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Core Skills

I worry about GPS navigation systems in cars, and I worry about cell phones.

I worry about GPS because I think it could replace the ability to read and understand a regular map. Reading a map requires certain skills: the ability to orient oneself relative to north, understand how features of the physical world are represented in a two-dimensional diagram, and calculate the best possible route by synthesizing information from the map and from the actual environment. Reliance on GPS, at its worst, largely replaces these skills: you just obey the robot voice.

I worry about cell phones because I don’t remember phone numbers anymore. I know three phone numbers: my cell phone, my dad’s office, and our house in Virginia (and that’s been the same since I was a child). The real problem isn’t that I could lose my cell phone; I’ve done it once, and those numbers can be obtained, although with significant inconvenience. The real problem is that the battery could die while I’m lost, or that in an emergency the cell networks could be down altogether.

The question I’m trying to raise is whether there are some skills that we should be careful never to replace entirely with technology. I’m no Luddite; I think the revolutionary progress of technology allows us to access and use information, communicate with others, and shape our environment in very positive ways. But to remain entirely unconcerned about the disappearance of basic skill sets, you have to be confident that the technology will never be unavailable. I’m not; I think it’s certain that some people alive today, and likely that many, will be faced with situations where the technologies they’re accustomed to are simply not there.

Survival MACHINE

One of my favorite quotes, which I have posted elsewhere on this blog, comes from science fiction author Robert Heinlein:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

It’s not a bad list. What else can we add? A human being wishing to be resilient in the face of unexpected challenges should be able to…

  • Swim
  • Build a fire
  • Purify water
  • Bake bread
  • Cook staple foods
  • Hunt for food
  • Preserve food
  • Use basic tools
  • Build a simple shelter
  • Use a library
  • Change a tire
  • Use a firearm
  • Read a map
  • Write well
  • Read usefully
  • Estimate time
  • Help build a house
  • Find north
  • Mail a letter
  • Ride a bicycle
  • Avoid harmful plants
  • Jog at a sustained pace
  • Identify useful plants
  • Do basic math and algebra

There are, of course, limitations; most people don’t have time to learn how to weave cloth, blow glass, smith metal, or build a crossbow. Nor will they likely need to. But I think there’s a lot to be said for cultivating a broad range of practical skills. Whether or not you ever need them in an emergency, you’ll benefit from a richer exposure to the world and a more resilient way of responding to its challenges.

Agree? Disagree? What would you add to the list?


5 thoughts on “Core Skills

  1. I agree with your premise, and your list, except for “use a firearm”. I honestly think we’d be better off if a lot fewer people had that ability. I might add: climb a tree, garden, sew on a button and deliver a baby.

    Posted by Laurel | January 16, 2009, 3:47 pm
  2. What “core skill” is being represented by the accompanying picture??

    Posted by Anton | January 19, 2009, 9:19 am
  3. All of them, of course!

    Posted by Vincent | January 20, 2009, 2:38 pm
  4. Redundancy and humanity. Those seem to be the two things you’re saying we can’t sacrifice.

    I was just “uncluttering” and about to throw out all our paper maps now that we have GPS. Then I thought, what if the satellites go down? I felt silly. But the paper maps are still in the car (in the trunk now).
    All my “phones” are either mobile phones or Skype/Vonage. But I can’t bring myself to “cut the cord”. What if there’s a Black Swan and the internet connection AND cell tower go down? (The landline would be down too, of course, but I don’t want to think about that.)

    I vaguely recall that Adam Smith was all for specialization (in that proverbial pin factory) on grounds of efficiency but dreaded it on grounds of civilization. We’d go mad.
    The Germans have a word, Fachidiot, a “subject idiot”, someone who is a world expert in one niche and a nincompoop at everything else. The opposite of Leonardo da Vinci.
    Only problem with being Leonrdo today: If you don’t drop some of those things on your list, you won’t have time to specialize, and if you don’t specialize you never put in the 10,000 hours that Gladwell now claims you need to master….
    A conundrum.

    Posted by andreaskluth | February 4, 2009, 12:22 am
  5. Andreas-
    Exactly. Even on a daily level, how many times do you need to lose a cell phone with it the numbers of everyone you know before you wonder whether some redundancy might be a good thing? I’m not bothered by GPS per se. I’m bothered when it becomes a black box and we don’t understand how it works anymore. At some point, efficiency becomes the enemy of resiliency.

    It is a conundrum. I’m not sure how to deal with it in MY life, much less on the level of a society. But I guess I’ll take the Boy Scouts over 10,000 hours of violin lessons any day…

    Posted by Vincent | February 4, 2009, 11:21 am

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