Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Article: Skills of the future

In the early 1980s I was involved in typesetting. Back then full colour screens and certainly pictures were not commonly available to most businesses; your business was considered advanced and state of the art if it had green and black screens instead of white and black, but at least floppy discs for storing information had arrived instead of cassette tapes. Mobile phones too were just being introduced and were heavy cumbersome things that few could afford and instead of Internet we had fax and answer phone machines.

It meant that everything that needed to happen had to be done at a much slower pace and in a much more manual fashion. Go back a little further in history and typesetting itself was a process of laboriously physically collecting each individual letter to make up words and sentences to produce a page of text - it was called hot metal as that's what the letters were usually made from. The skills required to run any operation in any industry were extremely diverse.

As technological advancement changes so skill requirements to enable businesses to function and survive do. Take as another example weaving and textiles; in the 19th century it was done by people working at home before the industrial revolution brought about mechanised processes. Whole ways of making, producing and functioning periodically change with the result that many manual skills get lost and forgotten. A wholly handmade pair of shoes made by a master cobbler is today regarded as an artisan product and the prices of them reflect the time and craftsmanship as well as the rarity of them in our use for five minutes and throw away modern world. They stand out as being different from what is commonly available precisely because they are not mass produced.

The question that crosses my mind is that by focusing on being able to produce things en mass and do things with ease are we in danger of losing out on many of the pleasurable things in life that enhance the quality of our existence? To just press a button to make things happen is hardly stimulating work and it can lead to all manner of problems if that button doesn't work as the mechanised process grinds to a halt and that then impacts on profits etc. In addition we might well be in danger of failing to develop a myriad of skills by becoming fixated with technology alone.

Today few people have knowledge of what is actually happen when a switch, lever or button is operated; they take it for granted that it will just work and that if it doesn't someone else will fix it. With many modern systems though there are no cogs to align, no wheels to grease, it is mostly down to knowledge of computers, electronics and electrics to kick start things again. 

The inherent problem with such sophisticated systems is that the more complex they are, the more points of failure they will have. It is hardly surprising that those who are particularly adept in computers, programmes and electronics are among the most highly regarded professionals of all due to their sheer usefulness in ensuring things work in our modern world. Certainly if you are involved in technology of any form you are unlikely to find yourself long-term unemployed compared to other aptitudes of skills. What though, does the future hold for those who are not computer orientated and what will the future hold for their skills?

There are of course many other areas which will never become industries of the past; from health care to education, from farming to construction and from plumbers to law enforcement. However the way in which they all work is becoming much more technologically reliant and that could prove to be a problem because if we do not equally value the non-technically orientated we could (and I would argue already are) missing out on the development of many other areas of skill which are not so heavily reliant on technology. 

A person can be taught things without the aid of computers, a better yield from crops can be achieve without them and as yet there is no substitute for the a person knowing by  through experience whether a person is ill or if they are trying to cover up a crime. There is great value from learning how to achieve things via different means, but in our push-button world we will soon not know how to?

Could we function if we had no technology now? Without any clear and viable alternatives to current energy sources which are finite, if the plug were pulled out so we had no electricity supply how would we be able to function at all? Such is the major pitfall of becoming so push-button reliant. That reliance even extends to our spare time and is already throwing up new problems with people simply not knowing how to socialise because they are continually plugged into a computer.

Technology at is best should always aid us, but it should never govern who we are, how we choose to function or what we do next. We should be commanding it and not be dictated by how it operates.

I recently read that children as young as 9 have 'better' (i.e. more advanced) phones than their parents and knew how to use every facility on them. I found that rather sad to reflect on because if the pace at which we work continues to increase, what time will they have to enjoy the planet that sustains their existence and what experiences could they be missing out on? New prejudices are already set to develop against those who are not interested in technology. Are we as a species about to embark on a split between one half of us becoming technophiles while the other half are manual workers. Many would argue we already are and it's certainly been a recurring theme of many a sci-fi story. Historically such differences in aptitudes have fed into the conflicts and been the basis for class systems. So in the future will it matter less how you are educated but matter more what you are educated in for you to make your way in the world?

The fact remains we need both brains and brawn in order to survive and progress, but my concern is that while I see plenty of hype and praise of all things technological, I see little by way of support for other skill bases which are the bare essentials to all of us being able to function at all. There are a lot of non-technical skills which are responsible for maintaining the real infrastructure by which we can have our wonderfully diverse structure. For this reason, while I am a fan of technology myself, I think we would be wise to invest more in ensuring we have future generations to still, farm, build, install electrics, look after our water supply, heal the ill and educate us all. To be blunt in my opinion, we cannot afford not to. 


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