The Technique Taboo

by lsusr1 min read30th Oct 201942 comments

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Rationalist TabooSocial & Cultural DynamicsRationality
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For a strange few decades that may just be starting to end, if you went to art school you'd be ostracised by your teachers for trying to draw good representational art. "Representational art" means pictures that look like real things. Art school actively discouraged students from getting better at drawing.

"Getting better at drawing" is off-topic at my weekly local drawing club too. I've literally never heard it discussed.

This taboo extends far beyond art. My nearest gym forbids weightlifters from using electronic systems to log their progress. I'm friends with programmers who can't touch type. None of them use Vim macros.

"I have sometimes suspected that the quickest way to get worried looks from many modern Western meditation teachers is to talk about practice in a way that implies the attempt to actually master anything." — Daniel M. Ingram

In the part of the United States where I live, the subject of skill is often taboo. Not just relative differences in skill level between specific present individuals (which would make sense). The implicit acknowledgement of skill as a trainable attribute is taboo.

Not all professions have this issue. Math is still math. Biology is still biology. One can politely discuss a cook's cooking. Magicians respect coin manipulation like it's 1904.

But when traditional colleges supply the labor force for a professional trade outside of academia, that's when discussion of skill (especially rote learning) becomes taboo[1]. College students learn everything about their trade except how to do it. Then we maintain a collective silence concerning technique.

  • A Chinese major teaches you how to talk about Chinese, not how to read it.
  • An English major teaches you how to talk about novels, not how to write one.
  • An art major teaches you how to talk about masterpieces, not how to create one.
  • A Computer Science Engineering major…well, you get the idea.

That's a partial explanation, but it doesn't explain why skill differences in weightlifting and meditation are also taboo.

Societies make taboo exactly those topics whose mere discussion threatens the precarious dominance of those at the top of the social order by drawing attention to the system's internal contradictions.

I think my society is hiding something from itself.


  1. Medical school is an exception to this pattern. This may be because medical school considers itself a form of technical training, to be undergone after acquiring a liberal undergraduate education. ↩︎

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While there _is_ a technique taboo and I agree with your general observations, I think that there are a number of things going on here simultaneously that boil down to more than just a taboo on the idea that skill is a trainable attribute. For instance:

1. Many activities that appear to have taboos against training skills are just reflective of people who who are _optimizing something else_. In particular, enjoyment.

But when traditional colleges supply the labor force for a professional trade outside of academia, that's when discussion of skill (especially rote learning) becomes taboo[1]. College students learn everything about their trade except how to do it. Then we maintain a collective silence concerning technique.

This collective skill silence isn't necessarily a taboo--it might just be that the kind of people who choose their fields for non-practical reasons (ie not to develop professional skills) don't really care about development their own skills that much. Instead of optimizing productive capabilities (ie skills), they might be trying to optimize consumptive capabilities (ie the ability to enjoy English literature or appreciate art or what-have-you). To elaborate:

An English major teaches you how to talk about novels, not how to write one.

This is true but, if you want to learn how to write, don't pick the major that helps you appreciate English literature. Instead, pick the major that helps you write. If you want to write a novel (fictional), writing majors[1] are a good move--one of my friends has done this and has reams of pages of her own work. If you want to write a novel (non-fictional), you might want to try majoring directly in something like history since that directly gives you experience writing about history. On the other hand, if you want to increase your capacity to appreciate English literature, be an English major.

"Getting better at drawing" is off-topic at my weekly local drawing club too. I've literally never heard it discussed.

As someone who briefly ran at art club back in the day, consider that the people showing up actually might not care that much about being good at drawing; they might just enjoy it and care about the activity.

2. In competitive contexts, people don't want to optimize their skills because it turns the situation into a race-to-the-bottom. If you're at work and one person is actively trying to upskill, that person is putting pressure on you to do something you'd prefer not to in order to stay competitive. An extreme example of this is anti-social punishment (punishing people for being altruistic because it might create a norm where you have to be more altruistic).

This is a taboo against upskilling but it's not about the people at the top trying to maintain a social order; it's the people at the bottom trying to make sure they have the slack to stay where they are without losing their place.

3. In case there are many people are optimizing for enjoyment rather than upskilling (meditation is a good example of this) and there is some intructor managing the activity, the instructor is not under much pressure to have strong expertise. As long as instructors are good enough to lead the activity and ensure that people optimizing enjoyment find it valuable, they've done their job. Everyone goes home at the end of the day.

However, asking an instructor for advice on how to upskill puts responsibility onto the instructor.

