18 May 2020

Why bother learning about wood when you can just Google it?

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Why bother learning about anything when you can just Google it? It’s a sentence that’s crossed many people’s lips. One connected device and you have an impossibly vast library of information at your fingertips.


Why spend time studying a subject in a traditional sense – starting at the beginning of a long journey – when you can just unlock your phone, enter a few words into Google, and find answers to all the questions you never even knew you had.


You can ask anything (What density is oak? How do you cut a 45 degree angle on a piece of wood?) within the box and be greeted with newspaper articles, blog posts, academic journals – even YouTube videos. But is that enough?


Why bother learning about anything when you can just Google it? It’s a perfectly legitimate question to ask. There is no doubt that Google is good at what it does and often leads you to a good or reasonable answer. Why spend time, even years, filling every nook and cranny of your brain with wood facts and titbits when it is all sat there at your fingertips?


The question of motive – what is Google’s motive?

Google is one of the most valuable and powerful businesses in the entire world. What presents itself as a minimalist landing page with a textbox is bolstered by many billions of pounds’ worth of investment.


The biggest question is, of course, that of motive. Beneath its bonnet is an advertising business that has seriously upset all previously successful forms of advertising – and the more you lift its bonnet and look around, the more you can see it for what it is: an information business, which has turned capturing your questions and learning about you into an indirect method of earning money. It’s created a world in which we’re encouraged to disclose information about ourselves – our email addresses, for example – or ‘accept all cookies’ in order to gain access to the information we’re after.


Admittedly, Google often gives us the answer we want and the answer isn’t necessarily wrong. But sometimes the answer is misleading. You ask Google your question and it provides you with a list of resources apparently best-positioned to answer it. Your motive – to find the best answer to your question – might appear aligned with Google’s at this point, but Google, as an advertising business, can be paid by others for pride of place in the search results, meaning Google’s motive is now to sell you XYZ. The advent of search engine optimisation (SEO) means that those more SEO-savvy can also gamify the results, even as Google adapts their algorithm to emphasise strength of content.


Whether the answer is truly correct, or whether it’s mostly or partially correct – it’s all a matter of discernment, which we touched on previously, yet discernment only comes from knowing what it is you’re looking for or knowing enough about the subject to recognise whether something is right or helpful. Answers usually have a limit to their application; they are placed within some kind of boundary, determined by the website or resource author, which may not be explicitly stated.


You can google ‘How much does green oak shrink?’ and get an answer, but discernment is necessary to recognise which answers don’t apply in your specific case.


That’s where the necessity of organisations like TRADA come in. When the information matters, you need to ensure you’re learning from a trusted authority.


Trusted authorities

When you rely on the resources of one trusted authority, you also have the benefit of knowing that the information is coming from one source and so the information provided comes together to form a comprehensive package. Whether it’s a tutor at college, an organisation like TRADA, or one single textbook, that advice should be consistent and hang together to form a coherent and trusted whole.


In comparison, typing individual questions into Google presents you with a broad range of resources from different authors and organisations, who all possess different specialties and vested interests.


Professionals in our industry make big decisions with big consequences. Therefore, it is fundamental that they are relying on trusted authoritative advice.


No unknown unknowns

When you’re designing a building or anything which carries great risk, you need to know what you know and be aware of what you don’t. When you know the limit of your understanding, you can confidently rely on your own knowledge for the extent of it. Conversely, if you know where your lack of expertise lies, you can go to external trusted authorities for support.


The dangerous things are the unknown unknowns, as Donald Rumsfeld, US Secretary of Defence, rather amusingly highlighted to us back in 2009.


The knowledge and experience we accumulate in our career is used to build a mental filing cabinet and then to fill it. If we open a drawer intent on doing a task and find it empty, we know we need further support.


For example, if I know that I don’t know enough about designing a beam, I can respond appropriately and get support from someone who does; however, if I don’t realise the limitations of my knowledge, I’m a danger to myself and others.


Likewise, experienced structural engineers develop a sense of “what looks about right” and know when to question and clarify the results of their calculations.


The power of motivation

As a species, we have been designed to learn – a baby starts from the word go. As you get older, you are also more likely to realise the inherent pleasure that is possible from learning and sharing knowledge with other people. Similarly, learning a subject, often over a long period of time, and using it on a daily basis requires motivation. It matters that we’re motivated. Our minds are not meant to be empty, nor are they supposed to be temporarily filled on an as-need basis with bits and pieces of things as they occur to us to ask. That approach to learning doesn’t result in a healthy mindset.


We are designed to muse on things, not just be amused. Society today has bred a culture of amusement but the etymology of that word – amuse – means to not think, and not thinking is unhealthy. Treat the brain like a muscle: use it well and it will get stronger.


Consciously deciding to accumulate knowledge in your area of interest and thereby gain understanding helps you establish a stronger sense of purpose. It is at this point, when you are joining up ideas and assimilating knowledge, that your creativity is its most fruitful. By learning a few new things and exploring them – an ideal combination of continually adding new knowledge and then using it – and the more trials and permutations you undertake, the easier it becomes to be creative.


If you just look up information on an as-need basis and remember nothing, you have nothing to build on top of. If we’re in the business of being creative, which everyone in our industry should be, we will do so much better by purposefully learning key topics properly over the length of our career.


The role of TRADA in timber education

TRADA is an established trusted authority. First founded in 1934, it has always provided authoritative technical guidance on how to design and use wood. It survived World War II and we trust COVID-19 too!


When you call up its technical helpline and speak to one of its timber experts, they make a point of asking questions intended to expose possible "unknown unknowns" because they want to help you ensure that you’ve covered all the necessary bases.


That’s the beauty of TRADA membership – you have access to human beings with the technical expertise necessary to support you as you build and fill your mental "cabinet drawers".


TRADA’s motive is simple. It wants to help you design high-quality timber buildings, get good results, and therefore use wood again and again. As a not-for-profit association, your membership subscription enables it to invest in a wide-ranging programme of information creation and delivery, and empowers it to support its members' needs and strive for the enhancement of timber’s reputation.


Let TRADA walk along this path with you and help you to grow in knowledge, confidence and creativity.


Rupert Scott is TRADA's Membership & Marketing Manager and is responsible for the strategic development and management of TRADA's membership strategy, events and exhibitions programme and marketing activities.


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