Learned Helplessness

A GIS manager here in San Antonio has stirred up some discussion, after Adena commented on his interview here stating

“People interested in working in geographic information systems must understand that everything learned today will be useless in the future because technology constantly changes, the geographic information systems manager for the city of San Antonio said April 12.”

This assumes that what is being learned is strictly technology, without any sort of scientific foundation.

Astronomy is not about telescopes. Geography is not about GIS.

In any discipline I suppose there is a risk that a tool can cultivate a state of “learned helplessness” resulting in users who are unable to imagine solutions to problems for which their tool was not designed. Ever try to look at a black hole with a telescope?

The problem, though, is that the market does not reward mastery of theory in the short term (and for astronomers, not even in the long term). So maybe what kids need is to learn how to learn more quickly … remember learning the planets ? “Mark’s Very Extravagant Mother Just Sent Us Ninety …” is obsolete now that pluto is no longer a planet. Nevertheless my kids thought up several new mnemonics to remember by.

Learned helplessness becomes quite apparent when viewing the attitude many GIS users have towards major software vendors. I won’t mention any names here, let’s just say their initials are E.S.R.I. Many times I’ve heard users with very constructive ideas that fail to make any suggestions for how those ideas could be used to improve software quality. They take on a kind of fatalistic “oh they would never listen to me” attitude. I don’t think its ESRI’s fault. Instead, I think the problem is an educational system that’s trained users to push the right buttons like rats in a skinner box.

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6 comments so far

  1. ubikcan on

    Interesting. You say “geography is not GIS” and I’m glad to hear someone say that. But the thing is, “GIS is GIS” ie among many many people GIS is just a technology (including students). Calling it GIScience doesn’t help (what’s the difference between GIScience and er, geography?).

    These things have been discussed many times (is GIS a tool or science, is it training vs. education). Certification is another issue: does it move us toward education or training?

  2. Kirk on

    I’ve seen GIS technicians so tied to their tools that it makes more sense to hire and train new staff when a new generation of technology is purchased.

    I’ve noticed that some of these same people are the ones who really get excited about taking a tool to its limit do so with a religious-like fervor. Its a shame to see an organization lose spiritual energy in its GIS group.

    So in “tool vs science” context, we should also address GIS as a religion. Is it just me, or is the turn-and-greet your neighbor ritual at the ESRI user conference just like “passing the peace” in the Presbyterian church?

    I think its more than cute marketing when so many companies have “software evangelist” as part of their official job title.

    I don’t know if they still exist, but I recall reading about “de-programmers” who would be hired by families to rescue and un-brainwash their kids who’ve joined some cult. If you hire someone whose trained, how do you know how easily they can be (de-programmed and) re-trained?

    Maybe that’s what conferences are all about. I’ve often been tempted to think the internet would mark the end of conferences. After all, it’s a lot easier to share information over the internet than face to face. But conferences seem to address some sort of innate spiritual need, especially in times of crises – like when there’s a new version being rolled out to your department.

  3. Pete F on

    During my one visit to mecca, I was struck by the way we were all told that “geography matters”. Had people really come all that way to sit in a room of 9000 and be told: “you matter” or “you have a career, despite ditching accountancy for geography”?

    It’s only a matter of time until a few people are killed in a stampede for free mouse-pads, but that will just add to the mystique.

    re Learned Helplessness:

    I’m intrigued by the power of what I call the “three ringed circus”; of “map”, “toc” and “toolbar”. I gave a presentation once where I printed out a snapshot of Arcview and turned it into a pair of spectacles.

    But can we descibe as the inverse pattern, the contentedness of users to live on the back foot, trying to absorb new technologies (learn new products)? I guess this is just technology as fashion, but if a site decided “no new GIS products for 10 years” I think they would have a chance to get some actual results!

  4. Matt Perry on

    Great post. Indeed GIS is just a tool/science applied to the larger field of geography.

    There are some fundamental things that will not change anytime in the near future. Things like understanding the vector and raster data models, relational databases, basic analysis operations, cartography, coordinate systems, geostatistics, etc. will still be fundamental for GIS professionals.

    For those who think that everything is changing so fast that their current knowledge will soon be obsolete – I suspect they just haven’t really learned GIS at all but rather learned to push buttons in a particular piece of software. “Learning how to learn” is important indeed! Maybe schools should start teaching multiple GIS software packages (“OK, you’ve learned how to do an overlay analysis in ArcMap, now lets try it in PostGIS..”) to teach student to apply their knowledge and adapt to the change they will inevitably find in the real world.

  5. Kirk on

    Hi Pete –
    Three ringed circus seems a bit harsh … I prefer to think of it as sort of a trinity. I’m not saying the software is lousy, I just want to be sure it doesn’t stagnate as a result of a user community that loses its vision.

    Was it Kierkegaard that said “the greatest threat to Christianity is Christendom”? Anyway I think that could be paraphrased: “The greatest threat to ArcGIS software is its user community”.

    Obviously Kierkegaard was exaggerating, but he has a point.

    Planned obsolesence is also a lot like what some theologian (was it Knox, or maybe Calvin?) said about the protestant church: “once reformed, always reforming”.

    In a way Google Maps is like the Gutenberg Bible … users no longer need an intermediary. We in the priesthood should take notice.

    Any seminaries out there offering GIS training/education/indoctrination?

  6. Is GIS a cult? « ubikcan on

    […] 27th, 2007 by ubikcan Short discussion over at the Memory Leak: I think its more than cute marketing when so many companies have “software evangelist” as part […]


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