GUEST POST from Greg Satell
Many say that coding is the new literacy. Kids are encouraged to learn programming in school and take coding courses online. In that famous scene in The Graduate Dustin Hoffman’s character was encouraged by a family friend to go into plastics. If it were shot today, it would have probably been computer code.
This isn’t actually that new. I remember first being taught how to code in middle school in the early 80s in BASIC (a mostly defunct language now). Yet even today, coding is far from an essential skill. In fact, with the rise of no-code platforms, there is a strong argument to be made that code is becoming less important.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s still plenty of coding to be done on the back end and programming is certainly a perfectly reasonable thing to learn. However, there’s no reason people need to learn it to have a successful, productive career. On the other hand writing, as well as other communication skills, will only become more important in the decades to com.
The Future Is Not Digital
During the past few decades, digital technology has become largely synonymous with innovation. Every 18 months or so, a new generation of processors has come out that was faster, more powerful and cheaper than its predecessors. Entrepreneurs would leverage these new capabilities to create exciting new products and disrupt entire industries.
Yet now that’s all coming to an end. Every technology eventually hits theoretical limits and that’s where we are now with regard to digital processors. We have maybe one or two generations of advancement and then, with some clever workarounds, we may be able to stretch the technology for a decade or so, but it’s highly unlikely that it’ll last any longer than that.
That’s not so horrible. There’s no 11th Commandment that says, “Thou shalt compute in ones and zeroes,” and there are nascent architectures that are potentially far more powerful than digital computers, such as quantum and neuromorphic computing. Neither of these, however are digital technologies. They operate on fundamentally different logic and will use different code.
So instead of learning to code, maybe our kids would be better served by learning about quantum mechanics or neurology. Those would seem to be far more relevant to their future.
The Shift From Bits To Atoms
Digital technology is largely virtual. Transistors on silicon wafers compute ones and zeroes so that images can flash across our screens. That can be very useful, because we can simulate things on a screen much more cheaply than in the physical world, but it’s also limited. We can’t eat, wear or live in a virtual world.
The important technologies of the next generation, however, will be based on atoms rather than bits. Advances in genomics have led to the new field of synthetic biology and a revolution in materials science is transforming our ability to develop advance materials for manufacturing, clean energy and space exploration. So maybe instead of learning how to code, kids should be studying genetics and chemistry.
As we develop new technologies, we will also need to design experiences so that we can use them more effectively. For example, we need linguists and conversational analysts to design better voice interfaces. Kids who study those things may be able to build great careers.
The rapid pace of technological advancement over the next generation will surely put stress on society. Digital technology has helped produce massive income inequality and a rise in extremism. We will need sociologists and political scientists to help us figure out how to cope with these new, much more powerful technologies.
Collaboration Is The New Competitive Advantage
When my generation was in school, we were preparing for a future that seemed pretty clear cut. We assumed we would become doctors, lawyers, executives and engineers and spend our entire lives working in our chosen fields. It didn’t turn out that way. These days a business model is unlikely to last a decade, much less a lifetime.
Kids today need to prepare to become lifelong learners because the pace of change will not slow down. In fact, it is likely to accelerate beyond anything we can imagine today. The one thing we can predict about the future is that collaboration will be critical for success. People like geneticists and quantum scientists will need to work closely with chemists, designers sociologists and specialists in fields that haven’t even been invented yet.
These are, in fact, longstanding trends. The journal Nature recently noted that the average scientific paper today has four times as many authors as one did in 1950 and the work they are doing is far more interdisciplinary and done at greater distances than in the past. We can only expect these trends to become more prominent in the future.
In order to collaborate effectively, you need to communicate effectively and that’s where writing comes in. Being able to express thoughts and ideas clearly and cogently is absolutely essential to collaboration and innovation.
Writing Well Is Thinking Well
Probably the most overlooked aspect of writing is that it does more than communicate thoughts, but helps form them. As Fareed Zakaria has put it. “Thinking and writing are inextricably intertwined. When I begin to write, I realize that my ‘thoughts’ are usually a jumble of half-baked, incoherent impulses strung together with gaping logical holes between them.”
“Whether you’re a novelist, a businessman, a marketing consultant or a historian,” he continues, “writing forces you to make choices and it brings clarity and order to your ideas.” Zakaria also points to Jeff Bezos’ emphasis on memo writing as an example of how clarity of expression leads to innovation.
In fact, Amazon considers writing so essential to its ability to innovate that it has become a key part of its culture. It’s hard to make much of a career at Amazon if you cannot write well, because to create products and services that are technically sound, easy to use and efficiently executed, a diverse group of highly skilled people need to tightly coordinate their efforts.
Today, as the digital revolution comes to an end and we enter a new era of innovation, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the rapid advancement of breakthrough technologies. However, the key to success in our uncertain future will be humans collaborating with other humans to design work for machines. That starts with writing effectively.
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