Sunday, January 30, 2011

Not so useless skills

Roger Green posted about useless skills in answer to the question, “What skills do you have that, because of change in technology, have become obsolete?” It’s an interesting question, and I thought I’d explore it a little because, really, are any skills ever truly obsolete? Or do many of them simply lead into new skills?

My dad used to talk about chasing the man driving a horse drawn wagon through the streets delivering ice, and I remember a man delivering milk to our house (in a truck, I should add). But people still make deliveries, so those “skills” simply changed. There must be some skills that really are obsolete, such as lighting gas streetlights (unless that became something in the modern world I don’t know about), but I have trouble thinking of many skills that haven’t evolved into other ones.

I’ve often said that most technological change is evolutionary, not revolutionary. What I mean is that the sudden quantum leap from nothing to something is pretty rare. For example, we went from earthbound to flight, and that was revolutionary, but all the changes since then—including spaceflight—have been evolutionary.

When I began my working life, I used a word processing program called Wordstar on computers running an operating system called CP/M. This required memorising a large number of commands to format the page since, in those days, there was no WYSIWYG so no way to see the result until the document was printed. One thing I remember in particular is using commands to bold type to make headlines for a newsletter I did. But I realised that if I also gave it the command to double-strike, the type actually looked bold.

All that Wordstar training came in handy when I moved into printing/publishing and had to learn phototypesetting using AM Varityper machines that, it turned out, also ran on CP/M. That meant learning the commands, as in Wordstar, to avoid wasting photographic paper that worked out to about a dollar a foot.

Like the rest of the graphics industry, the business eventually abandoned specialist typesetting equipment and switched to Apple Macintosh computers. Similarly, photostat cameras were replaced with flatbed scanners. I no longer needed the Wordstar or typesetting commands, but the base they provided made it easy for me to change technology.

Years later, when I started using the web, those old skills were useful again: HTML coding isn’t all that different, really, from using commands in Wordstar, so adapting wasn’t as difficult as it could’ve been.

It’s true that I probably wouldn’t be able to use Wordstar anymore (at least, not without a refresher), but those skills proved useful in allowing me to adapt to new technologies. The old skills didn’t die, they morphed and evolved and eventually became skills I still use today.

Seems to me that what we're really talking about are not skills that are lost in isolation, but the whole process of learning and growing. And that never becomes obsolete.


Roger Owen Green said...

Interesting way to reframe the question. Apocalyptic bowling!

Reed said...

What an interesting question to think about...

I had to do some math but it turns out that I've mostly been using the same text editor (vi) for 26 years. And it wasn't fresh when I learned it.

I have worked a very long time in IT but I can only think of a couple of skills that haven't converted into something of value.

I sure hope my crankiness never goes obsolete.

epilonious said...

Reminds me of the time I went to a Ren Faire in Georgia and the Blacksmith talked about how they had come in really useful in post hurricane Katrina for a couple of months there.