On Technical Literacy: Speaking the Language of the Future

Technology shapes our thoughts, creates new opportunities, and is full of challenges. It is our mindset regarding challenge that is the difference between adaptation and extinction.

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

History Only Records Progress

History is built upon world changing progress; species adapt, or they fade away. Not all changes have been biological in nature, but the repercussions have been just as devastating. Some changes happen in the form of ingenuity, and some come in the form of language. However it comes, history can only record what has changed, not what is the same.

In a world of limited resources and social hierarchy, it comes down to advantages. Written language is symbolic reasoning: using symbols to communicate ideas. This can be a critical advantage over other tribes. Not just in storytelling but more importantly, the passing down of knowledge. Primitive pictures can be prescriptive, representative of strategy. They can be practical ways to teach children about dangers without putting them in harm's way. Spoken language as embryonic as grunts can be crucial to alerting others of a threat. With a few noises and some hand gestures, intent can be known, plans devised. Another tribe or species would be at a considerable disadvantage when compared to the hominids with language.

Language Shapes Our Thoughts

It is hard for our brains to recognize something as ordinary as the color blue unless it has a name. Many ancient languages did not have a word for the color blue. Ancient Greeks described the sea as being the color of wine. The sky did not have a color designation; it was considered colorless. Some cultures could not differentiate blue from green. Once the word "blue" appeared, it spread like a virus and overnight perceptions changed. Newness creates new opportunities, in this instance: for writers, artists, and dye makers. One new thing begets other new things.

Necessity Is the Mother of Ingenuity

Tools such as spears made hunts more productive. This meant more food, more protection, and better survival. Tools opened up possibilities, the versatility is derived from the user. A spear is used to dig, which spawned an improved tool, the shovel. Ideas breed other ideas. Rather than conventional answers for survival; like enormous stomachs for foraging or giant paws for hunting, we developed giant brains. The brain is not a direct tool in the way claws or fangs are, but it is useful for one thing: problem solving. Unlike outwardly physical attributes that have specific uses, the mind can improve everything. With language and tools, we became the most cooperative species—and the most powerful.

Domestication of animals improved not only our survival but our ability to travel and move cargo. Working with animals became a required skill for a time. They were a common part of society—animal trainers were more common than school teachers. Horse carriages eventually became the primary mode of travel; we came to need drivers and riding instructors. Then the automobile came along with many other innovations. Evolution looks for the swiftest path, and sometimes that means jumping from the biological to the mechanical, and the mechanical displacing the biological.

Everything changes and evolution is in itself just a subset of efficiency. Society must adapt. People learn new ways to support themselves—or they don't. This has always been the way of things. Our choices create our outcomes.

Information Is a Language; Technology Is a Tool

When language and technology come together, we have things like newspapers, telephones, internet, and text messaging. Survival competes for better methods, whether it is the natural ability to eat a variety of foods and regulate body temperature, or man-made inventions like medicine and cooked foods. Technology not only touches every aspect of the world, but it is actively shaping it.

New Opportunities

When I asked Alan Yuille, a professor of computer vision about the importance of technical literacy, he said:

People with mathematics, or theoretical physics, skills can go into finance... They can also go into high-tech. This isn’t really mathematics (most of the time) but it can use similar skills... I concentrate mostly on my graduate students and postdocs—they either go into high-tech (e.g., Google, Facebook, Microsoft—or their own startup) or into academic jobs.

Curiosity is essential in his field where solutions are not immediately clear. In generations past, these same students may have applied their talents elsewhere, but now their curiosity is bringing them into the sciences—to be a part of new discoveries.

Newness frightens some people, causing them to flee while some run toward the challenge. Alan added:

People who can do math and applications have very useful skills and have many job prospects.

In the past, someone like Alan would have worked for the government. Now he can consult major Fortune 100 companies.

Evolution of Business

Roberto Medri is the principal data scientist for Wealthfront. According to their site, "Wealthfront is the world's largest and fastest-growing automated investment service with over $2 billion in client assets." Rather than having a human advisor, they employ machine intelligence to manage client money—your portfolio itself will have intelligence.

Roberto had already worked in the traditional business sector for three years and according to him, he was "miserable." He said, "I wanted a tech job," and combining those three disciplines "was the best thing to do to get one." Roberto continued:

If I hadn’t had the coveted business job before, I would have followed the herd.

On why he wanted to go into tech, Roberto said:

Because you’re building a product and not just selling a service. So it attracts more like-minded people. At least like-minded to me.

