Strong opinions, weakly held

Thinking about resistance to learning new tools

The Washington Post’s Wonkblog has a depressing story about the inability to solve a seemingly straightforward problem with technology that will resonate with anyone who works in information technology. In this case, aid agencies are trying to get people in developing nations to stop using indoor cooking fires and use stoves that are safer and more energy efficient instead. Indoor cooking fires kill around two million people a year and are horribly inefficient. They produce emissions that cause global warming. Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of agencies that give away stoves and provide training to replace them, the long term effectiveness of their efforts is very low.

In software, I see this all the time. Many users are incredibly resistant to changing tools, even if mastering the new tool would greatly increase their quality of life. What I have also observed is that people compartmentalize their interest in trying new tools. Someone might resist upgrading Microsoft Office but constantly seek out the newest fishing tackle available. Or a designer might eagerly upgrade to the latest version of Photoshop but refuse to learn a few Unix shell commands that would make their life much easier.

I’d love to see a study that measures the correlation between a willingness pick up new tools and career growth. My belief is that a willingness to adapt to new tools is a key to remaining economically productive over the long term, unless you have a very highly specialized set of skills that remains in demand.


  1. Following your post about PHP I have decided to learn PYTHON. Let’s see if my decision will translate to action.

  2. From the linked-to article: “People were spending too many hours conducting repairs and eventually just preferred to switch back to indoor cooking fires.”

    And there you have it. Some high and mighty muckymuck decided that the stoves should make life easier, but apparently the muckymuck was wrong.

    Sometimes in hindsight I should have been quicker to adopt something new, or to replace some old car or appliance. But just as often, maybe more so, someone is telling me that I should like something and find it useful when really I do not find it to be so. If people aren’t adopting a new tool, imho do not blame the people.

  3. Rafe, your willingness to pass judgment on what might or might not improve someone else’s “quality of life” suggests an insensitivity that I find surprisingly out of character. I’ve really been enjoying your posts as of late, but something about your holier-than-thou attitude here (which I believe was unintentional) really bothers me. I hesitate even posting this as a comment, but I don’t have a way to contact you via email. Happy to take this “offline”.

  4. I certainly don’t mean to come across that way and worried that I might. I realize that people try to foist things on to others all the time “for their best interest” when the thing they’re foisting isn’t actually helpful at all. I was just too lazy to incorporate that into my post. “It’s good for you” is probably the worst selling tactic in the world, and as often as not it isn’t even true.

    The point I really wanted to try to make was that there’s not something special about the people who are sticking with their indoor cooking fires — people of all choose not to adopt new technology all the time for all kinds of reasons. I was really responding to the lack of empathy that seemed to be coming through in the article.

    Ironic, I suppose.

  5. I don’t mean to pile on, but I agree that all too often users get told that this tool is “good for you” and it “makes life easier” out of some political or tech-fetishistic agenda.

    This is happening right now as a sort of mini-war in the tech world with Windows 8. Those of use who don’t want a phone/table interface (as we prefer to get real work done, not be passive consumers) are told that we are Luddites, in the way of the future, and wrong about our own preferences.

    Even if we are wrong, I still work much faster and likely always will on a non-phone interface. I spend sometimes 16-18 hours a day working on my PC, and I don’t need it to be “touch-enabled” nor do I need to attempt to use it (poorly) as a tablet — I already own a table, thank you. No screaming about my Luddite status on the part of the tech-fetishistic will change any of that.

    Having encountered that sort of zealotry too many times in the tech community, I am nearly allergic to it.

  6. That’s a completely valid point.

    The point that I sort of got sidetracked by making was that the tools landscape changes all the time whether we like it or not. Sometimes the tools get better, sometimes they get “better,” but they’re always changing.

    My theory is that it’s beneficial to be open to sort of surf the wave of change rather than resisting it, because it’s not going away.

  7. “My theory is that it’s beneficial to be open to sort of surf the wave of change rather than resisting it, because it’s not going away.”

    The above is possibly true, especially when a change is being imposed by external forces. Example: Bikes are a hobby of mine. Bottom-bracket standards are morphing towards press fit designs. I hate that. I could pay whatever it took to dig in my heels and avoid the new standard as long as possible, but I would not have fun and it would ultimately cost me more to do that.

  8. Asimov wrote about this in ‘The Roving Mind’: “Human beings learn how to handle numerous complicated devices in their lifetimes. The learning is not always easy, but once the complications are learned – if they are learned properly – it all becomes automatic. The thought of abandoning it and learning something else, of going through the process again, is terribly frightening.”

    Overcoming that fear, and thereby learning to embrace change, is one of the things that keeps you on top of your game.

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