We once knew how to do important things… until new technology made us weaker, lazier, and dumber. That’s a story we’ve told ourselves for centuries. But is it true?
Jason Feifer: This is Build for Tomorrow, a podcast about the things from our past, that shaped us and what it takes for us to shape the future. I'm Jason Feifer. Let me tell you something about a 13-year-old kid named Brian Reder. Brian, you see, he loves hotdogs, but he does not grill his hot dogs. I mean, grilling? Boring. Grilling is for his dad. Brian just puts the hot dog in a bun, wraps it all up in a paper towel to makes sure the ends are covered. Then pops it in the microwave on high for 45 seconds. Simple, easy, and in 13 year old Brian's words, "It's perfect."
Now, I don't know about you, but this seems fine to me. I think a grilled hot dog is better than a microwaved hot dog, but I also speak as a grown adult. 13-year-old boys are not known to share culinary preferences with grown adults. And also 13-year-old boys are probably best off not firing up the grill themselves. So I say, microwave that hot dog kiddo. Go live your best life, but maybe you disagree. Maybe you think what Brian is doing isn't just disgusting, but it's actually deeply problematic, not just from a culinary point of view, but from a straight up human evolution point of view. And if so, then you'll certainly agree with the original place that I learned about Brian. It was in a Los Angeles Daily News story from 1990 and the headline was this.
Voice Clip (Los Angeles Daily News): Technology is adding up to lost skills.
Jason Feifer: The article actually kicks off with the story of Brian and his complete disinterest in grilling a hotdog and then it widens from there.
Voice Clip (Los Angeles Daily News): For many kids these days, it's impossible to imagine cooking without a microwave, subtracting without a calculator, or scoring bowling by hand. While technology makes life a lot easier, even kids will admit that some essential skills are being lost.
Jason Feifer: Then the reporter quotes an 11-year-old boy named Mark Lewis, who says.
Voice Clip (Los Angeles Daily News): Some people are really lazy because of technology.
Jason Feifer: Because of course, 11-year-olds have deep institutional knowledge of the world, but I don't blame 11-year-old Mark Lewis for his beliefs because he is parroting something that every adult has surely spent the last 11 years telling him because the Los Angeles Daily News certainly did not invent this idea that technology leads to lost skills. This is a story we have been telling ourselves for a very long time, that technology weakens us and causes us to forget the important skills that kept our ancestors alive. I mean, in the year, 1850, a newspaper in Wisconsin called the Gospel Herald ran a piece headlined Disadvantages of Civilization, which kicks off like this.
Voice Clip (Gospel Herald): The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet. He is supported by crutches, but loses so much of muscle. He has got a fine Geneva watch, but he fails of the skill to tell the hour by the sun.
Jason Feifer: Fast forward a century to 1958 and you can find this idea infused into our pop culture. The great Sci-Fi writer, Isaac Asimov, for example, wrote a short story called The Feeling of Power. It set in a distant future where computers are so dominant that human beings stopped learning how to do math. Then a war rages on between humans and aliens and the humans are losing until a low level technician named Myron reverse engineers the basics of math, and then goes to the president of the humans with an idea. He tells the president...
Voice Clip (Myron): Put the power of the administration behind the establishment of a secret project on human computation.
Jason Feifer: But the president is skeptical. He says...
Voice Clip (President): But how far can human computation go?
Jason Feifer: And Myron replies...
Voice Clip (Myron): There is no limit.
Jason Feifer: There is no limit. Once humans regained the skill, they lost to technology. Anyway, it's onward from there. The Xenia Daily Gazette of Ohio in 1965, ran a piece headlined Skills Lost To Modern Technology Are Many which laments how Housewives no longer make sauerkraut from scratch anymore. In 1981, the Ottawa Citizen ran a piece headlined Teachers Must Fight Computers. Arguing that computers would be the end of literacy. And now today, a big old slice of what we find on those computers is devoted to talking about how computers are doing terrible things to us. For example, there are YouTube videos like this one I found called the Skill You're Slowly Losing by a guy named Thomas Frank. It's been watched nearly 500,000 times. The video kicks off with Thomas walking in the snow, talking about how stupid we are for using computers instead of, I guess, being outside, walking in the snow like him.
Voice Clip (Thomas Frank): Out here on this frozen lake, there is no service, which means that if I run into a problem or if I come across something that I don't know, the only thing I have to rely on is the bundle of neurons up in my cranium, which to be honest, contains a vastly more limited set of answers and knowledge than I'll find on the internet, but maybe that's a good thing.
