The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

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A purchase is just the beginning

Plenty of things worth writing about Kevin Kelly’s post on “Techno Life Skills.” Kelly’s point of departure is that learning how to master any specific technology is less important than learning how to adapt to, use, and understand any technology that emerges (or that meets your newly emergent needs).

Here are a few notes about how technology frames us, how we think, and what we can do:

• Tools are metaphors that shape how you think. What embedded assumptions does the new tool make? Does it assume right-handedness, or literacy, or a password, or a place to throw it away? Where the defaults are set can reflect a tool’s bias.

• What do you give up? This one has taken me a long time to learn. The only way to take up a new technology is to reduce an old one in my life already. Twitter must come at the expense of something else I was doing — even if it just daydreaming.

• Every new technology will bite back. The more powerful its gifts, the more powerfully it can be abused. Look for its costs.

And a few more about accepting the limits of your own knowledge, and how your ignorance isn’t a defeat:

• Understanding how a technology works is not necessary to use it well. We don’t understand how biology works, but we still use wood well.

• Nobody has any idea of what a new invention will really be good for. To evaluate don’t think, try.

• Find the minimum amount of technology that will maximize your options.

I think these last three observations might be both Kelly’s most powerful and the most true.

Update: I forgot maybe the number-one smart, accept-your-own-ignorance observation, which Alan Jacobs rightly pulled:

• You will be newbie forever. Get good at the beginner mode, learning new programs, asking dumb questions, making stupid mistakes, soliticting help, and helping others with what you learn (the best way to learn yourself).


Agree, a lot of good stuff in Kelly’s post. One thing his framing misses (and yours recasts well) is that these skills are not only necessary for our children, those who are young now, but are valuable for all adults.

Which leads me to wonder when these maxims became applicable; was it some point in the last decade? In the ’90s? In other words, are they internet-era dependent or have they always been true, just on a longer timeframe?

Tim Carmody says…

I think we’ve got to go back a lot farther. For instance, let’s think about the generation that came of age between 1900 and 1920. These people — or at least many, many people in the educated, employed middle-class West — probably learned how to:

  • type on a typewriter
  • ride a bicycle
  • drive a car
  • maintain/repair a car
  • use a radio
  • use a gramophone player
  • use a sewing machine
  • take pictures using a camera
  • develop those pictures
  • handle electric lights and appliances
  • use a telephone
  • watch movies (maybe not much learning, but hey, it was new)

And all of those technologies and more besides were changing all the time. Some of those things they needed to learn for work, others for recreation. And they were all new. And they all inspired a cult of and hunger for the new.

I pitched a course to my department for next year about Rhetoric and Digital Media, this seems like a great way to start it. Bookmarked! I had planned to get my students to think critically about technology in general (McLuhan, cyborgs, etc) but also practice that thought on case studies. It might persuade them that this is valuable if I show them this kind of blog post. I more and more think education has to be about building skills like Kelly says. Not just with technology, but with ideas and arguments too.

Tim Carmody says…

I really believe (with Aristotle and Heidegger) that technology/Technik/τέχνη [techné] is a form of knowledge, a way to think, not just a bunch of stuff we plug into walls. But once you say that, then you’ve got to think a little more broadly about what knowledge and thinking are.

The general case for this argument then would be that learning individual data points are less valuable than learning ways of thinking, that learning specific ways of thinking is less valuable than being able to adapt and develop new ways of thinking —

— but also, of course, that all of these things only genuinely realize themselves when you’re immersed in the specific things themselves. And that this learning will have to happen over and over again, no matter what you think you’ve learned or how smart you think you are.

I like the reminder that we need to compare new technology to no technology, not just old technology. I think that creates an important perspective.

Hey, Tim! Thanks for the reference.

I agree 100% with your comment: “I really believe (with Aristotle and Heidegger) that technology/Technik/τέχνη [techné] is a form of knowledge, a way to think, not just a bunch of stuff we plug into walls.”

The technium is a way of knowing and technologies are ideas made substantial. We think with our tools.

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