I Don't Want To Be A Nerd!

The blog of Nicholas Paul Sheppard

Unlearning the quest for the latest fad

2014-05-16 by Nick S., tagged as buzzwords, education, history

Towards the end of Here Comes Everybody (2008), Clay Shirky writes about the differences that young people and old people face in adapting to new technologies and circumstances. He seems to think that older people are at a disadvantage because they need to "unlearn" the conventions that they learned when older technologies were in vogue, while young people are ready to take up new technologies from the get-go. On the other hand, he acknowledges that young people are prone to seeing revolutions everywhere they turn.

Shirky might be right within the confines of his discussion, which refers to a particular set of communication and collaboration technologies. I nonetheless think I'd prefer to use the word adapt rather than unlearn: the latter word suggests to me that we've somehow been stuffing our heads full of useless knowledge. But any unlearning seems to me to do at least two disservices to our skills and knowledge of yesteryear.

Firstly, it suggests that those skills and knowledge were pretty superficial to begin with. It's the kind of thinking that presumes that programmers of my vintage, for example, must be totally unable to write Java or mobile applications since we learned to program in C and C++ on desktops. But what we really learned was object-oriented programming and problem-solving, which are just as useful now as they were in 1980. Anyone hung up on the name and syntax of a language probably wasn't a very good programmer in the first place.

Secondly, it's a surrender to technological determinism. We place ourselves at the mercy of the latest technology and its purveyors, unable or unwilling to decide for ourselves which technology (or abstention from it) is really the most effective one for our needs.

I read Jared Diamond's The World Until Yesterday (2012) at around the same time, and found his views on aging somewhat more heartening. Diamond argues that younger people have greater vitality and creativity, while older people have greater depth and breadth of knowledge. These qualities, he thinks, ought to complement each other rather than have us all pining to be twenty. Amongst academics, for example, it's the under-forties who produce the brilliant new theories and proofs in narrow fields, while it's the over-forties who synthesise the knowledge across multiple fields. (Admittedly he's unclear on how this applies to less heady occupations like construction work, athletics and hospitality.)

In this vein, one of my students recently asked how the lecturing staff at my institution were able to teach so many different subjects. Because we've had twenty years to learn it all, I suggested. Furthermore (I might have continued had I been talking to Shirky), we don't need to forget everything we know in order to learn some cool new skill or piece of knowledge: we add the new skills to the old.

I suppose that an enthusiast of the latest technology might say that Diamond, being seventy-something, would say that, and I, being forty-something, would agree with him. Then again, Diamond and I might equally say that our critics, being twenty-something, would say the opposite.