Jason Feifer: I'll come back to why he says that's a good thing in a little bit, but anyway, you can see why this idea of lost skills is such an appealing and sticky idea. When technology provides us with a new solution to an old problem, it often alters the way we used to do something and this can be super convenient. I mean, who among us wants to ditch our washing machines and go back to washing our clothes by hand or light a candle instead of turning on a light switch. But each time this happens, we experience a change. Old habits, no longer make sense and then we think, "Oh no, what have we done? Have we tinkered not just with what we do, but with who we are? After all, we're familiar with the old ways of doing things. We grew up with the old ways of doing things. They have a history. They are proven. And the new ways, well, they're just easy. They're lazy and therefore we are lesser because of them." That's the argument at least. But here's the question, is that true? And the answer is maybe that's the wrong question to ask.
Martin Surbeck: The question is are they really lost or are they just not learned anymore?
Jason Feifer: That's Martin Surbeck who teaches human evolutionary biology at Harvard. That distinction he draws between whether a skill is lost or simply not learned is a critical one that we'll go into later because Martin is one of many people you will be hearing on this episode today. I muster all the new skills I have and maybe even some of the old ones in service of trying to answer this nagging question of ours. Does technology add up to lost skills? An answer coming up after the break.
All right. We're back. So this journey of investigating lost skills is going to take us all over the place, including into the skills of other animals. But I want to start with where this episode began just a few minutes ago. Remember that 1990 Los Angeles Daily News story headlined Technology Is Adding Up to Lost Skills. It was full of very 1990s, examples of fears of new technologies impacting young people. And now that a few decades have passed, I wondered does the author of this article think that those fears came true? Well, the byline was Suzanne Schlosberg. So I just started Googling around until I found a writer named Suzanne Schlosberg and then I sent her a link to that 1990 story and I said, "Hi, this is random, but did you write this?"
Suzanne Schlosberg: I was just scrutinizing the article going, this sounds like me. I know the people interviewed in the story, but I just was wracking my brain and could not recollect having thought of a story idea, reported it, written it or anything.
Jason Feifer: But there is no question, Suzanne wrote it. Do you look back upon it now and say, "Oh yeah, good points."
Suzanne Schlosberg: Yes, totally.
Jason Feifer: She was deeply skeptical of technology back then when she was a junior reporter in Los Angeles and she remains deeply skeptical of it now as an adult with kids and constantly fighting over video games. So just for fun, we went through some of the concerns in her article. We started with the tale of Brian and those microwave hotdogs, to which I said to her, I mean, what's really the problem with not knowing how to grill? I mean, I microwave most foods.
Suzanne Schlosberg: Microwave hotdogs are disgusting.
Jason Feifer: Yeah, that's true, but I'm not microwaving hotdogs. I'm microwaving other things. I'm not eating hotdogs.
Suzanne Schlosberg: And microwaving popcorn is so bad for you and so full of crap.
Jason Feifer: Suzanne's parents do not even own a microwave, which to be fair, she thinks is a little nuts, but all the same, we were not going to find enough common ground on the microwave. So then we moved on to Velcro. Back in 1990, Velcro was just a few decades old and there was a lot of discussion about how it would impact children. For example, if kids have Velcro shoes, then it was believed that they wouldn't learn to tie shoelaces, which will lead to a decline in the development of fine motor skills. And so I said to Suzanne, "Well, I mean, hasn't that been disproven by now?" I was 10 years old in 1990, and I probably had Velcro shoes at the time, but now I'm a big boy, tie my own shoe laces. But Suzanne said, "No."
Suzanne Schlosberg: I can tell you, Velcro continues to be a problem because how can I even tell you how many kids on the playground at school do not know how to tie their shoes because of Velcro.
Jason Feifer: And finally, there was the concern about good handwriting. In her article, she quotes a young boy who says that because he has an answering machine at home, he never has to take notes when someone calls for his parents and that means he's never picking up a pencil during the entire summer. That means his handwriting is declining. And so, I mean, leaving aside the very tenuous connection between answering machines and handwriting skills, I said to Suzanne, but here's an argument who needs good handwriting?
Suzanne Schlosberg: You know what? I will agree. I think there is something to the motor skills, brain development. I think Cursive can be helpful in that regard, but I don't defend Cursive. I think it's fine that Cursive has been eliminated from school curriculum.
Jason Feifer: Oh my gosh, we have agreement. So here's what I take from my conversation with Suzanne. The idea of lost skills is very tricky. Sure, yesterday's kids with Velcro shoes grew up to learn how to tie shoe laces, but today's kids are still relying on Velcro and who knows what will happen next for them. So if we want to see how something like this really plays out, we can't focus on the things that people are experiencing right now. We need to go deep, deep into the skills that we have lost in gained and what it even means to develop and maintain skills. And I'm thinking that we start with a skill whose fate has been verifiably sealed, where there is no question of what happened already and what will happen next. So let's go back to handwriting. The skill that Suzanne and I agreed upon because consider it, the generation of adults who are alive right now have witnessed a handwriting change during their own lifetime.