  • If the instructor gives you bad advice and you implement it with intent to upskill, the instructor has harmed you. Proper form prevents poor performance but improper form promotes it.
  • If the instructor cannot give you good advice, you have harmed the instructor's reputation. In this case, the instructor deserves that reputation hit but it's still an incentive for them to oppose up-skilling.

The kind of dynamic between upskillers and enjoyment-optimizers also creates interesting situations. For instance, when I used to do Tae Kwon Do, there was a core of people dedicated to the practice (and would give you as much feedback and practice opportunities as you wanted) and a larger cloud of people just there to get their weekly exercise (and didn't care very much about upskilling). Going from one group to the other dramatically changes the conversation about skill.

And the infuriating response where people act like this obvious thing isn't real or is specific to the examples that then get hen pecked into even more specific irrelevance ("well, technically..."), or motte and bailey'd etc.

One part of this is that Informational rentiers/gatekeepers have to maintain a facade that they're not doing something that goes against common sense norms.

I'd put it in a way that is pretty explicit: most people are trained so completely to uphold obvious lies, stupidities, and failures of those deemed higher status that they start actually hallucinating clothing on the emperor.

Skill training is just one downstream consequence of this. Where the correct procedure doesn't flow from the territory, but via some other person's map that has been officially sanctioned.

The sky is blue <removed for lack of citation, see talk page>

Why don't the high status talk about technique? Because it's embarrassing how bad they are at it.

Thus kakonomics.

There is a way out.

The Ericsson Question (in the tradition of the Hamming question): what are the most important skills in your problem domain? What would a deliberate practice system look like for those skills?

...

Why aren't you doing something like that system?

I've never heard this one before. I like it!

Thank you so much for this. Writing about this kind of topic is inherently difficult because almost by definition a majority of people will disagree whatever contemporary examples I use. It's like documenting an antimemetic SCP.

Not all professions have this issue. Math is still math.

It was my impression that mathematicians mainly discuss math and not the skill of doing math. I witnessed explicit discussion of how to do math in neither school nor university. I haven't had any discussion about what it means to build skill as a biologist either (I studied bioinformatics).

On the other hand, I have plenty of exposure to strength training and the plenty of gyms even buy expensive body weight scales to help their students to measure their body fat percentage better.

Magicians aren't a community that likes to publicly discuss technique, they have a lot of taboo against that.

Meditation is a subject that's a lot more complicated. There's always the concern that too much intention to get better in a way that a person already knows leads the person away from being open for the change that they need to progress. John Yates who wrote maybe the best book that's currently out there (The Mind Illuminated) that sees meditation as a skill with a clear progression tree recently lost his position as a teacher because he didn't pass the minimum skill requirements for the role after four decades of hardcore meditation practice (upholding the five lay precepts). While I don't necessarily find the argument against explicit meditation training conclusive, I think there are good arguments on both sides.

I meant that math is still math at the academic research level. Math has lots of problems at the primary school level. In my experience as a mathematics major, it's barely possible to discuss advanced math without a basic foundation in the intermediate stuff.

You make a good point about strength training. I wish I had gyms like yours in my neighborhood.

While magicians tend to avoid discussing technique with the public, the opposite is true within the magical community. Magicians love showing off technique to each other behind closed doors. The best of us are practically fetishists for it. We're open to accepting earnest newcomers into our community and once inside all the important doors are unlocked.

The Mind Illuminated absolutely goes against this trend and I like the online community surrounding the book. In my personal offline experience talking to people in meatspace, The Mind Illuminated's systematic approach is not representative of the majority of Western meditative practice. However, meditation is inherently a private affair so I am highly uncertain how representative my sample is.

Meditation is indeed additionally muddled by the fact that at after trying really hard to achieve results you have to let go of your intention to achieve results. I do not intend to misconstrue this particular phenomenon as evidence for a taboo against technique.

I’m friends with programmers who can’t touch type.

If by “touch type” you mean the “home row” sort of technique that’s taught in typing classes, then I have yet to see a single convincing argument for why I should bother to learn this. (I’m a programmer.) I see it often taken for granted that this sort of “touch typing” is simply a must for coders, but whenever I ask why that’s so, the reasons I’ve seen given do not make the slightest bit of sense.

Now, if you simply mean “typing without having to look at the keyboard”, well, sure. I can do that. Didn’t have to learn any specific “technique” for it, though.

P.S.:

50 to 80 words per minute is around the average for professional typists, and should be what most people strive for if they type for a living.

—from https://elearningindustry.com/why-average-typing-speed-is-important

I just took an online typing test. On my MacBook Pro, while lying on the couch, in a not-entirely-comfortable typing position, my typing speed is 73 wpm.

Specific “touch typing” techniques are completely unnecessary. Please let’s let this absurd myth die.

