Part 4: The World in Equilibrium
We become what we behold. We shape our tools, and thereafter, our tools shape us.
— Marshall McLuhan
We shaped the internet - an always-on network in the palm of our hands - and the internet has undeniably shaped us. The results aren't good.
Let's quickly recap what we discussed in Parts 1-3.
We're not happy. We thought that we could use the internet to build community, but it's harming us more than it's helping. But while it isn't a good replacement for face-to-face interaction, the internet does make it incredibly easy to get things done quickly and with minimal effort, freeing up time to spend together.
An early response to this issue is a rise of IRL Member Communities. These clubs, mainly organized around identity and interest, offer members a sense of belonging, creativity, community, and transformation. And they are just the beginning.
Macro trends - The Death of Retail, The Experience Economy, and Work's New Job - have set the conditions for an explosion in IRL Member Communities. Newly vacant retail space is looking for a new purpose, consumers are exhibiting a willingness to pay for experiences and community, and we're starting to separate work from the rest of our lives.
Now it's time for the fun part: imagining what the world will look like when we find a balance between the things we do online and the things we do offline.
The Online-Offline Equilibrium
By enabling one-click shopping, lightning-fast information retrieval, and work from home, the internet frees up time and resources that we can spend to make ourselves happier. The question is: what do we do with all of that extra time and capacity?
There are two bad options. Let's not do these:
Parkinson’s Law states that work expands to fill the time available for its completion. According to Parkinson's Law, all that time we get back, we will reinvest into overcomplication and procrastination. We will do less in the same amount of time and be no better off for it.
Or, as Wall-E predicts, we will spend our extra time growing fat and lazy while we live in a virtual reality and have our every whim attended to by the machines.
People need meaning. We need to feel that others rely on us, that we are making a positive impact, and that we're here for a reason.
So the option that I'm hopeful for is a third option, the online-offline equilibrium:
By combining what the internet does best with what we do best IRL, we will build comprehensive solutions to opportunities that have only been half-solved to date.
We will do more and more basic work online - buying goods, finding information - and then we'll sign off and head to offline spaces where we can spend time with each other, strengthening our communal bonds, improving ourselves, and just having fun.
Combined with the trends discussed in Part 3, this will translate into a massive rise in IRL Member Communities in which we pursue our passions, grow, slow down, make new friends, and re-connect with old ones.
When every town doesn't need retail space that sells every thing, we can repurpose that vacant space into clubhouses, community centers, spiritual hubs, wellness centers, classrooms, human-centered retail concepts, and fitness experiences that make us feel connected to a larger whole.
The implications of this shift will impact how we shop, how we gather, how we work, how we workout, how we live, how we learn, and how we meet each other.
I joined to a Book Club recently, and in our last meeting, we discussed the importance of serendipity in Amor Towles' Rules of Civility. Chance encounters, and how you act upon them, can shape your entire future. But the book was set in the late 1930's, and so the conversation turned to whether or not the same things happen today. Is it serendipity if you find your future husband on Tinder? Or if you see that your mentor is connected to your dream future employer on LinkedIn and ask for an introduction? While it's easier than ever to connect with people, it doesn't feel better than ever.
But this current moment offers us a full digital and physical toolkit the likes of which we've never had access to.
Before, we had bars. Then, we had Tinder. What happens if you combine the best of both of those? What if you could find a group of 100 people in a city who are the best matches for each other, put them in the same space IRL, and allow for serendipity and face-to-face interaction to do the rest? Like church speed dating with a group of high-likelihood matches. I'm admittedly an outsider here (I missed Tinder by about six months), but that kind of solution feels like it would bring some of the magic back while also increasing the chances that you find the right match.
You can play out the same thought experiments for almost anything that we do online - from Neighborhood Goods reimagining how we shop our favorite DTC products, IRL, to Book Clubs making a comeback fueled by internet recommendations and in-person meetups.
To me, the most fascinating opportunity is in fixing the way we learn.
If you remember going to the library and needing to use the Dewey Decimal System to figure out where the book you want to find might be, here's a crazy thing to contemplate: someone who is reasonably good at at using the internet who has a healthy motivation and work ethic can teach him or herself anything.
From counting to quantum physics, ABCs to DFW, there's a slew of articles, podcasts, YouTube videos, and even full courses, online, for free on the subject. The graphic below shows just some of the largest companies that provide educational content at no or little charge.