I mean, I am 40 and if you're around my age, then you probably have the exact same experience as me. You learned Cursive in school as a kid, and then you basically never used Cursive as an adult and now you probably don't see much trouble with your kid not learning Cursive at all because frankly, you totally forgot it by now anyway. But here's the thing, Cursive is actually just one small part of a much bigger story of the lost skill of fast handwriting. We can learn a lot by looking at that full story. So it is time to call a handwriting expert.
Dominick Tursi: What do I want to be referred to as? I guess, shorthand historian for this purpose is good.
Jason Feifer: This is Dominick Tursi, Shorthand historian. Also, he's the founder of The Gallery of Shorthand, as well as a long-time court reporter. That's the person who transcribes everything people say in court in real time using this curious typewriter looking thing.
Dominick Tursi: Next year, I'll be celebrating my 60th year in the business. I think another 40 years I may consider the word retirement. We'll see what happens.
Jason Feifer: So I wanted to hear from Dominick because I had this little fragment of a fact in my head and it was this, my grandmother was a secretary in, I don't know, maybe the 1940s and she used to tell me about how she'd take notes using something called Shorthand. It wasn't Cursive exactly. It was like a bunch of squiggly lines, something designed to be written as fast as possible. I'd always assumed it was some relic from her time, maybe even designed for secretaries like her, but Dominick says, "No shorthand goes way further back than that. It dates to Rome in 64 BC.
Dominick Tursi: A person named Cicero and the purpose of his inventing shorthand was because he felt that what was going on, or about to go on in the Roman Senate in his time in terms of structuring, formulating, the governmental structure of Rome could be important to future societies. So he thought that it would be a good idea, not just to record the results of the deliberations, but also the discussions themselves.
Jason Feifer: So Cicero and his slave created this form of writing, which turned the Latin language of the day into what seemed like scribbles and squiggles and it took off. Scribes, then learn shorthand and started setting up stalls in marketplaces so that if you had important business to conduct and needed a record of it, you could do it in front of the scribe. Then for the next basically 2,000 years, other people tried to improve upon the idea.
Dominick Tursi: ... named Timothy Bright develops the first workable system of shorthand in the English language in 1588.
Jason Feifer: Many others came after with new systems that were faster and more accurate. In 1837, a guy named Thomas Pittman famously introduced a phonetic system of writing. So now the symbols in shorthand were representing sounds instead of individual letters. And then by the mid to late 1800s machines started to be invented. These didn't have the QWERTY keyboards that we know today with a button for every letter, they were totally different with fewer buttons that could be pressed in combinations to form different sounds or words or eventually whole phrases. And by 1914, they started to make their way into the courtroom.
Dominick Tursi: But it wasn't if you will quote-unquote accepted by the shorthand fraternity.
Jason Feifer: You can imagine the argument, right? A great skill was being lost. People were being made lazier there.
Dominick Tursi: The pen shorthand writers bemoaned the fact that there was this new technology coming along and they demeaned it. They put it down.
Jason Feifer: So the old tradition held until 1935 when the Lindbergh baby kidnapping trial became a global sensation.
Dominick Tursi: The world wanted to get their hands on the text of what was being said. Obviously, they couldn't do very much with the shorthand so they needed a typewritten text.
Jason Feifer: And the typing court reporters could oblige producing transcripts every hour that could be shared far and wide. After that, shorthand was gone from the courtroom. Eventually, the same would happen in other corners of business in life. Machines had made shorthand obsolete. So what can we take from this story? There are two big things, I think. First, let's give the last skills hypothesis it's due. Shorthand writing was a skill dating back to the ancient Romans and it was important. It was the backbone of record keeping, it built the foundation of our institutions and agreements and it was swiftly killed by technology. And many other skills can fit into that framework. Skills that helped individuals and societies function for hundreds or thousands of years, and then were swiftly ended by technology. You can find a handy list of such skills on the DIY website, Walden Labs, which has a piece called 48 Lost Self-Reliance Skills That Kept Our Forefathers Alive.
It includes things like building a fire, building shelter, making clothing from scratch, blacksmithing, knife making, carpentry and so on. Fine. I have no idea how to do any of that stuff, but I want to counter something here. It's the idea that everyone once knew how to do all that stuff. We have this romantic notion of a hard worker from hard times who were Swiss army knives in a way that today we're just a bunch of butter knives, I guess. But even basic societies are not built upon basic skills. We humans take pride in our skills and we refine them to the point where nobody could reasonably master them all.
This point was brought home to me recently when I was listening to an interesting episode of the History Podcast, Tides of History, which explored everything we know about Ötzi the Iceman, this amazingly preserved mummy for more than 3,000 years ago. His elaborate tools and tattoos were perfectly preserved leading scientists to a better understanding of how his neolithic community must have functioned.
Voice Clip (Tides of History): The tools Ötzi carried at the time of his death suggests that some people specialized in particular tasks. Expertly sewing hides together to make clothing suitable for trekking up into the mountains is a much different skill set than napping a large flint in scraper of the kind that Ötzi had with him, which is different than carving a bow staff or fletching arrows or hunting an ibex, which is a notoriously difficult animal to hunt even with a gun.
