I’ve written a number of times about the skills I think journalists need to have to survive and thrive in the future. It can seem overwhelming, I know. But it probably doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of how much we’ll really need to adapt.
I’m reminded of this whenever I help my father out with his computer. He’s in his late 70s now, and came to the digital age late. As a senior civil servant and then business executive, he had secretaries and assistants for most of his working life, and didn’t need to surf the web or write emails. I used to visit his office back in those days and see a lonely computer sitting in the corner, clearly unused.
It’s only after he retired a decade and some ago that us kids got together to buy him a PC – he’s on his third or fourth now – and hooked him up to the Internet. Since then he’s taken to it with gusto, albeit with a fair amount of coaching on how to store and save files, download videos and stay away from viruses and all that kind of thing. (For some reason, even though I live in a different country, I’m his official tech support guy.)
But he can’t type. Or rather, he can, but it’s not a pleasant experience. He hunts and pecks and roams around the keyboard at a glacial pace; if he has a long document to type and I’m in town, I’ll do it for him instead.
That’s not surprising, after all; a lot of businesspeople of his generation didn’t need to learn how to type, and didn’t want to.
But it is one of the main interfaces into this new world of ours – and if you can’t type, you’re as handicapped as if you can’t speak. Sure, you can point and click, but much of what we do – from emails to inputting urls to registering for sites online – is qwerty-based. So he can explore the online world, but in a much slower and passive way than if he could touch type 100 words per minute. And it’s unlikely he’s going to learn to be a faster typist at this point.
Yet if I had come to him 20 or 30 years ago and told him that this was a skill that he ought to learn if he wanted to thrive in the coming online age, he would have – with much justification – told me that it’s not really an important skill; that there would always be people who can type for you; that his limited time was better spent learning other things, or conceptualizing ideas, or whatever.
And he’d be right. And he’d also be wrong.
I’m not picking on my dad here, of course. He made what seemed like a good decision at the time about where he should focus his attention.
My question is: What are we not learning now that we should? What’s the equivalent of typing that 25 years from now we’ll regret not having learned?
I’ve asked this question of various people over the years, with a wide range of responses. A long while ago I suggested to someone that maybe we ought to get good at HTML (not a great suggestion, honestly, but I was just trying to get a response.) I got the classic “someone will always be there to program it for you” answer. And maybe that’s true. In fact, it’s probably certainly true. But it was also true for my father that there would always be someone to type for him.
At another point, some people suggested that the ability to text messages is an important skill we all need to have – and it’s true I can’t really text at all. All my Filipino friends can do it blindfolded and with one hand. So if that’s a core skill for the future, I’m in trouble. Luckily, smart phones came along and now I can send text messages just fine with my qwerty keyboard on my Blackberry.
Which also illustrates how unknowable all of this is. If great voice recognition software had been invented – and it may still come – typing wouldn’t be as important as it currently is, and my father wouldn’t be as limited online. And those of us who have invested muscle memory into touch-typing would have realized that we’d wasted years of effort.
So where do we put our limited learning capacity? In a way, it’s more than that we don’t know – we can’t know.
But I’m not sure that we should shrug it off, either. It’s not fun to be handicapped in a world of new promise, and I suspect we’ll need to be constantly trying to pick up new ideas and skills.
When I put this question to Paul Saffo, the futurist, at a conference years ago, he said the best thing we could do was watch and emulate our kids. Unfortunately, that would have meant then that I learned how to sing dinosaur songs. But maybe that will be what matters in 2035.