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Why Technology will Never Replace the Knowledge of Elders

by David Brewster on December 14, 2009

in Society,Technology

Old Sewing Machine

It was a crafty weekend at our house. I was house-painting – a job that is going to keep me going for many months. Our youngest daughter was making soap for Christmas presents. And my wife and eldest daughter were working together as said daughter had her first introduction to serious needlework. It got me thinking about a common modern notion that the internet is making the knowledge of elders redundant.

I stumbled upon a couple of blog posts on this subject recently (you can read them here and here). Both seem to suggest that the ‘wisdom of elders’ is increasingly becoming irrelevant, that between Google and YouTube anyone can learn almost anything without having to resort to tapping into the power of the grey.

This, I’m afraid, is to fall into the age-old trap of thinking that ‘our generation’ is fundamentally different from previous generations. Every generation thinks it is modern, and that its predecessors are old hat. In the current generation this idea is given extra impetus by the practically infinite amount of knowledge which is only an ‘I feel lucky’ click away.

It is also to have false faith in the idea that electronic contact has as much value as face-to-face contact: a belief rife amongst governments and corporations who see a chance to cut costs by replacing humans with hard-disks.

All such thinking is misguided – and I’m not just saying that because I’m 44 and sitting precariously on the fence between young and old.

Watching my wife teach my daughter to sew was to see a transfer of knowledge in a way that will never be replaced by computers. This is knowledge that has passed down generations in the same way. An explanation, a try, a correction, another try, a mistake, another correction and explanation, another try and, eventually, a finished product. All the while the conversation is detailed and nuanced, occasionally tense, and it relies completely on a virtually symbiotic relationship between the two participants.

Of course the similar conversation differs from generation to generation as technology changes. Today, when both are stumped there is always Google to call on as a reinforcement. But the fundamental nature of this sort of knowledge transfer hasn’t changed. It is just the same as the way I learnt to paint a house from working with my father – knowledge which he picked up largely from his father before him.

My daughter could have learnt to sew from books in the past, or from Google and YouTube now. Just as I could have learnt to paint in using the same tools. We would both have got there in the end, but it would have taken longer, meant more mistakes, cost more and, most importantly, it would not have been nearly as satisfying.

To suggest that elders have nothing more to contribute in the age of technology is to completely misunderstand the basic nature of our humanity: that it is all about relationships. Google will never replace that.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Sherry January 21, 2010 at 6:29 am

Hi David
I say here, here to your blog. Technology is only a tool not a replacement of human knowledge management. It is an extension, but I agree, it will never replace and make redundant the interaction that occurs when knowledge is passed on face-to-face. There is also the aspect of wisdom and experience that the learner can utilise even from the teacher’s mistakes and that knowledge isn’t written on a hard-drive.


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