Jason Feifer: All of which is to say yes, the people of yesterday had skills we don't have today, but we should remember that they also specialized in skills even back then. It is not as if they knew everything and we know nothing. It's more like they knew things and we know things and those things are different. That leads me to the second big takeaway from the tale of handwriting. Just because a skill develops to fit a need, that does not mean the skill or the need remain static forever. Skills and needs evolve together. Handwriting's actually a perfect example of this. Back in 2012, a printing company called Docmail reported some dire news about the written word. They did a survey that found 33% of people had difficulty reading their own handwriting.
Also, more than half of participants said their handwriting was noticeably declining. Those people also said the tasks once done by hand like updating calendars and reminders was now more likely to be done digitally. CNN reported on this with the headline, Has Technology Ruined Handwriting? If you expand outward, you'll find a lots and lots of other studies that are like this. Remember that popular YouTube video I played earlier with that guy, Thomas Frank, walking around on a snowy lake, feeling superior to all of us digital slaves. He wasn't just out there alone. He was out there with science.
Voice Clip (Thomas Frank): For all its benefits, the internet can encourage the formation of habits that make us mentally lazy. This isn't just an anecdotal observation either. There is data to back this up. For example, a study done at Harvard in 2011, found that when people are faced with difficult questions, they're now more primed think computers.
Jason Feifer: Which does sound convincing, right? Ask people a question and they immediately think of a computer. It sounds problematic. What happened to our own self-reliance? So to make sense of what we're seeing here, I want to tell you about some distant relatives of ours.
Martin Surbeck: Let me give you an example from the [inaudible 00:21:05] I studied chimpanzees and bonobos.
Jason Feifer: His Harvard University, professor Martin Surbeck who you heard briefly at the beginning.
Martin Surbeck: Dr. Martin Surbeck. I'm at the moment assistant professor in the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology.
Jason Feifer: And he studies the behavioral ecology of chimpanzees and Bonobos, which are the human beings' closest living relatives. Unfortunately, I know Martin's audio isn't great, but please bear with it because what he has to say is fascinating. So, okay. From Martin's evolutionary biology perspective, skills are a pretty simple thing to understand. Their purpose is to help a living.
Martin Surbeck: To interact with the environment in a way that maximizes their reproductive success.
Jason Feifer: And in the animal world, that can be viewed in a lot of different ways. An alpha male chimpanzee may have certain skills in strength and fighting and whatever, and other males may not. So what do these lesser chimps need? Well, they need different skills. They need to develop social skills, such as making alliances with others, maybe to overthrow the dominant male, or maybe just to create alternate social settings that provide them with some kind of status and ultimately a mate. Our human lives are of course, a little more complicated than that.
Not all of us want to reproduce for one thing, but if you broaden it out a little, you could say that skills help us pursue our definition of a happy and fulfilling life. Skills are a basic part of getting through the world. In this, we are not so different from other animals. So, okay, now let's look at some primates and we are going to start with the chimpanzees because here is the thing to know about chimpanzees. They are really good at using tools for eating.
Martin Surbeck: So they use sticks to extract termites from holes. They can use sticks to puncture the ground to get better access to food.
Jason Feifer: They use sponges to soak up water, long sticks to fish and so on. But what about bonobos?
Martin Surbeck: They do not use any of those tools in a feeding context.
Jason Feifer: No tools for eating. And to be clear, chimpanzees and bonobos are genetically very similar animals. They're similar to each other and similar to us. So what a mystery here? Chimpanzees use tools for eating Bonobos do not. Now here's where it gets super interesting because if you put chimpanzees and bonobos together in a zoo, then the bonobos will see the chimpanzees using their tools to eat, and then the bonobos will start doing it themselves, which is to say that bonobos are perfectly capable of using tools. It's not like they don't understand the concept.
Martin Surbeck: So they clearly seem to have the capacity to use tools.
Jason Feifer: So if they understand the idea of tools just fine, what could account for them not using them to eat in the wild?
Martin Surbeck: One idea there is maybe that an ancestral tool using individual moved into an environment where there were just no benefits anymore to tool use because there was so much food. Anyway, you do not need these special skills which are very intensive in term of learning times, in terms of brain capacity. So you just do better without.
Jason Feifer: Imagine it, some Bonobos from hundreds or thousands of years ago used sticks to extract termites and sponges to soak up water, just like chimpanzees do. And then for some reason, those bonobos wandered off to a different area where food was plentiful and they just didn't need to use sticks to extract termites and sponges to soak up water. And so they stopped because at that point, the tools were no longer a solution to a problem, which brings me back to this question about skills that you heard Martin asked at the very beginning of the episode.
Martin Surbeck: The question is are they really lost or are they just not learned anymore?
