that impression, sketch, or photo. Instead, it lies in practicing a number of skills, the mastery of which makes you a competent scientist and more effective human being:
- practicing your ability to accurately perceive an object and commit it to memory,
- practicing your ability to build your own model with increasing fidelity and work with it, and
- practicing your ability to communicate your experience of that object via your model so that others can work with your experience as though they had lived it themselves.
In effect, we ask our students to practice the entire process of absorbing information (perception), processing that information (modeling), and then producing effective outputs (speaking). For the greater part of two millennia, this explicit process formed the framework of all education in the Western world. They called it the Trivium and taught these three parts as Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric.
Once an individual had “completed” his study of the Trivium, they moved on to the Quadrivium, consisting of:
– Arithmetic (number),
– Geometry (number in space),
– Music (number in time), and
– Astronomy (number in time and space).
Together, these sets of skills formed the “liberal arts”, a coin termed by none other than Aristotle. In contradistinction to the so-called “servile arts”, the liberal arts — as the term suggests — gave you all the necessary tools to earn an independent income and join the free citizenry, while the servile arts consisted of crafts that you carried out under a master for basic amenities. Taken together, the Trivium and the Quadrivium formed a lens for making best use of our five senses and conduct a life in defiance of circumstance.
Since Aristotle, the interconnected domains of human activity in technology, philosophy, culture, economy, and society have undergone certain changes — some minor, and some of a radical significance.
The question basically asks itself: what do the modern liberal arts consist of? Shouldn’t we update them to reflect those changes?
I submit that we find a clue in those dynamics so ingrained in our culture that pointing them out takes no special intelligence. I talk, of course, of the capitalist logic. Neither I nor Exosphere deny the role that the market has played in creating prosperity — heck, we’ve run entrepreneurship bootcamps and helped our students create their own businesses. But it increasingly becomes clear that in the modern age freedom means something slightly different.
“Today, one doesn’t gain independence from circumstance by leaving servitude and joining the market, but by learning how to leave the market at will and survive, nay! thrive outside it.”
~ Moritz Bierling, Director of Research at Exosphere
How to live happily in a world you don’t understand
We have heard a great number of reasons that participants have for coming to Exosphere. Some struggle more with self-efficacy, others would like to make a quantum leap in understanding the world, and most of the others have both of these kind of handled but want to make sure they haven’t missed something important, so they search out new people. All of this boils down to a genuine desire to “live happily in a world we don’t understand”, as Taleb puts it.
At the Academy we teach a specific set of skills, regardless of the domain a student chooses to earn a living in, because they make for valuable tools no matter what you do. Incidentally, they also constitute a solution to particular versions of modernity’s unique challenge:
transitioning all of our social systems from functioning only AT human scale to functioning BEYOND human scale.
I have already written extensively about this phenomenon in my Primer on Alternate Reality Design. Here’s the gist of it: thanks to the equalizing power of guns and their superior numbers, the common people overthrew the aristocracy and pretended that everybody’s individual contributions to society have equal value. Blinded by this falsehood and their own moral righteousness, and aided by mass media and mass transportation, they proceeded to spend down several millennia worth of economic, informational, normative, and many other forms of capital to pay for extraordinary levels of consumption.
Which leads me — and us — to the present situation.
Wouldn’t you agree that we currently struggle, on an individual and societal level, with problems that go beyond the abilities of an individual person to solve, or even fully comprehend? Global financial crises, growing inequality, crises in science, economic disruptions, failing social systems, corrupt political systems, environmental collapse — the list goes on. Clearly things need to change, and change soon.
Now, one way we approach this problem is by helping our participants at the Academy practice three specific skills:
- Building and maintaining mutually beneficial relationships with people that think, work, and live entirely unlike you,
- seriously committing yourself to a lifelong process of learning, and
- doing the accounting, both literally and metaphorically through active note taking, thinking, and decision making.
(If any of this confuses you, watch this speech on YouTube or below👇
by Exosphere founder Skinner Layne)
The Human Story: Survival through Cooperation at increasing Scale
In my role as Director of Research at Exosphere I spend a significant amount of leisure and work time trying to understand complex subjects. So do many of my colleagues. As far as we can tell, we have a growing number of so-hard-that-you-want-to-cry-and-roll-up-in-bed-and-never-get-up-again-or-maybe-just-kill-yourself-why-is-nobody-working-on-this-am-i-really-the-only-one problems in society in dire need of workable solutions.
Many of these problems (malicious AI, environmental collapse, super virus, etc.) require a lot of specialized knowledge, but all of them require people to get their shit together and cooperate. So we’ve decided to start tackling these with the resources we have at our disposal (which are little), the people who see the same problems (which are few), and the way we know how: living a new way, walking our talk, and helping others do the same.
And the three skills I mentioned a moment ago provide those solutions to the three fundamental problems:
- “Building good relationships” solves the problem of cooperation at scale (cohesion),
- “lifelong learning” solves the problem of individual self-sufficiency and income generation at scale (survival), and
- “doing the accounting” solves the problem of rational decision making at scale (calculation).
Of course the tricky part is actually practicing the above on a daily basis and ensuring that others do the same. That’s where our three years of experimentation with philosophies, communication techniques, experience design, and problem solving comes in. We understand that we cannot simply rely solely on the good faith and noble intentions of people. Instead, we need to create opportunities for people with wildly different ends to collaborate on the means of achieving those ends. And that’s a task for institutions. More specifically, a new breed of institutions that combines human and artificial intelligence with technology to do what we already expect from people: adapt.
I propose here personally, and Exosphere as one of those new institutions, that by building those skills and practicing those habits we restore our individual and societal ability to accurately perceive the world, build increasingly useful models of it, communicate our understanding to others, and then work with those “others” to solve problems and create value for each other.
In short: Disturb The Universe.
And yes, Lucas, you can go ahead and take that selfie now… 😅
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