On the differences in culture he said:

Service-based places can be extremely shallow, consultancies, banks, law firms, etc. In tech, you have at least some degree of ideal, and it’s more like being in the minority and fighting the good battle.

It was important for Roberto to know that the things he was doing was tangibly benefiting others but "also tangibly upending incumbents." Going forward, is it possible to be successful in business without having a baseline knowledge of technology? Roberto speculated:

Maybe. But I wouldn’t bet on it. I think more and more technical knowledge will be required.

Part of the thrill is being a part of something new. It is no wonder some of the top talent are choosing to go into tech rather than Wall Street. Jeff Bezos, the CEO and founder of Amazon famously told Wired:

When I’m 80, am I going to regret leaving Wall Street? No. Will I regret missing the beginning of the Internet? Yes.

What Is Luddism

The Luddites started out as 19th-century English working-class who opposed machinery. Named after Ned Ludd, a youth who destroyed two textile stocking frames. The fear was, machines would replace labor. (A valid concern.) No matter how many machines they destroyed, they could not stop progress. Machines were emblematic of a changing world. What people thought was possible had changed, and erasing thoughts was like erasing "blue" from the world. It could not be undone. People integrated machinery into their daily lives. Expectations had changed.

The Luddites had historical context to their fears: tools create efficiency, and efficient systems need fewer workers to produce more goods. Machines were a more efficient tool, and it did replace labor, a specific type of labor. Humans, however, are versatile, and new work opened up for people who understood machines. As with other tools, machines needed to be cleaned, repaired, and improved.

In evolution, there are forward leaps, and when it is time to jump, not everyone makes it to the next stage. It would be easy to talk about unfairness because it is unfair, and it is full of suffering. That is the nature of the universe. All things change. All things end. That is the only guarantee. As one form of opportunity ends, a new opportunity appears. As sentient beings, we cannot always choose the circumstances, yet we can choose our actions and our perspectives.

Luddism Is Neither Ignorance nor Nationalism

It would be easy to condemn Luddites as technically unsavvy, but in reality, it was the opposite, it was their technical knowledge that made them fearful. They feared what they understood. Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and Stephen Hawking have expressed concerns over machines. Critics have accused them of Luddism, yet none would question their technical literacy. From the top economists, Silicon Valley execs, to President Obama, all have made clear that nothing has reduced employment like automation. But the ones in real danger are not the Luddites but the ignorant, the ones (willfully) unaware of their changing world. Luddites will hedge their bets and try to remain relevant.

Another distinction must be made, Ned Ludd and the Luddites were not nationalists, they did not blame foreign labor for their disappearing jobs, they blamed machines. Machines will not call in sick, take vacations, complain, rest, or have any political affiliation. (Machines are cheaper than foreign labor.) It would be like horses blaming horses in other countries, or non-native horses for taking their jobs, rather than the automobile. Nationalists often do not even acknowledge automation in their arguments. (You can try to keep immigrants out, but so far nothing has stopped the progress of machines.) You used to need lots of people to farm, now you don't. You used to need lots of people in warehouses to lift boxes, now you don't. You used to need people to make cars, now machines outnumber humans in factories. We are already telling children how actual humans used to be needed for physical labor. It's another part of history—strange, exotic, and almost unimaginable.

"Wait, we used to have to ride horses to get around? And send emails, called letters, by mail? And write it by hand?"

America is efficient, US production is higher than ever, and the amount of people needed to produce goods are lower than ever. Yet, we go on our iPhones and complain about people taking our jobs, completely oblivious to how our very iPhone can do the work of what used to take thousands of people. (Automation is so ever-present, we can no longer see it.) If it were actual humans taking our jobs, that would be a good problem. But that's an old world problem. We live in a new world now. (If you want to bring those jobs back, smash your phones, and only buy things made by hand. But that's unlikely, as that would be less convenient, more expensive, and the quality would be open to more human error.) Perhaps we can stop factories from opening up in another country, but how are we going to get that factory to use people rather than machines? And if it only uses humans, how will it be able to compete and stay in business? (We can blame who we like, but there's no one in charge of this world. It's a runaway world and it's impossible to know where it'll go.)

Technology is not intrinsically benevolent. There is an ethical argument to be made. However, that is not the subject of this article. The point of this article is the practicality of knowledge and maintaining individual value when values change.