Jason Feifer: It is an important distinction, but one that gets lost in the discussion of lost skills. We tend to frame human skills as either active or lost. Like we lost the ability to write by hand very quickly. We lost the ability to make a fire or make our own clothes or whatever. But what if we didn't? What if we just decided not to learn? It doesn't mean it's lost. Just means it's no longer being invested in. I mean, take this down to the chimpanzee and bonobo level. Did the bonobo lose the skill of using tools for food or did they make a rational decision to stop learning those skills because the skills were no longer necessary?
The way Martin sees it, the skills were just not necessary. Biologically speaking, skill acquisition is not free. Skills take time to learn and they will weaken or disappear unless they're regularly practiced and that means expanding effort and brain space. If you are practicing one thing, you are not practicing something else. So we are always making decisions about how best to expand our effort and brain space. We spend it on the things that will make us a success either socially or financially, or as Martin says, reproductively. And those things will change depending upon our environment and the needs presented to us. So with that in mind, let us re-listen to YouTuber Thomas Frank standing out there on his frozen lake of superiority. Lake Superior, if you will.
Voice Clip (Thomas Frank): For all its benefits, the internet can encourage the formation habits that make us mentally lazy. This isn't just an anecdotal observation either. There is data to back this up. For example, a study done at Harvard in 2011, found that when people are faced with difficult questions, they're now more primed to think about computers.
Jason Feifer: Thomas is identifying something that sounds very bad. When people are presented with a complex problem, the first thing they think about is how a computer could solve that problem. Viewed one way, this is evidence of lost skills. We are no longer fostering within ourselves, whatever was necessary to solve these problems before, whether it's math skills or logic skills or whatever. Instead, we are outsourcing it to a computer. We have lost things. We have become dumber, or have we made a very logical decision based on our changing environment? Have we not lost something, but simply chosen not to learn one thing in favor of learning something else? Have we developed a different skill, a skill that is, well, maybe it's to efficiently use a computer, which is a pretty awesome tool and it requires skill to use properly.
Here's another way to look at it. What if a researcher somehow sat a bunch of talking chimpanzees down and said, "Pop quiz chimpanzees, you are hungry and there are a bunch of termites around, but you can't reach them with your fingers. What's the first thing you think of?" And the chimpanzee would say, "Oh, I think of a stick." Which is to say the Chimp is thinking about the tool available to it. The tool that it learned how to use for just this purpose. Is that a good thing because it developed the skill of using a tool to solve the problem, or is it a bad thing? Because it's using a tool instead of some other skill that it has to solve a problem.
You see what's happening here? Instead of rationally identifying whether a skill is useful or not, we are simply preferencing old skills over newer skills. But in truth, Martin says humans really only have one truly useful skill." It is practically the only one we're born with.
Martin Surbeck: I think one unified scale we have is that we are very good learners now and so anything that can be learned, if it's in a certain range, we somehow can acquire if we dedicate enough time to it.
Jason Feifer: So, okay. In a way Martin's perspective here undercuts the entire concept of lost skills. If humans have the ability to learn skills that suit our needs, then no skill is ever lost. It's just employed when needed. But the last skills believers might counter by saying this. "No, no, no. That misses the point because our reliance on technology is even diminishing our ability to learn." This thing that you just said is most important. I guess this was perhaps best captured by a 2008 Atlantic cover story that asked Is Google Making You Stupid? It was written by Nicholas Carr, who felt that the internet had weakened his ability to concentrate and do deep thinking. And then he followed that up with a book on the subject. Here he is on PBS NewsHour in 2010 talking about how our brains are so adaptable that as we continue to use the internet...
Voice Clip (Nick Carr): That strengthens those parts of our brain that are good at multitasking and good at shifting our focus very, very quickly. On the other hand, we're not exercising those parts of our brain that are involved in deep concentration, deep attentiveness, things like contemplation and reflection.
Jason Feifer: In other words, it is the ultimate lost skill the ability to be contemplative. And this is hardly the only fear out there like this. Beyond the silly worries that Velcro means kids won't tie their shoes or microwave's mean people won't learn how to grill, there is deep concern that technology is weakening the very things that make us human. So how do we make sense of that? Well, after a short break, you will meet a researcher who started looking at studies like this and realized, "Something important is missing here." And his conclusion may just change the way you think about all this. Coming up after the break.
All right, we're back. So as we grapple with this question of whether technology causes us to lose valuable skills, I'd say we've established two critical things. One, yes, technology has replaced many things our ancestors knew how to do, but two, just because we've stopped doing something doesn't necessarily mean we've lost the ability to do it, but rather that we haven't learned how to do it and perhaps with good reason, but now let's go a step further. Let's consider the skills that it seems unreasonable to say we don't need. Things like deep thinking and concentration or having healthy communities and social ties. These are the things that make us human and many argue that they're being frayed by technology. So how are we to make sense of that? Well, when I hear people say that tech makes us lazy or stupid or whatever, my mind immediately goes back to a conversation that I had in 2014.
