The Transient Knowledge Trap

Our society and economy cannot afford to lose basic skills -- yet that is exactly what we are allowing to happen, our Datamation columnist writes.


You Can't Detect What You Can't See: Illuminating the Entire Kill Chain

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Posted September 21, 2006

George Spafford

George Spafford

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Have you ever stopped and thought about all of the skills we are losing? How many people today can do even basic math without a calculator or apply logical analysis to a problem greater than where to eat for dinner?

I can’t help but wonder what the ultimate outcome of our headlong plunge into accelerated technological adoption while also allowing education to languish. The increasing skills gap in various segments of our populous is alarming.

Technology is amazing and offers much, but it is an unforgiving means to an end that is all-too-often pursued as an end goal in and of itself. As a society we cannot lose basic skills -- yet that is exactly what we are allowing to happen.

Some skills loss is attributable to transient technologies that are now road-kill on the techno-society highway. These were skills we learned in order to operate now-obsolete technologies such as 8-track tape decks, punch cards, etc.

These are example areas of knowledge that, while interesting, are shifting into arcane history with little likelihood of future use. At their time in history, they had value, but not to society now, and unlikely at any time in the future. (Then again, look at how vacuum tubes all but disappeared and then had a resurgence in high-end audio equipment.)

Losing the Fundamentals

On the other end of the spectrum from transient knowledge is the underlying foundational knowledge that is persistent over time. Loss of that knowledge and/or the inability for groups to have access to it is deeply troubling. There are fundamentals that are forever morphing as our learning grows, but they cannot and must not be lost. Technologies may come and go, but there is foundational knowledge that will always position use for the future.

To illustrate, consider the ability to logic and reason. Many universities made logic a mandatory subject years ago and now it is gone. What about math? One of the most fundamental constructs underlying technologies. How about basic science, ethics, history, philosophy … the list goes on and on. Why? What will the ultimate outcome of this be?

In the 1980s we were concerned with robots and mechanized production lines reducing workers to mere “lever pullers.” We’ve unfortunately leapt past that state and now risk doing it to our society overall – at least in the U.S. we certainly risk it.

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