Thinking about learning. And SOPA and PIPA and stuff like that

I love being human. And I love human beings.

I’m constantly amazed by human ingenuity. How our brains appear to work. How we construct mental models of things. How we observe, imitate, learn. How we repeat that cycle to augment learning. How, once we learn something, we show the capability to extend that learning in new ways. How we share what we do, how we use feedback loops from the people around us to adjust, to improve, to refine.

To learn.

I read somewhere that human children spend the most dependent on their parents and guardians, when compared to the offspring of other creatures. Dependent for food, for clothing, for shelter, even for mobility. Apparently we do this for a reason. To observe; to imitate where possible; to build mental models.

To learn.

Watching. Copying. Trying it out. Failing. Trying it out again. And again.


  • Learning takes place when you’re given the opportunity to observe how something “works”.
  • Learning takes place when you’re given access to the raw materials used to “make” something.
  • Learning takes place when you’re given the tools to mix those raw materials up in ways no one else has done before.
  • Learning takes place when you’re given the opportunity to share that output with others, and to receive feedback from them.
  • Learning takes place by watching, copying, making, sharing, listening, changing, watching, copying….

I spend a lot of time thinking about food. Planning meals. Getting the ingredients. Cooking the meals. Eating. Sharing what I’ve cooked, literally as well as figuratively. Listening to feedback. Adjusting, refining, sometimes even abandoning it altogether, starting again from scratch.

Cooking is one of the ways I learn. I watch programmes (usually on YouTube or similar); read recipes (usually online, like when I want to make dobin mushi); root around for special ingredients (usually online, like when I want to find out where to obtain good matsutake); cook and share that process, using tools like Instagram and epicurious.

All this is possible because generations of human beings have shared what they have observed and learned. I’ve been able to learn from them, to observe how something is done, to try it out, to hear from others how well I’m doing, to adjust and learn.

All this is possible because I have access to the raw materials, the tools, the market, feedback loops.

Last week I was reading about a few modern cooking “inventions”. Someone who really liked the taste, texture, look and feel of chocolate brownies that came from the edge of the pan designed a pan that made only brownies with edges:

Someone else liked their cereal crunchy, and didn’t like what happened when you added milk to a bowl of cereal: only the first few spoonsful were crunchy, the rest ran to sog. So they invented this:

Which was designed to do this:



Human beings have been doing this forever. I like growing a beard every now and then, and wish I had easy access to something like this: a moustache-cup for drinking:

It’s not just about food either. There’s always someone coming up with a new way of doing something, or new things that help you do something. Take a look at this:

There have been few barriers to cooking, other than the natural laws of demand and supply. Of course people have tried to subvert that law in the usual ways: creating monopolies, controlling supply by hoarding, cartelising prices, that sort of thing. But by and large the world of cooking has been open to innovation. And our lives have been enriched as a result.

This hasn’t been true in the world of manufacturing: access to raw materials, designs, tools to manufacture, has been somewhat less than democratic. But that’s changing, with opensource hardware and software and patterns and specifications. Multipurpose materials like this will soon be freely available:


The freedom to model something physical will soon be connected with the freedom to make copies of that something, which is what 3D printers are about:

The raw materials will improve in their versatility and durability; prices will drop; access will become universal. The same will happen to 3D printers. We’re heading for a time when you can “fax” over a physical object from one place to another, even an object you designed for the first time. Especially objects you designed for the first time.

This is not just about stuff for gadget freaks and people who like messing about in labs. Human beings make things for one of four reasons:

  • to learn
  • to enjoy
  • to solve a problem
  • because they can

So this sort of invention and innovation takes place everywhere, at work and at home, in the West and in the East. Let’s look at what’s happening at work. Most of you know I work at Here’s an example of what can be done when human beings have access to open platforms and tools and data:

A couple of engineers, frustrated with the times when printers are out of paper, or when paper stocks run out, built a simple tool, using open components, to make sure it wouldn’t happen again. Others in the company used the same tools to try and solve problems to do with green buildings and energy consumption:

These are just two examples of what incredible things can be done when human beings have access to the right materials and tools.

This ingenuity is seen in the physical world, in the design and manufacture of objects. It is seen in the world where physical and digital integrate, as in the “internet of things”.

And of course it is seen in the digital world, where the internet is the ultimate copy machine.

Give people the raw material of open data. Give them the tools of the internet. And hey presto you have “inventions” like this:

Someone thought it would be good if you could find out when your garbage was to be collected. And so they did something about it. Someone else thought it would be good to build tools for handling open data:

It’s not just about solving problems and reducing human latency or saving energy or being efficient. It’s not just about the sustenance and pleasure of preparing, cooking and consuming food. It’s deeper than that, this streak of ingenuity is in all parts of our human culture.

Watch this video: A MIDI fretboard on an iPhone.


Humans have been observing, imitating, sharing, learning, refining and making stuff forever. Cooking. Making. Creating. Thinking.

Without Shakespeare sharing Romeo and Juliet with us, there would be no West Side Story. Without Shaw sharing Pygmalion with us, there would be no My Fair Lady. Without Joyce Kilmer sharing Trees with us, we wouldn’t have been able to enjoy Ogden Nash‘s parody,  The Song Of The Open Road:

Without the internet, without the Web, without Wikipedia, without Google, I would not have been able to write this post.

Without YouTube I would not have been able to share the ingenuity of some of my colleagues.

Without Tim O’Reilly’s gigaOm interview on why he’s fighting SOPA, I would not have been catalysed into writing this post.

The intellectual property rights environment needs fixing for sure. But SOPA and PIPA are not the solution.

Human ingenuity is a precious thing. We need that ingenuity to solve the problems we face, problems that cannot be solved by the paradigms that created them. We need that ingenuity to be unleashed to observe what’s happening without censorship. We need that ingenuity to have access to the data and the tools related to the problems; we need that ingenuity to be able to share the learning, to learn, to adjust, to learn again.

We need this in all walks of life, in the office and at home, in private and in public, at work and at play, alone and together.

We need this to move us forward in education, in healthcare, in government. We need this to solve problems with climate change, disease control, nutrition, poverty.

We need this in our art and in our culture.

We need this.





4 thoughts on “Thinking about learning. And SOPA and PIPA and stuff like that”

  1. July 1945… to comfort George Hogg until he died, the boys sang nursery rhymes he had taught them.

    His headstone is engraved with lines from his favourite poem:

    “ And life is colour and warmth and light;
    And a striving evermore for these;
    And he is dead who will not fight;
    And who dies fighting has increase. ”

    —Julian Grenfell

    SOPA your pic

  2. Compelling discussion. I consider the definitive human trait to be ingenuity: our ability to think our way out of any corner we’ve painted ourselves into (so far!)

    Education, scaled up and systematised, fails to properly value ingenuity (which is harder to grade “justly”) to the degree that ingenious children’s ideas are suppressed, and even penalised. Changing this is a big challenge! It is why I love teaching writing to young people.

Let me know what you think