At the time, I was writing an article for fast company about how the internet impacts us. I'd called up this guy named Lee Rainie to talk. He's the Director of Internet and Technology Research at the Pew Research Center and he told me this thing that I have repeated just over and over ever since. It was this, I'm just going to read it to you word for word. He said, "The mark of a learned person used to be, how much do you have in your head, but in an era where you can literally look up the answer in your smartphone, the capacity to do rapid pattern recognition is elevated. Does that make for a dumber or smarter society? Who knows it makes for a different society."
Now I haven't actually spoken to Lee since that 2014 interview, but I called him up again now. I don't know if you remember saying that or if that's a thing you've said to a lot of people, but it really stuck with me. The reason is because what you're pointing out is that there is no inherent good or bad in a particular skill. It's really just a question of what skill works for right now. I wonder if you could expand upon that.
Lee Rainie: I remember Jared Diamond, the great long history scientist arguing that Paleo people probably had higher IQs than we do because of all the things they had to master in order to survive.
Jason Feifer: To be clear, we're talking about not people on a paleo diet today, but people in a paleolithic era.
Lee Rainie: Tens of thousands of years ago, they had to figure out how to get their food either by hunting it or growing it. They had to figure out how to keep their fires going and they had to figure out how to build shelters that would survive brutal weather patterns. That's a pretty chanting notion in a way, because a lot of human history has been trying to outsource some of the most complicated thing that mattered to human survival. We're at the dawn now of a brand new era where thanks to our smartphones and then all of the other prosthetics and advancements we're going to get in our lives that the human capacity itself will be expanded and it will be expanded in large measure because machines are better or enhancements that are predicated on machines are better.
When it comes to intelligence, of course, the thing I said then, which I haven't said a lot, but I'm very happy I said it. It still stands, but there are new iterations of it. The capacity to access knowledge and learning is even easier now and soon enough, if you believe a bunch of technologists were going to be able to think thoughts and have them transmitted in the right way to the right people and right circumstances.
So intelligence is a moving target and there are lots of interesting conversations in the scientific community about how you even measure it. But there's social capacity of people to apply their collective intelligence and to use machines and the cause of expanding their intelligence is a mighty thing to behold. So it might be the case that individual people are not necessarily smarter. They might even be dumber than their ancestors used to be. But the collectives of us particularly motivated collectives of us have never been able to be more brilliant than we are now and we're in the early part of that story rather than later, part of that story. It's going to get better and better over time.
Jason Feifer: In other words, technology continues to get more complicated, but the takeaway remains as simple as when he said it before. Different is not inherently worse. I mean, let's accept for a moment that Paleo people had higher IQs than we do today. I don't know if that's true, but just let's go with it. So let's now hop in a time machine, grab a caveman, bring him back to our modern times and see what happens. I'll tell you what happens. This guy is going to look like an idiot. Come on caveman, you can't figure out how to drive a car. You can't navigate office politics and achieve middle management. No, no, you can't. Not immediately at least. His entire base of knowledge is built around a different set of tools and skills. That doesn't make him smarter than us. It doesn't make him dumber either. It's just different.
But we, in our modern time, as we try to make sense of these shifts in human capacity using our modern science, we don't do a very good job of accounting for these shifts. That is the big problem according to Lee Rainie of the Pew Research Center. Here's a good example of where things go wrong. So in 2006, Duke University released a study showing that the size of people's personal networks had shrunk since the late 1980s. The authors hypothesized that technology was to blame. After all, this was clearly the largest intervening variable between the days of dial up modems and today.
So the study and its apparent condemnation of technology, well, it seemed to make a lot of sense to people and therefore it was widely reported. But when the folks at the Pew Research Center looked at this report, they noticed something. The Duke study was based on a survey and that survey never actually asked respondents about their own internet usage. So Pew repeated the study in 2008, and then again in 2011 and in both times, because they now had data that Duke did not, Pew could identify a critical nuance. Internet users actually reported all kinds of increased social wellbeing. It was the non-users who reported decreased quality of life. What is to account for something like this? Well, you have to break down the research.
Lee Rainie: The anchor of a lot of social network analysis is a core question. How many people in your life do you have that you can discuss important issues with?
Jason Feifer: That sounds like a very reasonable question to ask, right? But what if it's based on an old idea of a social network where single individuals were relied upon for many things? And what if now in an era where communication tools help us overcome geographic boundaries?
Lee Rainie: So it might be that people now distribute their trust to different people under different circumstances. You might have somebody that you really trust for financial advice. Who's completely different from somebody who you trust for health advice. Who's completely yet, again, different from somebody who would give you good job advice. What we've seen in our studies is that networks are much bigger and people who are the most successful in this environment have network intelligence. It's a new kind of intelligence that can activate their network to meet their needs, to solve their problems, to get the advice, to get the emotional support they need. But it's not confined to this core social network necessarily that used to be the atomic unit of social cohesion.