Illiteracy In the New Language

Technology shapes our thoughts, creates new opportunities, and is full of challenges. It is our mindset regarding challenge that is the difference between adaptation and extinction. With biological advantages, we cannot grow wings or gills. Technology is different in that everyone has an ability to ride a plane or learn to scuba. (Technology is even shaping our biology.) Much of the conflict with technology comes from our attitudes, if we see technology as too daunting and overwhelming, we will avoid it. We will look for ways around it, and attempt to convince ourselves we can do without it. Imagine America in the 1900s, an illiterate youth would have an extraordinarily difficult time escaping poverty without the ability to read. It would be a near miracle. Technical literacy is of the same importance. We have different levels of access, yet having the wrong attitude can only compound disadvantages. There is no scenario where it would benefit anyone at any level of access to deny technology.

Willful Ignorance

Some believe ignorance is uniqueness. Yes, not knowing how to use a computer makes you different. If you're willing to live off the grid, that's fine. But if you want the advantages of contemporary life without modern education, you're not a rebel, you're willfully ignorant. Being the last fool is unique but hardly desirable.

If everyone you know is using something to communicate—that is language. The world will speak a unified digital language, as they once did with print followed by the telephone. The inability to communicate in this language denies the ability to cooperate, the strength of our species. You'll be functionally illiterate—lacking in the literacy necessary for coping with most jobs and many everyday situations.

Your tribe is beginning to run; the gap between you and your tribe is life or death. In practical terms, it means community, financial security, food, and being highly employable.

In severing ties with technology, we lose the ability to relate to the rest of the people who use it—out of touch with current society. If that is the intent, to become a naturalist and re-wild, embracing self-reliance, your choices are in line with your ideology. The ones doing it for no rhyme or reason other than to be obstinate are the ones this article addresses. Naturalists will have different expectations, which will be very minimal. Others who are incidentally defiant will have the same expectations as the rest of their peers without any of the tools to meet their expectations.

Politicians Are Criticized for Being Out of Touch

In an article in the Washington Post, journalist Catherine Rampell criticized what she called the "Luddite Caucus." There has been criticism of politicians being out of touch with their constituents since there has been politicians. Rampell writes:

Maybe not using e-mail was initially motivated by a craven desire to avoid record-keeping. But the casualness with which these senators acknowledge such habits reveals something scarier ... how utterly uninterested they are in understanding the daily experience, workplace expectations or priorities of their younger constituents. ...

Not taking the time to learn to communicate the way that pretty much everyone else in the nation does reveals such mindboggling levels of societal incuriosity that it should be considered political malpractice. It should probably also disqualify you from crafting any policy that has even been tangentially touched by the now decades-old digital revolution. Which is pretty much every kind of policy you can think of.

These politicians do not send out emails because they have the luxury of having others do it for them. This does not make them more genuine or old-fashioned (unless aristocracy is the definition of "old-fashioned"), this makes them more privileged. (Just as horse owners are no longer the poor but the rich.) They do not have to get their hands dirty like other Americans, which is what makes them out of touch with the American experience.

The Illusion of Being Insulated

Technology is not unique to an industry, yet what you will hear people say is, "Well my industry is different." Every industry has differences yet they all have competition in common, to do it better and faster. Technology is that leverage, and if one company refuses to use it, another surely will. Imagine a high-rise designed by hand and another designed on a computer, which would feel safer? What will design more buildings?

I was speaking to Kim Gordon, co-founder of Wildfox, a vintage-inspired women's lifestyle brand. Celebrities from Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, and Miley Cyrus have been photographed in Wildfox. Kim initially moved to Los Angeles at 19, with aspirations of being a filmmaker. She took some film classes, but she mostly taught herself. Kim struggled financially, there was even a time she lived out of her car. She took a part-time job in fashion and learned as much as she could from those around her, but Kim is a self-learner. What she lacked in formal education, she made up for in curiosity and persistence.

Kim's talent is her taste, which she applies to many mediums. I asked Kim if she had other advantages? Without hesitation, she said yes, she had technical advantages. She taught herself things like photography, web design, Photoshop, animation, graphic design, and how to create tech packs for garments. She learned as she went along and was not afraid to ask for help. She became a creative dynamo in a sea of fashion designers. Kim said:

It drives me crazy when people bypass trying to learn technical things when it can be so much fun.

Since Kim did not have traditional resources, she became good at learning. A unique trait when most learn through conventional means. Kim flipped the script on her disadvantages and turned it into her strengths. Many assume fashion to be immune to technology, yet with limited openings, every advantage counts.

