What do you need to unlearn?

20080301chalk, originally uploaded by noaha.

I was chatting with some friends today, and I was describing a session from Bitnorth ’08 where some teenagers were brought in to be a panel to be questioned by the attendees.

We had lots of questions for these “digital natives“, and while I expected some of the answers (ie: radio’s irrelevant, email is for old people etc..).. it did make me think about the skills we “older” people carry that are, in reality, just cluttering our heads.

I started listening to music on vinyl on a toy record player shaped like a bug that looked like this:

ladybug record player

ladybug record player

It was a crazy design that put the speaker right under the surface of the record being played. But, I learned how to listen to music on that, and pretty much any turntable I used afterward followed the same basic mode of operation. Some skills were acquired (Setting the right speed, placing the needle at the right point to hear the chosen song, not bouncing on the ground too hard lest the record skip, etc..).. These skills transferred well onto my more “grownup” turntables, but they are all completely useless with my iPod.

Same idea with communications, I learned to use a phone using a rotary dial phone, even learned how to dial a rotary pay phone by tapping the “hang up” button, and those skills are completely incompatible with my Blackberry.

So there’s my head, still holding onto these skills in the hope that one day I may use them again. It’s quite unlikely, but I feel that somehow, holding on to these skills may in fact keep new ones at bay, or at least taint them with prejudice they don’t merit.

I think this need for unlearning carries into all aspects of life.. Just because one girlfriend broke your heart doesn’t mean the next one will, yet often the next one will “pay” for the other’s transgressions. In business, experience can often be a hindrance to innovation, because the “I’ve seen this before” mentality kicks in, and we end up making decisions not on what we see now, but what we saw before.  Some of that is good of course, which is why experienced people are better paid than newbies, but there’s a lot to be said for the ability to turn on your “newbieness” and judge situations without prejudice.

So, while a method to “unlearn” method would be nice (though it too would have to be learned), I think we can accomplish a lot of this just by realizing that we’re carrying baggage, and try to not let all past experience forge future decisions.

It’s as close as we can come to unlearning,

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  1. Nico says:

    Heh, a cell phone where you could dial with the hang-up key (as an easter egg) would be pretty cool.

  2. John Meadows says:

    This post is giving me a lot to think about, as I can see both the benefit, and danger of unlearning. Remembering old skills and old technology can provide valuable context when it comes to seeing the place of new technology and skills, but taken too far takes us into luddite territory.

    On the flip side, remembering being amazed by the cassette-based Sony Walkman of the 1980’s makes my 120 gig iPod classic seem so much more amazing when I consider how far we’ve come; can a digital native who don’t remember the pre-mp3 error truly share the same sense of wonder?

  3. What’s amazing is how this works neurologically- which is what’s always fascinated me.

    Your brain spends all this time to make connections to help you recognize and repeat complex behaviors (like using a pay phone, playing a record…) that require a certain sequence of events- there are actual neuropathways in your brain that let you do this. The unlearning requires the eventual atrophy of those neurological, biological connections. But just like an unused or underused pathway in the woods, it takes a while before nature takes over and there’s no trace of it any more.

    The good news is that all of these experiences layer on top of one another, so you can take your Vinyl experience and apply it to figuring out a different sort of gadget, because some of the information from A can be co-opted to help out with the new problem.

    So unfortunately, you can’t just replace the file and free up a few GB in your brain for new stuff, and you wouldn’t really want to, because you need that past knowledge to move forward.
    I love neuroscience, and sorry for turning into Bill Nye the Science Guy here, but it is cool how plastic the brain is.

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