Jason Feifer: That's not to say that having close in person friends is not important. Lee is not saying that at all. But what he's saying is that a shift has occurred, a broadening of the definition of a social network. Like let's say a few decades ago, 100% of your important social network might've been the people in your neighborhood. But now what if, and I'm just placing an arbitrary number here for the sake of argument, but what if 50% of your important social network is now the people in your neighborhood and 50% are distributed across the world. A mix of old friends who you don't actually see very often and maybe even people on the internet who you've never met in person, but they fulfill some specific need of yours. Like advice on this or that subject or entertainment and this or that way. Well, if that's the case...
Lee Rainie: It's hard to quantify the difference between then and now in part, because we're asking slightly different questions.
Jason Feifer: When researchers ask people about their personal networks, they tend to be measuring an old understanding of personal networks. In doing so, they're going to miss this whole other part of people's social lives. Then they're going to report, "Aha the internet has led to smaller social networks." This is the trouble with trying to compare then and now. What we're measuring changes with the world. Centuries ago in a world before great communication and transportation technology, people struggled with unbelievable and crushing boredom and loneliness. I'm not just hypothesizing that. The great book Bored, Lonely, Angry, Stupid has an amazing chronicle of letters that people wrote about how they managed their isolation and the advice that religious and community leaders would provide on how to manage it as well. This was a necessary skill. Now we're beating ourselves up over how we're too busy and scatterbrained.
Is one problem better than the other? I don't know. Personally, it sounds a lot better to be scatterbrained than bored, but then again, I only know my own reality. So really all I can say for certain is that comparing the two seems pointless. The skills of yesterday don't always apply to today and vice versa. So this raises one final question for this episode, and that is if the skills of one generation don't necessarily translate to the next, then what skills might we expect the next generation to need? Here is someone with an answer.
Mauro Guillén: I'm Mauro Guillén and I'm a professor of international management at the Wharton School.
Jason Feifer: He just wrote a book called 2030: How Today's Biggest Trends Will Collide and Reshape the Future of Everything. In it, he projects how our world evolves in the next 10 years and across industries, he believes a new necessary skill will take hold.
Mauro Guillén: The world is changing very quickly. Knowledge is becoming obsolete very quickly. We also see that somebody in a given field needs to know about what's going on in another field in order to get ahead, because we see so much more boundary crossing and boundary spanning in terms of coming up with solutions to some of our biggest problems. So I think connecting the dots is a skill that is going to become more valuable. And also people I think are going to increasingly develop it because you can no longer be a doctor without understanding IT, for example. You can no longer be a plumber these days without understanding architecture, without understanding regulation, without understanding also, IT.
Jason Feifer: It's interesting. In a way, he's describing job skills that became even more specialized. People need to know even more in order to do their jobs, but he's also describing job skills that become more generalized because fields of knowledge are now bleeding into each other. A plumber who understands architecture could conceivably eventually ditch the plumbing part and do something else that overlaps with the architecture part, for example, and perhaps for this reason, Mauro says that a lot of people often ask him this question. In the future, will it be better to be a specialist or a generalist?
Mauro Guillén: It's obvious that for certain kinds of occupations that you really need to be a specialist. I mean, you want to be an airline pilot, well, you really have to acquire a very specific body of knowledge, right? But what I would say is the following that the economy in part, because of technology is moving in the direction of creating more jobs for generalists. I think this distinction that I'm making is really important because technology tends to exacerbate that transformation via economy. The reason is obvious because machines when it comes to automation, there are so much better at replacing human beings that do specialized work.
These days, as you know, an airplane, a commercial airplane can be entirely flown by a computer. So I think the economy's creating more jobs for generalists. And that's why I'm saying, look, not everybody needs to be a generalist, but compared to 10 years ago, to 20 years ago, to 30 years ago, I do believe that there are more jobs in the world now for generalists than for specialists and I think that trend will continue into the future.
Jason Feifer: So what have we done here in this episode about lost skills? Well, quick recap, we've gone back to Roman times to track the development of one skill that was ultimately killed off by technology and into primate skills to see how learned skills match the needs of an environment. And into the study of human behavior to see how we might miss the shifts in how old skills manifest in a new technological age. And then we had an expert on the future tell us that the year 2030, isn't one of lost skills exactly, but more of shifted skills.
Well, some of the skills may become obsolete or less marketable. People will need to develop what you might think of as adjacent skills. Skills around the skills. A toolbox of skills and you might even say that this is the theme we see across time, too. I mean, think about shorthand. Did we lose that skill? I suppose, maybe. Unless you think of the skill, not as the ability to write really fast by hand, but rather the skill of quickly chronicling what people say by the use of the greatest tools available to us, in which case the skill simply shifted from handwriting to typewriting.
