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Collective Learning -- as seen from a pickup truck . . .

It was after dark on a fall evening in Virginia. I was driving west in my pickup truck on I-66 toward Front Royal. We, my truck and I, were beyond the lights of suburban Washington, approaching the foothills of the Blue Ridge. All around us – my truck and I – was dark except for the lights on the pavement leading us forward.

No traffic in front of us, none behind us, none on the other side of the road. It was a starry night. I was floating along at 75 mile and hour. I and the truck and the stars. As I drove, an image began to form in my mind: an image of a large pyramid. The pyramid was below me; in fact, my pickup was perched on the peak of the pyramid.

The pyramid was made up of the thousands and thousands of people who had worked on the technologies incorporated into my truck. They had worked on those technologies for tens of thousands of years, improving the technologies enough to create the miracle I was riding in: I was floating 3 feet above the pavement at 75 miles an hour, going in the direction I desired. How could a human do that, I mused? Only because of that pyramid below me.

That pyramid of people was as real as the truck itself because the truck would not be there if the people had not been there.

The metal in the truck was the result of humans fashioning natural resources into metal of various kinds for thousands of years. The combustion in the cylinders in the truck’s engine was a result of human control of fire that had begun almost two million years earlier. The wheels had been perfected to the point of allowing a truck to travel at 75 miles an hour smoothly over pavement. Each part of the truck, and also the concept of putting together all those technologies to make a pickup truck, had been developed by people over an immense number of years.

After all that work over the years to make a truck possible, I could then turn a key, get on a road, and float at 75 miles per hour on I-66 going west toward the mountains. In doing that, I was collaborating with not only the pyramid of people who contributed technology improvements to make my truck possible, but another pyramid of people who made the fuel in my truck’s tank possible, another pyramid who made the road technology possible, and on and on.

I was not alone on I-66: the humans who had developed the various technologies and who had learned how to assemble the various technologies in the truck were with me – human time is not only the present but the past for we interact with artifacts from the past as much as we do current artifacts. Human society, as we know it today in its large form, extends for about 2.6 million years ever since homo habilis and homo erectus first learned to use language so humans could cooperate in making tools.

Think about this – I was “collaborating” with countless earlier humans. Humans have the ability to collaborate – work with, benefit from, improve upon – all those who have come before. In a sense, what makes humans unique and successful is our ability to time travel: we preserve learning not only through genes in individuals but through memes and morphemes – cultural knowledge – over time. Time is not as hard on humans.

That I could turn a key and move myself 160 miles to the west, up onto the Allegheny Plateau with almost no effort on my part, was due to the work of our ancestors over the past 2 plus million years – that is the genius of humans: language allowed us to preserve learning from one generation to the next, from one village to others, and to help each generation of tinkerers to add incrementally to all of society’s technology and economy so I could drive west on I-66.

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