Independently, a month or two ago I observed to a friend how funny it was that there used to be this fad around touch-typing, where even in tv shows they would show that a person was a computer hacker because of the speed they could type while looking at the screen, and yet now I and everyone I know touch-types, and we never had to take any lessons for it - I have that super-cool ability that people thought you had to train for. I just took the typing test you linked, on sentences, got 85 wpm, sitting in a comfortable typing position, not looking at the keyboard.

I have not read OP yet, but indeed my current epistemic state is that there's nothing further to train here, everyone involved in tech just learns it naturally and does it pretty well.

Why is fast typing considered a necessary skill for programmers in the first place? For secretaries or writers it seems to make a difference, but how much time would be delayed if a programmer was only able to type, say, 30 words per minute? It seems to me that if you have to pause to think, typing speed was never a bottleneck anyway.

I agree with this criticism and have made it myself before. However, I do think there's something to it when it comes to especially slow typing (arbitrarily, <= 35 WPM). At least for me, sometimes I need to "clear out my mental buffer" by actually writing out the code I've thought about before I can think about the next thing. When I'm in this position, being able to type relatively quickly seems to helps me stay in the flow and get to the next thought faster.

Also, frankly, sometimes you just need to churn out 10s of lines of code that are somewhat mindless (yes, DRY, but I still think some situations require this) and while doing them fast doesn't save you that much time overall, it certainly can help with maintaining sanity.

Related to that, I think the big problem with hunt and peck typing is that it isn't just slower, it also takes your attention off the flow of the code by forcing you to focus on the characters you're typing.

ETA: all that said, I definitely agree with Said that it's not necessary to learn typing in a formal setting and definitely would not encourage colleges to teach it. I actually did have a computer class in elementary school that taught touch typing but still got much faster mostly by using AIM in middle school.

Here is a guy arguing that programmers should type fast so that they can have long written discussions. Also, comments and documentation. (And blog posts. He is famous for long blog posts. But this one is only 3500 words)

If you have a fixed amount of documentation you have to create, then doubling your typing speed, say from 30 to 60wpm will cut in half the amount of time to write it. No matter how much faster become beyond that, you won't be able to save the other half of the time. Doubling again to 120 will save only half as much time as the first doubling saved. However, you could spend your typing speed in other ways. You could produce twice as many drafts of the documentation.

I've heard the alternate explanation that having to stare at the keyboard is bad for your neck/spine because of the downward angle in your head position, and touch typing allows you to avoid that. Which is especially important for programmers apparently because they work in front of a computer screen all the time.

Given that we have a technique taboo, it seems nobody really studied this question scientifically. I ask the question years ago on Skeptics.SE and it seems to be one of the highest upvoted questions on the side despite being essentially unanswered.

This might make for a good amateur science project. All you have to do is collect a bunch of programmers together and get them to answer a standardized set of tests and then measure their typing speed. Scatterplot the results. Admittedly it would measure correlation, not causation, but it'd be a start.

You could do even better by measuring the typing speed of an introductory computer science class and then compare it to the students' grades at the end of the quarter.

If there's a strong correlation that would be very valuable information for anybody that hires programmers.

It seems to me that if you have to pause to think, typing speed was never a bottleneck anyway.

Seconding this question, which is, indeed, one of the things that “technique touch typing” advocates have never been able to answer to my satisfaction.

This is a good, complicated question. It deserves its own post.

I intended to refer only to typing quickly without looking at the keyboard. I did not intend to imply the superiority of specific traditional typing techniques beyond how well they achieve this.

Note again that I type more than fast enough for my profession, without any specific technique at all—just naturally developed typing skills, picked up over years of using computers. This directly undermines the “touch typing” example, which is one of the examples you give to support your point.

What you say here... is not actually a counterexample?

You can touchtype, you said, even if you're not using a specific technique. Typing fast enough for your job is part of what qualifies you for it. It's something that came from years of experience with computers, professionally or no.

Just because someone can develop the skill naturally over time, though, doesn't mean that they certainly will. They might compensate for the wasted time with other strengths. That experience will accrue to improvement over time doesn't preclude someone getting massive gains from introducing an explicit technique or focused practice earlier.

:D If I could write the right 50-80 words of code per minute my career would be very happy about it.

For a strange few decades that may just be starting to end, if you went to art school you'd be ostracised by your teachers for trying to draw good representational art. "Representational art" means pictures that look like real things. Art school actively discouraged students from getting better at drawing.

I roll to disbelieve on this. All the art classes I've taken in the past decade focused largely on representational art. (esp. figure drawing). The taboo was drawing cartoons, anime in particular

How prestigious were these art classes?

(ended up replying to Isur's other comment)

That's a useful datapoint. Thank you so much! