Posted by: structureofnews | January 26, 2011

What We Don’t Know We Don’t Know

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.


  1. Reg,

    This is one of the issues that I think all journalists and editors are struggling with now. Since making the move to digital in 1996, I joke that I’ve had to re-invent myself more often than Madonna. When I started, I had to learn HTML, build websites, do a little light programming all the while building on core journalism skills of reporting and writing. When I joined the BBC in 1998, then I had to learn another CMS, learn audio editing first and then video shooting and editing. I didn’t need to know how to build websites, but I did have to learn a lot about multimedia and broadcasting. Then when I joined The Guardian, I had to dust off my technical project management skills and develop new editorial management skills before cuts returned many editors, including me, to front line multi-platform journalism. Now, I’m dusting off data journalism skills that I haven’t used much since the late 1990s.

    Some have suggested that journalists need to jacks of all trades and master of one. The challenge now is picking that right one both for personal satisfaction but also to maximise job security.

    For me, two things have allowed me to navigate the ever-changing job of being a digital journalist and editor. I can think of only one time in my career when I said: “No, that’s not my job.” I always have worked hard to develop new skills and keep a sense of what skills are required and in demand. It’s the only way I survived the crash and the Great Recession. The other is that I don’t have to know how to do everything, but I do master the art of the possible. My programming skills are minimal, but I can work with a programmer to achieve what I want.

    Knowing the art of the possible in terms of digital is one of the key skills really lacking right now. At a newspaper or broadcaster, when a major story breaks, editors instinctually know what they need for a print, TV or radio package. When I worked at the BBC News website, we developed that sense of packaging and developed treatments that we could use. That’s still rare. Once you’ve got a sense of an editorial palette, then you can train staff and editors have a better sense of how to plan even in breaking news situations.

    • Kevin,

      I’m with you on the need to continually reinvent ourselves; the real problem is finding time. There are only so many hours in a day: Should I resurrect my 25-year-old programming brain cells? Improve my Chinese? Really dive into Access? Study information design? In some ways, what probably matters the most is forcing yourself to keep learning – no matter what topic – and not getting too comfortable with what we know.

      But there are some things that come with age that you can’t do much about – so if new forms of interaction with information involve strenuous lower back activity, I’m probably in trouble.


  2. Working at 10pm on Friday night on my contribution to a book after doing an interview for a magazine piece, giving interview to Al Jazeera about Egypt’s efforts to shut down internet access in the face of protests after spending a couple of hours applying for visas for a work trip to India, I hear you about finding time, and I’m not as young as I used to be.

    There are the strategic answers I could give you, but I’ll be honest. If I wanted to make a fair bit of money and have job security, I would have become a programmer when I was pushed in that direction in the late 1990s. Instead, I realised that I was passionate about using digital technology to tell stories that are the stuff of great journalism. I try to use technology to tell great stories and bring them to the widest possible audiences by engaging those audiences directly using social media.

    The technology changes. That’s one of the only constants, and we also know how to tell stories. How do we tell stories in the most compelling way? Is there a technology that allows us to achieve that? (Sometimes the answer might not be something new but something old.)

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