Knowledge Is Dead, Long Live Learning

November 10, 2017

This article was originally posted on the Capgemini Engineering blog

There’s a certain inescapable truth that people who work with technology need to face. As time goes by, the knowledge we’ve gained almost inevitably becomes obsolete. If we specialise in something, how do we deal with the fact that our specialism, which may even have been cutting edge technology that we were pioneering, eventually becomes a legacy system? As Ellen Ullman put it, “The corollary of constant change is ignorance … we computer experts barely know what we are doing.”

Front end developers are very familiar with this feeling, confronted so frequently with the dizzying pace of change in the world of JavaScript frameworks. Once upon a time, I was very proud of my ability to make CSS layouts work in IE7. Now all those tricks and hacks are little more than worthless trivia, perhaps less valuable than actual trivia. At least knowing who scored the winner in the 1973 FA Cup final might help in a pub quiz - I can’t imagine that being able to prefix properties with an asterisk will ever come in handy, but it’s taking up storage space in my brain. Now that CSS grid is becoming widespread, everything I’ve learned about floats (and even flexbox) is becoming less and less useful. There are even some people (although I’m not one of them) who would say that CSS itself no longer has value. Similarly, jQuery is already on its way to joining YUI and MooTools in the graveyard of things I used to know about, and experienced members of the Drupal community have recently been coming to terms with the fact that in order for the technology to progress, we’ll have to unlearn some of our old ways.

It isn’t just true for technology. London taxi drivers are finding that their hard-earned Knowledge is being made obsolete by satnav, and before too long, the skill of driving will itself have gone the way of basket weaving or being able to pilot a horse-drawn buggy - something that might still be interesting for the enthusiast, but isn’t relevant to most people’s lives.

Confronted with the unpleasant reality that our hard-learned skills are becoming outdated, what’s the appropriate response? Do we follow the example of the Luddites and rage against the evolution of the machines? It’s easy to fall victim to the sunk costs fallacy, and ego provides a strong temptation to hang on to our guru status, even if we’re experts in an area that is no longer useful. If you’re a big fish in a shrinking pond, you may need to be careful that your pond doesn’t dry up entirely. Besides, do you really want to work on legacy systems? Having said that, if your legacy system is still mission-critical somewhere, and migrating away would be a big job, there’s good money to be made - just ask the people working on COBOL.

I think there’s a healthier way of looking at this. With the internet acting as a repository of knowledge, and calculators at our fingertips, education is evolving. There’s no longer much value in memorising times tables, or knowing the date of the battle of Culloden. As my colleague Sarah Saunders has written, you’re never too old to learn, but the value of learning things is greater than the value of the facts or skills that we learn - the meta-skill of learning is the really useful thing. Then again, I would say that, having done a philosophy degree.

For example, the time and effort I put into learning French and German at school doesn’t currently seem like a worthwhile investment, when I think about how frequently I use those languages. But I would never say that it was a waste of time. When I lived in Tokyo, having learned other languages definitely helped when it came to learning Japanese. Then again, these days I don’t often spend any time in Japan or with Japanese people, so the current value of that effort seems low. But do I regret spending that effort? Not a bit. It helped me to make the most of my life in Japan, and besides, it was interesting.

Two of the most compelling conference talks I’ve heard in the last few years touched on this theme from different directions. Andrew Clarke and Patrick Yua both emphasised the importance of focussing on the underlying principles, rather than chasing whatever the current new hotness might be. Designers and developers can learn something from Yves Saint Laurent: “Fashions fade, style is eternal”.

We need to recognise that things will always keep changing. Perhaps we could help ourselves to acknowledge the impermanence of our skills by saying some kind of ceremonial goodbye to them. I have an absurd vision of a Viking funeral, where a blazing longboat sails away full of old O’Reilly books. We may not need to go that far, but we do need to remind ourselves that what we’ve learned has served us well, even if that knowledge is no longer directly applicable. A knowledge funeral could be an opportunity to mourn for the passing of a skill into obsolescence, and to celebrate the value of learning.

Image source: wikimedia