Talent Transfer

Are you specifically good with a film camera or are you an artist? Are you good at writing for a newspaper or are you good at writing in general? If you are valuable in a broad way, you can keep redefining the specifics. If you are only good specifically, you become limited and only necessary so long as that particular need exists. Tools are for specification; humans are for comprehensive tasks. In the case of Kim Gordon, she was not rigid about being a filmmaker or a fashion designer, as long as she got to be creative.

Knowing How to Be Found

Let's say you have a small business, it's the best at what it does, but how will people know if they can't find you online? The internet is the new word of mouth; many trust it more than the word of their friends. Job seekers routinely find employment through LinkedIn, a professional social network. Professional fighters with more Twitter followers get paid more. UFC Hall of Fame fighter Stephan Bonnar memorably told matchmakers:

I want to fight people with lots of Twitter followers.

Actors have resurrected their careers through Facebook. Comedians have made themselves relevant through Twitter, blogs, and podcasts. Filmmakers have gotten projects through Instagram. Academics have become household names through TED Talks. It is about visibility, perceived value, and relevance.

People Lose Jobs When They No Longer Know How to Do Their Jobs

Be an individual and express yourself, but do it by being the most knowledgeable. The best way to do the job will change. Without changing a thing about how we work, we can lose our value overnight. To keep pace with progress, we must reshape ourselves. Time will do that, it can turn the most innovative into a traditionalist. It is up to the individual to stay ahead of change.

The Inequality Gap

The inequality gap can mean many things: it can mean the wage gap between the sexes, inequality between races, but also the income inequality between the rich and the poor. Technology has not bridged that gap; it has only worsened it. Children who have an earlier introduction to technology have more initial information capital. From that point on, those early advantages multiply over time, this is known as the Mathew Effect.

The Digital Divide

The digital divide is an economic and social inequality based on access to information and communication technologies. As new technologies emerge, there are new opportunities for those who can take advantage of them. For those who cannot, their values become diminished, further increasing the digital and economic divide between the new "knowledge class" and everyone else.

The Versatility Is Derived From the User

It is not about us vs. technology, technology just amplifies what is preexisting. Buddhist and Catholic monks to minimalists, all are taking their message online. Many people who enjoy thoughts and ideas that seem contradictory to technology, would never be aware of such ideas without technology. People are told to "unplug," yet where do they read this? Online. The great irony is, the majority of articles about disabling Facebook is shared on Facebook. It even gives voice to its opposite because it is becoming the only voice.

Naturalist Henry David Thoreau in Walden writes:

We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us. Did you ever think what those sleepers are that underlie the railroad? Each one is a man.... The rails are laid on them, and they are covered with sand, and the cars run smoothly over them. They are sound sleepers, I assure you. And every few years a new lot is laid down and run over; so that, if some have the pleasure of riding on a rail, others have the misfortune to be ridden upon.

Yet it is this tech savvy crowd where Thoreau is making a digital resurgence. Today, most strenuous labor is done by machines, not by man. This frees up time for people to work less, offset the loss of income by living more minimally, and enjoy the free things—like nature. Or we can choose to fill our time with busyness. Technology can do either. As Thoreau said, it can bury us, or we can "have the pleasure of riding on a rail."

Technology is a tool, like the spear, like language, like penicillin. Our brain has a multiplier effect on our abilities; technology works in the same fashion—as an external brain. Throughout recorded history, people refusing to use their brains is nothing new. The new brain is technology. If we do not take advantage of something and everyone else does, there will be a separation and that separation will be multiplied by the new brain.

Process Needs Purpose Since Process Is Endless

There is no finish line; the process is endless. The status quo is a figment of our imagination and pretending we have already paid our dues implies that there are no new dues to pay. What is important is not where we will end up but why we started, for that gives us versatility for different outcomes.

Technology is not the problem, it is our behavior. Neuroscientist Peter C. Whybrow explains that our ancient brain is designed for only thinking in short-term survival. Thus many have a hard time transitioning to progress since progress never ends. Whybrow's prescription in The Well-Tuned Brain:

To reshape the future we need first to better understand and reshape ourselves.

There is a baseline required technical knowledge, and that baseline is continuously being upgraded. All industries are changing. Technology is the new language. Not speaking this language is functional illiteracy, and the repercussions are destructive. If your goal is to live in a cave as a hermit, as many great philosophers have, then that is beautiful (Hopefully, however, you own this land and have enough capital for food and supplies. Otherwise, you won't last long). But if that is not your goal, get out of the cave. Follow the change or become obsolete.

Technology is neither good nor bad, it's just here.

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