Technique or skill?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the following:

Writing headlines that get dugg vs Writing headlines that get remembered

Mastery of video game controllers vs Mastery of video game / problem-solving concepts

Convincing people to pay for your stuff vs Creating stuff people can’t live without

Google ability vs Research ability

Being able to survive in a given business vs Being able to survive in any situation

Knowing how to blog vs Knowing how to write

Knowing how to prepare a lesson plan vs Knowing how to educate

Knowing how to speak properly vs Knowing how to weave a compelling 45-minute narrative

Being a CSS ninja vs Being good at learning multifaceted rule sets

Writing good Java code vs Understanding programming theory

Making pretty with Photoshop vs Analyzing the world to come up with impactful new things

As Clay Shirky points out in Here Comes Everybody, newspapers are actually a completely illogical bundle of content. The only thing the sports, business, front page, weather, stocks and classifieds have in common is that they are, paradoxically, bundled together. The reason they are bundled together is because of what was once a physical necessity.

But we consider them indispensable, or natural, because they’ve been around so long.

The act of putting together – and reading – a good newspaper is a technique, not a skill. It’s a hack to make up for the fact that, in earlier times, the distribution of information was prohibitively expensive and at the mercy of the people who controlled the means to package it.

I don’t have my copy of Here Comes Everybody handy to quote, but this Village Voice article does the trick:

Like most varieties of institutionalized culture, newspapers were initially accidents of history that hardened over centuries into stable establishments. The digital distribution of words and images, Shirky writes, has revealed that newspapers as physical objects were always just a “provisional solution.”

Call it a technique, a hack, an accident of history, or a provisional solution—but it’s not just about newspapers. It’s all around us.

It’s also about being really great at video game controls. Then something like the Wii, or DS Lite, or iPhone comes along and the games don’t necessarily change, but the way you interact with them does. The previously laudable commodity of really hot thumbs becomes almost totally useless. It’s not something for all time, it’s a technique that had a sell-by date.

It’s the difference between mastering a game that is difficult because the physics and controls are difficult and vicious (see also: Mega Man) or mastering a game where the gameplay itself is well-designed but the included tasks are intellectually demanding (see also: Myst).

It’s the difference between artificial barriers and real ones.

Just so with focusing on anything else that smacks of technique—digg bait, Jakob Nielsen bait, direct-mail style sales letters, tricky clicky things, standardized tests, school in general, competition on price, pleasing your manager, browser quirks.

It’s anything that involves worshipping the medium or tool (video game controller, TV screen, newspaper, book, Photoshop, blog, classroom session, business process) more than the thing it’s currently conveying or being used to output.

Figuring out which knowledge is of lasting value, and which are hacks, is a critical skill.

No Comments

  1. Erik Kastner says:

    Nice article. One of the comparisons you left out is "Knowing VIM (or emacs, or textmate)" vs. "Expressing yourself (be it code or words)"

    I’m a habitual skill seeker, I love little more than finding something I’m not good at, or didn’t even know exists, and reaching a level of proficiency with it. But, the skills don’t matter, it’s the process that is fun.

    So, I think your main point is that you shouldn’t worship your tools, instead you should focus on what they enable. I’d like to make a meta point: by learning lots of skills (and not being attached to them), you learn how to learn quickly :)

  2. zack ham says:

    Just a matter of seeing the bigger picture. As I once heard, "call it a flying machine, rather than an airplane, it is more timeless that way"

  3. Hi Amy,

    I hate to disagree, but the the thing that sports, business, front page, weather, stocks and classifieds all have in common, the reason that they are bundled is that they are all new. That’s why it’s called the news. There is no old information in a newspaper. The rest followed from there.

  4. Rainer says:

    Think it’s part of out educational organization to have a plan about useful and temporarily useful knowledge. I once saw a table that stated something like "primary school knowledge should be useful for 35 years, high school knowledge is valid 15 years, university trains you for the next 5 years".

    As far as my knowledge as computer scientist is concerned – I know that everything steadily changes – it’s vital to stay up to date.

    And the best thing you can learn is how to learn.

  5. Amy says:

    Steve, sure, they’re up-to-date. Except when they’re not: reviews, interviews, editorials, puff pieces (not to mention ads).

    The point is, simply the fact that, say, 70-80% of a newspaper is "newish" doesn’t negate the fact that as a whole, it’s "incoherent" as Shirky describes it.

    Content-wise, a highish percent of novelty alone doesn’t give a newspaper coherency. I have never known anyone to read a newspaper cover-to-cover. The relation/significance of the topics to each other is much too distant to be overcome by shared newishness.

    I’m still with Shirky on this one.

  6. Amy, you raise a very great point. I think I agree with you on the newspaper, and I guess, in a sense Feed aggregators are starting to do this in a way than newspaper layouts never could.

  7. Amy says:

    Zack, I agree with you and I disagree with you. "Seeing the big picture" is one of those phrases used by managers, self-help gurus, teachers, angry parents, etc., etc. that, at heart, is so abused that it has come to mean nothing. People don’t think about what it means any more than they think about the actual meaning of "for all intents and purposes," or "don’t count your chickens," or "honesty’s the best policy" for example.

    These aphorisms regain meaning for a single individual when that person crosses some threshold and goes "AH!!" and really GETS IT, understands in a visceral way, not just an abstract, academic way (when they even think about it at all).

    I’m very interested in what it really means, and how to explain it and teach it to other people (as well as figure out how I got to this point myself).

    Hence the blogging.

  8. Thiago Freire says:

    OK, let me say another aphorism: Is just a matter of finding the higher-order function :)

    I agree, newspapers are weird and most times poor in quality (since you have some writers writing what they dont know very well). Blogs and other specialized writings are more reliable, and with feed readers or "home page services" you can do your own newspapers.

    Just a thing: Sometimes I read a newspapers cover-to-cover, and also my dad and some uncles.

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