As We May Learn

Matt Kennedy on 2015-12-10

Photo credit: Anisur Rahman

When it’s time to learn about something, like you, I create a new tab in my browser.

I run a few Google searches.

Then I step blindly into the unknown: opening search results in new tabs and trusting that this scatter approach will introduce me to the concepts I actually needed to have been Googling for in the first place.

Our browsers are our new workstations and they’re a mess.

But what really gets me nowadays is the fact that all over the world people are learning about things online, yet there’s no simple way for us to benefit from each other’s efforts.

If I have you here: we’re building a community of thinkers and tinkerers to attack this problem. Pop-on over, friend.

Otherwise, with the stage set, let me explain myself.

“Learning” online

As information becomes more easily accessible we’re starting to ask harder questions.

Google has done magical things. We can Google “population size of South America” and get the answer we’re looking for.

Want a pretty good introduction to a topic? Just run a search for the topic and tap on the Wikipedia link.

But as we know, real learning and ‘knowledge work’ goes beyond executing simple searches for simple answers.

These are the sorts of curly questions that aren't answered in a single blog post.

They’re not answered in a single Wikipedia article. You won’t find the answer in a government statistical database. Nor will you find it in a stray pdf or Word document attached to a long-forgotten forum post.

The answers lie within and between all of these. And this is the problem.

“The unknown”

Every day we’re collectively stepping into the unknown—all the time.

Photo credit: Dariusz Sankowski

Your web-browsing experience is as if you’re the first person to be learning about this particular thing, ever.

But here’s the thing: if the theory of multiples holds true it’s not just you learning about this thing. Nor is it just me.

No, in all likelihood we’re all “re-researching the wheel” instead.

What’s lacking from the internet is functionality that recognises this. Functionality that connects your future with the past of someone else.

A platform, say, that points you in the direction the last hunter-gatherer took—saving you hours of unnecessary toil.

A different sort of search engine

Imagine a search engine that instead of providing you with search results served you with a pathway.

One that steps you through the internet at your pace. A pathway that exposes you to the fundamentals of a topic before leading you on to the niche sub-topics you’ll need to be familiar with to answer your question.

Pathways that were generated based on the journeys others have taken before you. Their past now neatly connected to your future.

One approach

I co-founded a minnow in this space called Trailblazer. We’re an extension for Google Chrome that turns your journey through the internet into a map.

Interact with the full version here:

And as you might have guessed by now, our vision is indeed to connect your future with the pathway of another trailblazer’s past.

But wait—things are about to get interesting:

A shared endeavour

This type of initiative touches on fundamental philosophies of the internet. It seems like some sort of web standard waiting to happen.

It’s something too big and too important for any one company ‘to own’ and capitalise from.

A couple of years ago I would have said that my co-founders and I going to build all this on our own. But we’re older now and possibly a little bit wiser.

So we recently announced that Trailblazer is going to open-source its core. Developing the functionality we need to deliver this vision is beyond us. And trying to build just 10% of it ourselves is a recipe for unnecessary bottlenecking.

If we’re building a sense-making layer for the good of the internet then let’s be open about it. Let’s empower people who also care about this to get involved.

If you’re one such person, I warmly invite you to join the Trailblazing Community.

We’re not the first to be working towards this vision. Nor will we be the last. It’s inevitable, I think, that a similar platform will be in full-effect in the future.

So let’s embrace this fact, buck the trend, and work together.

There’s a place for competition. But I don’t think it should be in the infrastructure that helps people learn new things.

Do you know something about this? Let’s talk. Am I crazy? Tell me so. Want to roll up your sleeves and hack on something meaningful? I invite you to head here next, friend.

Disclaimer: this post talks in hand-wavy language. But I wish to reassure you that — after a couple of years in this space — we think we have a fair idea of what pieces of this puzzle to attack first.

Next time on “Matt rambles publicly on the internet”: I’m cooking up some ‘crazy’ ideas about data ownership. Tap that “follow” button next to my name to be the first to learn when that thinking goes public.

You can also interact with my small Twitter presence. I’d like to do more with that thing.