Side-skilling and context

It has been quiet on this blog over the past couple of months. I try to post as much as I can, but what I manage to post about depends entirely on what I manage to do in my spare time. Over the last few months that spare time has been increasingly devoted to study of non-computing subjects – in particular, management, economics and sociology.


I love technology and doing cool new things with it, so why bother with any of those other subjects? Because technology doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s not enough just to invent a neat new app, network or gadget – as a technologists, we’ve got to understand how the stuff we create exists in society – who’d use it, where they use it, when they use it and why. It’s fun to study the technology side, and tempting to think the exclusive study of the tech aspects will get you the best answers. If you don’t understand people and society, though, you ultimately end up with brilliant solutions to problems that nobody has. Think of the Segway or the even more brilliant (and doubly ridiculous) robotic unicycle. Catherine Bracy recently outlined the problem very clearly, highlighting the un-reality of the consensus bubble that surrounds the technology world. After focusing so heavily on technology it’s now clear to me that I’ve got to look at a wider range of fields to know what technology is really good for.

Where to learn?

Personally, I’ve been looking in a few places – first, is an amazing online resource that offers hundreds of classes on an ever-expanding range of subjects. Because it’s a technological resource, it’s not surprising that the courses initially offered in late 2011 were very technology-focused. Since then, though, they’ve opened up a lot – their course listing now covers medicine, history, literature and more – all being taught by some of the best professors in the world. The most useful fields for me have been the ones I’m the least familiar with, and the ones that help me understand more about the nature of human beings – in the present day or in the past, on their own or in large groups. Other great places to look for inspiration are companies like BERG, the Long Now foundation and the old-but-venerable discussion forum at the WELL.

Does that mean studying technology is a problem?

Nope! Technology is a great subject to learn, and a great field to work within. It just means that it has to be understood in a wider context. STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine) education has an unfortunate tendency to create graduates with an all-or-nothing mindset about what they’re learning. That means that the people with the best technical skills to do something useful in society are often the worst-equipped to understand where those skills are best put to use. It’s partly because there’s a lot to learn about, so a technology course often doesn’t take the time to point these things out.

Does that mean no more interactive doodles on this site?

Absolutely not! It just means that there might be some more theoretical posts here amid the doodles. This year at Resn we’ve been playing with Leap motion and hope to have some demos and case studies to show off around that. More recently we’ve also been building a series of really gorgeous games in Away3D with models and animations constructed in Blender3D. To make that pipeline work for us we’ve had to do quite a lot of tweaking and building, and we look forward to releasing some of those tools into the wild. Closer to home, I’ve been using WebDatabases and a proxy tool to do some covert data-mining that I look forward to showing off in the near future. 2013 is going to be fun!