So… once upon a time I was a System Administrator. It’s a fiendlishly technical profession. You used to be able to judge a SysAdmin by the rainbow of thick tomes that occupied their bookshelf. Those O’Reilly books were a badge of honor and a cue for other tribe members to get a sense of a person’s specialization just from the colours. Deep Blue were Windows books. Light Blue were Perl. Orange were database. You could judge someone from that rainbow.
A couple years ago I changed from being a SysAdmin to a Developer. I did buy a few books to help facilitate the transition, but found that I didn’t use them. In the intervening years since I started as a SysAdmin, a new internet resource emerged, Stack Overflow.
In short, it’s a resource for all sorts of technical professionals to ask questions, have them answered and to rank those answers. Now, when I have a question of ‘How do I do X,’ I ask Google. It mostly sends me to Stack Overflow. I’ve off-loaded my books, and to a lesser extent, my brain to the community.
Am I worse for not having committed and retained the details of my craft to memory? My engineering teacher in high school would say no. He always stressed that the measure of a good engineer isn’t the facts that they know, but how easily they can find those facts. By his measure, Google has made us all amazing engineers.
There is something to be said for learning the theory and frameworks of any domain, but deep inspection and retention of knowledge is being off-loaded from our brains. It has been since books were invented and we didn’t have to pass history by word of mouth.
Now, is technology hindering the grasp of theory and framing? Possibly. However, I’d say that by enabling the offloading of cognitive consumption we’re freeing minds to approach tasks differently than we have in the past. That can only be a good thing. Unless it leads everyone to create startups that sell shit stickers for messaging apps.
What does get my back up are those who bemoan the changing landscape of cognitive methodology. You go there very mildly Mike, but I’ve seen others, other professors, that bemoan the attention to screens and social media like Pollyannas bemoaned the rise of novels and leaflets before them. It smacks of conservative (small c) privilege threatened by change. It’s unbecoming and reminds me of the narrow-minded people who decried the rise of Rock N Roll and Rap.
There is a discussion to be had about the deleterious effects of multi-tasking, and life in one hundred forty characters. Honestly it strikes me more as an issue of maturity than anything else. As people grow up they slow down, settle down, and more deeply appreciate the world. It’s called getting old.
The kids that flit between Twitter, Snap Chat, Facebook, whatever the new media platform is, will get older. They will slow down. How do we help them explore the world in a deeper fashion as they age is the challenge. But maybe we don’t need to do that so much. The younger generation will find its way, despite the cries of their elders. They always do.