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2009.01.01

The Changing Value of Knowledge and Skills

I feel we're witnessing a watershed in the value of knowledge and many, once crucial, skills. Thanks to powerful ubiquitous computers and the internet, hard-earned knowledge and skills that used to be important are no more. Here are some examples.

Out: ability to perform arithmetic calculations; calculators and spreadsheets to a better job.
In: ability to critically think about numbers (sometimes performing back-of-the-envelope calculations) to spot errors in the above.

Out: knowledge of facts; these are available on the internet.
In: skills in locating facts, ability to recognize the relevant ones, ability to read primary sources, ability to judge online sources.

Out: shorthand, calligraphy.
In: word processing and typographical skills to create professional-looking documents (typographers who care about the quality of the printed word are sadly becoming extinct.)

Out: symbolic manipulation of expressions.
In: skills in using symbolic manipulation software.

Out: ability to organize and manage a physical meeting, event, workshop, or conference.
In: ability to setup, manage, and nurture a global online community.

Out: programming-in-the-small.
In: ability to locate open source software libraries and tools, ability to judge their quality and license compatibility, ability to plumb these together.

This is an extremist view, but nevertheless I think we wrongly put more emphasis on the Outs than on the Ins. Sometimes in a discussion I recite some interesting factoids or opinions. And then I wonder: is my contribution to this group a (lame) recital of something that can be found through Google, Wikipedia, or on the Economist's web site? Is my contribution to the group just a filter of what's available on the internet? What are my chances of competing intellectually with Paul Krugman, and saying something original that is more interesting or relevant than what I read in his New York Times column?

I doubt we have fully come to terms with this new reality and its implications. The change affects education, work prospects, and the way we communicate in our everyday lives. I find it frightening and exciting.

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