Justin Webb: learning things is so last century

"Everything you need to know – things you may previously have memorised from books – is (or soon will be) instantly available on a handheld device in your pocket"

My children are not interested in knowing anything. They will play at things; they will watch things; they will interact with things. They will work stuff out if they have to, but that is the limit of their ambition. Where Mum and Dad (well, Dad to a lesser extent, but that’s another story) laboured long and hard over books, establishing a body of solid knowledge, the kids just skim, scavenger-like, sniffing out what appears to them to be actionable info; the rest is ditched.


This used to worry me: how would they get on in what we are constantly told is a “knowledge economy.” There is a wonderful Peter Cook and Dudley Moore sketch where Cook – as an elderly wastrel sitting on a park bench – bemoans the fact that he never got to be a judge: “You see, I never had the Latin…”

My children, I fretted, did not have the Latin.

But I have become quite suddenly freed from all such concerns. The reason: I read a book (Big Data by Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier) and attended a conference in which buzzy futuristic types talked with enthusiasm and some sense, too, about what the modern commercial world is like, or is about to become.

You do not need to know anything any more. Knowing things is hopelessly 20th century. The reason is that everything you need to know – things you may previously have memorised from books – is (or soon will be) instantly available on a handheld device in your pocket.

The other day I asked my 13-year-old daughter whether she might fancy becoming an astronaut in the wake of the news that Briton Tim Peake is to go to space. Daughter looked up, vaguely interested; but suddenly her face clouded: “Do you get a phone signal up there…”

It’s enough to make a 20th-century father despair. But now I think I see what she might have been driving at. She’s not thinking only about idle texting but also about a more general interaction with the world – with reality – that arrives to the young through the medium of interactivity. Why waste your time learning facts when they are on your phone, all the time, in your pocket? And soon on a tattoo on your arm, or on your shirt, or a pair of glasses.

The other day I was in a tent with my family when we had a minor medical emergency that involved the need – quite quickly – to be able to translate a blood sugar number from milligrams per decilitre to millimoles per litre. In the olden days this would have presented a problem to be solved through knowing the conversion calculation. Now my son (also 13) just sorts it out using one of several mobile devices scattered around the groundsheet.

What fascinates me about the new world is that along with there being no need to know things comes a massive need to be able to manipulate information when you find it. In other words, education – the ability to count and to write and to imagine and to have intuition and to interrogate facts and manipulate them – is still hugely important.

An example of this is an area of work where at the moment people with the relevant skills are scarce. In an era of big data – where information about every aspect of customer behaviour is known to companies – there is a need for clever people to sort it out and compare datasets in a way that tells you interesting things about people, things you may be able to use to sell them a product or a service or just make life better for them. But the key to entering this lucrative professional class will be knowing what do with knowledge, not knowing the knowledge itself.

To misquote Spock: “It’s knowledge, Jim, but not as we know it…”

So my kids, and yours, will be OK. I think.


Justin Webb presents Today on Radio 4