Collective learning is a special kind of knowledge – the culturally accumulated knowledge that is considered significant enough to learn and pass on to future generations: it is a form of universal knowledge.
Historically, collective learning began as specialist knowledge within small local communities. Over time, the knowledge considered of general – rather than local – interest progressively coalesced into a system of international information that is now available to anyone with access to the internet.
Historically, as culture has played an increasingly significant role in human lives so the rate of collective learning and its impact has also rapidly increased, developments building synergistically on those of the past. This is most apparent in the intellectual and technological developments that have occurred in the current phase of informatia.
The proliferation of academic disciplines that occurred in the 19th century, after WWII turned into a flood. Whole new areas of study were awakened by flagship publications: the environmental movement and environmental studies, especially ecology, with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962); media studies with Marshall ‘The Medium is the Message’ McLuhan’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964).
A plethora of new subjects arose in the field of microbiology, heralded by James Watson’s The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA (1968). Linguistics and cognitive science were opened up by the publications of Noam Chomsky in the 1960s and ‘70s. Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock (1970) outlined the characteristics of accelerated social change as characterized by transience and the commodification of many aspects of life: the disposability of mass-produced goods; increased renting rather than ownership; pervasiveness of advertising; more frequent changes in the workplace with new jobs, trades, professions, and places of work and their rate of turnover; relationships becoming more local, brief, and superficial.
Garden history, which entered academia in the 1980s, had a line drawn under it with publications like The Oxford Companion to Gardens (1986) locally expanded with The Oxford Companion to Australian Gardens (2002) and then, several decades later, the six-volume A Cultural History of Gardens (2013).
World history, often studied from the narrow and inward-looking perception of the classical to recent history of the West, was extended in both its modes of perception and time frames to eventually include at one extreme, in the 1980s, a Big History account of the place of humanity in the overall scheme of things.
The accumulation of information proceeds exponentially because new knowledge has a synergistic or stimulating effect on existing knowledge so that there is an acceleration in knowledge accretion. This contributes to a general sense of life speeding up, which is combined with the literal speeding of transport and communication systems.
As we move out of the era of the written word and into a new era of digital (electronic) information it is this gathering pace of social change that is a major characteristic of the new long-term historical phase of Informatia.
Collective learning is a special kind of knowledge. Knowledge is a semantically rich word with many connotations. There is knowledge as the awareness of facts – knowing ‘that’ or something as propositional knowledge. There is knowing ‘how’ (competence knowledge). And there is the knowledge of ‘experience’ (experiential knowledge).
Because ‘knowledge’ is a word with such a diversity of connotations (semantic breadth) it is worthwhile distinguishing that part of propositional knowledge considered of such significance that it is studied and systematization within dedicated academic disciplines. This is the most obvious aspect of ‘collective learning’.
Cultural information exists as memes. Memes may be as simple as transmitted practical facts, or as complicated as innately comprehended body language, and mental tools like language and mathematics. Historically the rate of accumulation of collective knowledge has accelerated exponentially through time facilitated, in part, by increasingly sophisticated technology – the transition of language from spoken, to written, printed, and electronic forms.
Through the 19th century academic disciplines proliferated, and collective learning accelerated. Specialization created experts within narrow fields as the number of broadly educated people became fewer. Today, anyone with access to the internet can not only learn from the world’s smartest specialists, but also draw on carefully synthesized summaries of entire branches of knowledge. The internet has made it possible, once again, for one person to possess an overview of the entire field of human knowledge.
Much of the content on this web site examines historical information and now is the time to quickly outline the way this historical information has been passed down the generations – the increasing complexity of media that humans have used to convey their messages.
Though the facts of collective learning may not build on past knowledge in a simple additive way like the bricks of a building, there is nevertheless a strong sense in which bodies of knowledge, especially those of science
As technology & science
Collective learning is shared because it is considered to have practical or symbolic value at different social scales. The collective learning that is of universal (global) significance – in the sense that it provides reliable information that can be used in predicting and managing daily affairs. As a tool to aid daily existence it serves as technology and when it provides universally reliable predictive information it is science.
New collective learning
The most effective forms of collective learning are those subject to the critical scrutiny of academic disciplines. Making a contribution to an academic discipline entails undertaking research that establishes new memes or a novel synthesis of existing memes.
The efficiency of collective learning has been directly related to the efficiency of communication as it has shifted from the spoken, to written, to printed, and electronic forms, while also following, in part, a path of universalization as knowledge of consequence to all has been accumulated within academic disciplines whose principles of universality are now referred to as science.
The most potent aspect of collective learning is its exponential acceleration as improvements in individual parts of functional systems feed back and accelerate the development of the whole. Consider the influence of the use of animal muscle, the wheel, and the plough on the development of agriculture.
Material & symbolic culture
Is collective learning progressive?
The accumulation of collective learning has the potential to improve human existence in many ways. Agriculture as knowledge about plant and animal domestication opened up the possibility for the division of labour, population increase, and the social benefits of scale. But without due diligence the
First published on the internet – 1 March 2019
. . . substantive revision 8 November 2022