Same is true for the law skill of grilling a hotdog, unless you think of the skill not as the ability to grill, but simply as the ability to cook food for yourself, at which point, knowing how to optimally make something in a microwave, maybe isn't the most amazing thing anyone's ever accomplished, but it does get the job done and the end result is simply a matter of taste. Our skills may be never really lost, but rather just always with us in different forms. And if so, why do we keep harping on the loss?
I suppose the answer was buried in that answer that Mauro gave a moment ago. He said that technology tends to exacerbate transformations in the economy. That is true of course. It's the underpinnings of our current debate about automation and job loss. A shift that will lead, I think, to the creation of new jobs and new industries, but certainly not without a lot of pain for people caught in the middle of that transition. And maybe that's the anxiety that ultimately shows up in the worry of lost skills. It reminds me of this other thing that Lee Rainie of the Pew Research Center said when we talked.
Lee Rainie: When people think about lost skills, they're also thinking about their own past and maybe the depletion of those skills or maybe the irrelevance of those skills now. So it speaks to a fundamental human yearning for meaningfulness and being useful and being on top of the world and finding ways to make your mark in the world. If your skill set is vanishing or is becoming obsolete because of what's happening in technology, that's a scary darn thing.
Jason Feifer: And that I realize is not something that any amount of logic about the science and history of skills is going to easily untangle. Because that is one of our most basic and understandable and real and inevitably realized fears, irrelevance. So what can we to fight against it? That is a bigger question, I admit, than one little podcast episode can answer, but here I think is at least one way to start thinking about it. One that we'll all need to build upon and improve upon and be ever mindful of as change comes for us and everyone we know. And the things that we think make us valuable, start to seem a little less so.
We can say, look, there is a difference between losing something and needing to learn another way to do it. And no amount of technological change can alter the fact that we are learners, that we have immense capacity to learn and adapt, and that the greatest tool that we can provide each other is to create the opportunity to learn, to learn new skills, to gain them. Because change does not have to be loss. That's our episode, but hey, I have got one more batch of lost skills for you. It is a dispatch from the 1960s, but first, if you love this, then please subscribe, tell a friend and give us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts and also reach out. I love hearing from listeners.
You can contact me directly by going to jasonfeifer.com. That is J-A-S-O-N F as in Frank, E-I-F as in Frank E-R dotcom or you can get in touch, sign up for my newsletter about how to find opportunity in change and more. This episode was reported by me and Britta Lokting, sound editing by Alec Bayless. Our webmaster is James Stewart. Our theme music is by Caspar Babypants. Learn more at babypantsmusic.com. The voice actors you heard in this episode were Jia Mora. You can find her at giamora.com and Brent rose. You can find him at brentrose.com and thanks to Pen Name Consulting, Clifford Ando, Adam Soccolich and Brandon Dove.
This show is supported in part by the Charles Koch Institute. The Charles Koch Institute believes that advances in technology have transformed society for the better and is looking to support scholars, policy experts in other projects and creators who focus on embracing innovation, creating a society that fosters innovation and encouraging people to engineer the next great idea. If that's you then get in touch with them. Proposals for projects in law, economics, history, political science, and philosophy are encouraged. To learn more about their partnership criteria, visit cki.org. Again, that is cki.org.
All right. So towards the very beginning of this episode, I referenced this story from the Xenia Daily Gazette in 1965, which was headlined at Skills Lost To Modern Technology Are Many. It is quite a piece. Really, I love this line. The author laments the loss of, "the simple act of shaving. A function further complicated by the devotion of college students to beards." Which is interesting because of course, beards are actually the more natural of these two and razorblades are the technology. At some point a few decades earlier, someone was lamenting how technology made shaving easier, which eliminated the more natural beard, but anyway, then gets even more complicated. So here is from the column.
Voice Clip (Xenia Daily Gazette): What housewife cherishes her ability in the long process of making sauerkraut when she can buy it ready-made in cans? Who takes the time to peel, slice and cook pumpkins when there are pies ready-made on the grocery shelf? Does she compound the separate ingredients to make a cake or resort to ready mix? Does she pull poultice a small boy's skinned knee with turpentine or apply a ready-made self-adhesive bandage.
Jason Feifer: So, pop quiz on that. I just had a female actor read those lines, but what do you think? Do you think a man or woman actually wrote the column lamenting how housewives no longer cherish spending hours making sauerkraut and peeling pumpkin's by hand? What do you think? Yes. Some dude named Ray Higgins wrote it, which means it really sounds like this.
Voice Clip (Ray Higgins): What housewife cherishes her ability in the long process of making sauerkraut when she can buy it ready, made in cans.
Jason Feifer: Yes, Ray. Yes. Tell us more about what the housewife misses. Anyway, that's all for this time. Thanks for listening. I'm Jason Feifer and we'll see you in the near future.
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