Losing skills to technology

  • (PC World)
  • — 01 August, 1997 11:26

It was not just the bigger picture that concerned me. I had come to rely on the little things. Like looking up a restaurant on the program "Which Restaurant?" or calling up the Bureau of Meteorology's Web page to assess the next day's weather. I couldn't dial in to the office to check my e-mail or download that important file I had been working on last Friday. Even if I could, what would I work on it with?

I began to think about how much of our knowledge we are abdicating to technology. I was reminded of an incident a few years ago when teaching a class in management. I asked the students to complete a calculation that involved a simultaneous equation. When half the class did not attempt to begin, I asked why. "Oh, we didn't think to bring our electronic calculators," they replied. That happened about five years ago. I wonder how many more would be affected if the same incident occurred now?

My father, who recently turned 87, practised his mental arithmetic right up until my mother took terminally ill several years ago. Although he had the use of an electronic calculator, he maintained that he did not want to lose his edge. Thus, he spent some time every day or so setting problems and then solving them, simply to maintain his ability.

He obviously knew the difference between delegation and abdication. Not so those, if the reports are correct, who contributed to the October 1987 share crash. Reportedly they had programmed their computers to issue a sell command if stocks fell to a certain level. This clearly was an abdication of responsibility!

Some years ago I made a conscious decision to turn the spell checker off within my word processor. I had always prided myself on being very good at spelling the Queen's English. However, as I became more reliant on my trusty spell checker I found my own ability in this area rapidly diminished. It was a perfect example of use it or lose it!

How many companies become totally paralysed if their computer goes down? How many have disaster recovery plans in place? Are checks conducted to establish that everyone involved in the plan has the necessary manual skills to perform the required tasks?

Everywhere we look today there is either partial or total abdication to computers. Certainly we are achieving greater knowledge because of them. However, must this gain be offset by the loss of our knowledge in the more basic areas? Granted, kids are coming out of school these days better educated. But they can't spell! I sat in a cafe on Saturday and studied a blackboard menu with no less than nine spelling mistakes!

My new car came with a complete set of tools for roadside maintenance. Why? One look under the bonnet convinces you that the manufacturer has a sense of humour.

There are software programs for just about every form of human endeavour: Architecture, business planning, cooking, drawing, education, farming, golf. Each making us that little more reliant. When they perfect artificial intelligence, what will there be left for us?

I often hear colleagues complaining about not being able to find people who are prepared to take responsibility. Is this a product of the new technology? After all, how often do you hear the computer blamed for someone's mistake?

We run courses on how to survive in the bush or jungle. They teach students the basic methods of how to fend for themselves when placed in unfamiliar circumstances. Maybe in a couple of decades we will find similar courses being conducted on how we survive in a world temporarily without technology.

Conceding it could never happen to me I pushed away my blank computer screen and dusted off my faithful old typewriter. Now, how did these work exactly?

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Reg King

PC World
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