Jack Uldrich
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Learning to Unlearn: A Case Study

Posted in Business, Computer Industry, Creativity, General, Health Care, Jump the Curve, Stories

In my 2008 book, Jump the Curve, I dedicated an entire chapter to the topic of “unlearning.” It is my contention that the pace of technological change is occuring so fast that not only it is essential people learn new skills, they must also dedicate an equal amount of time to unlearning old skills and old ways of seeing the world.

To this end, Hitachi has reported that it expects to quadruple the data storage capabilities of desktop computers to 4 terabytes by 2011. For those of you counting at home, this means that you’ll be able to store roughly 1 million books, 250 hours of high definition video or 250,000 songs on your iPod by the time President Obama is finishing his first term in office.

I would encourage you not to simply think of data storage in terms of what it can do to today’s existing technology. The more serious implications will play out in terms of how it impacts media, the arts and education. The Freakonomics Blog had a great post on this topic a while back. In essense, it details the experience of a researcher who tried to explain in an article back in 1993 how digital storage technology would disrupt the music industry in the not-too-distant future. Interestingly, the Harvard Business Review rejected his article because they thought it was “nonsense.” As history has demonstrated, of course, it was not nonsense and the only people who looked foolish are the editors at HBR because they weren't open to envisioning a different future or unlearning .

These editors are not alone. They join a very diverse group, including Lord Kelvin who famously predicted in 1899 that “heavier than air flying machines are immpossible,” as well as the legions of medical professionals who, as I explained in this post the other day, laughed Barry Marshall off the stage in 1984 for having the audacity to suggest that ulcers were caused by bacteria. They did this because they “knew” ulcers were caused by stress and eating too much spicy food. (Marshall had the last laugh. He won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2005 for his breakthrough discovery.)

My point is that when thinking about the future it is vital to keep a very open mind to what you might have to unlearn. It is also helpful to be a little humble because, if you’re not, you can end up looking pretty foolish. For an example of an individual incapable of thinking exponentially, I’d encourage you to read this old post.

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