But MOOCs and other forms of online learning haven't led to the seismic shifts in education that some predicted. In fact, in The MOOC Pivot, MIT researchers Justin Reich and José Ruipérez-Valiente found that only 3.13% of people who enrolled in an EdX course actually completed the course. And the Brookings Institute found that students who would have gotten a B- in an in-person course get a C if they take the same course online. (For a more in-depth look into the shortcomings of online education, check out a recent piece that I wrote, Why There Isn't a Dominant Aggregator in Online Education.)
I think that online education suffers from the same challenges we have seen throughout this series. Namely, for most of us, learning requires the engagement, accountability, and connection that comes from IRL interaction.
People predicted that online education could fully replace in-person education, but it turns out that thus far, online education has been a useful supplement instead of a new paradigm. Sound familiar? It's the Gartner Hype Cycle again.
Disillusioned by MOOCs, students are sticking to what they know: college. And as a result, Americans have a combined $1.5 trillion in student loans outstanding, up from under $500 billion in 2006. The crisis has gotten so severe that Presidential candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are making the cancelation of all student loan debt key planks in their platforms in a grownup version of the old "free ice cream for everyone" promise made by countless Student Body Presidential Hopefuls.
Debt forgiveness won’t solve the underlying issues. The challenge is that we have been taking an either/or approach to education: either we can learn online, or we need to go to college. Granted, schools have experimented with using technology, but success has been limited by trying to squeeze technology into existing ways of doing things.
I think that the solution lies in reimagining learning from the ground up and combining the best of both worlds, letting online do what it does best and doing offline what IRL does best.
To be sure, online education will continue to improve. Improvement is why technologies come out of the Trough of Disillusionment and into the Slope of Enlightenment; true believers keep working on fixing the problem through the Trough and come out the other side with an improved product. I'm particularly fascinated by what Andy Matuschak and Michael Nielsen are working on, especially their plan to create mnemonic videos. And that improvement is a great thing for the hybrid solution!
Meanwhile, there is a huge opportunity to leverage the unprecedented wealth of content available at our fingertips and the tried-and-true benefits of learning together, in-person.
What if you could listen to a Knowable course on Launching a Startup on your own time, and then meet regularly with a group of people in your city to do group work, apply what you've learned, provide feedback, and build a support network of other people looking to start a company?
What if you could connect with a group of other people interested in learning about Philosophy, and be guided through a curated journey of the best content available - the foundational works downloaded to your Kindle, an MIT Intro to Philosophy Course on EdX, and a series of podcasts that highlight the latest thinking in the field - by a knowledgeable expert who leads weekly IRL discussions via the Socratic method?
What if you could bring together people learning about artificial intelligence from different perspectives, technical and philosophical, to debate whether AI should have rights, cementing the knowledge you're consuming by having to actively and competitively apply it?
If you play this out, eventually people will need to ask themselves: Why spend four years and $200k on a college education when you can get the world's best content delivered online, and go to a local place-based community to get guidance on your learning path and make new connections with people who are going through the same journey, all within your day-to-day life?
By taking the best that online and offline have to offer, you can unbundle existing educational options and re-bundle your own with the best pieces: the best content available anywhere, instead of what's available where you happen to be studying; a network of other curious, motivated people in your city; accountability at a fraction of the cost.
It’s time to remix education.
An IRL Members Community of Lifelong Learners has the potential to address some of the issues we've discussed throughout this series. It can build community around a shared passion for learning. It can help us grow, evolve, and improve ourselves, with each other. It can equip people with the tools they need to succeed in a changing job market. And it can provide fulfillment separate from a job.
Learning can provide meaning in itself, and teaching gives people that unbeatable feeling of making a contribution being relied upon by others.
Most importantly, education is spark that can ignite more creation. By equipping people with knowledge and a space to learn, they can acquire the tools and skills necessary to create and build things that empower more people, who in turn can create and build, and so on, in a positive loop.
To me, it's the single biggest opportunity out there, and one that is deeply aligned with my interests and passions. If I were a billionaire (and if billionaires don’t get canceled), I would spend my free time learning with smart, curious people.
That's why I'm going to be working towards making this future a reality. This series and my posts on Online Education have been part of my early exploration of the space, my attempt to learn in public, and I've been really encouraged by what I've discovered. It’s still early days of forming a solution, but I’m all-in on working to solve this problem.
If you're passionate about making this happen with me, or know someone who would, I would love to talk to you! E-mail me at email@example.com or find me on twitter @packyM.