Monday, June 13, 2005

Networking and Learning

While it's possible to learn from books, film, or audio resources, we learn best when we are shown how to do things by people we know and admire. In fact often the key lesson is in the mode and manner of the person, as much as in the detail of anything they have to pass on. In a very real way we learn our teachers, as much as we learn a subject.

Social networks are important because they give us a chance to make many weak contacts with people who are not in our own environment. It's not obvious at first glance why that is so important.

We have strong and close ties with many people who are family members or who share business activities or who live in our own community. We will share with those people almost the same set of ideas. That is why we can have such close ties with them. But can they be effective teachers? Certainly, but they are likely only to reinforce the expected thinking of the local environment.

Online, or in a new country, beyond your normal environment, you are likely to be confronted with a set of ideas and expectations that are not your own. If there is no personal relationship between yourself and the "new idea set" then you can ignore it. But if you "know" the person in a social way, you are likely to give the idea more than a dismissive reading. The process of giving this "new idea set" serious consideration enlarges your own idea set, and gives you new things to think about. You may then choose to reject the new view, or to examine it further.

The beauty of the "weak connection" is that you don't have to agree, and you don't have make a decision now. You have many options to examine or to set aside or the leave un-examined the issue that has been raised. You can learn from the issue, but only if you choose.

Contrast that with what happens in your own community or at work. There is already a well established climate that everyone understands that enables certain modes of thinking and disables or forbids alternative modes of thinking. There is a cultural climate that is supposed to promote constructive and positive contributions to the team effort. Usually that is the result. However, it can also lead to "group think" where the group in an effort to build and sustain commitment to each other and to the task at hand, become blind to external realities.

Social Networks allow us to make lots of weak links to many people. Because the links are weak, we are free to express our own ideas more strongly than we might at home or at work. We are also able to pay attention to the sort of ideas our own close contacts are unlikely to express. In accepting or rejecting these new ideas a learning process is going on.

If you are to live in a society where knowledge is important, nothing is more important than maintaining your own ability to learn. Learning is a precondition to being able to adapt your own behavior. I call my web site Adapt to Experience. If you can successfully adapt to the environment you are likely to succeed. Those who fail to adapt are guaranteed failure.

People who are members of social groups thrive. People who neglect to maintain their membership become isolated and shut out. They die.

John Stephen Veitch
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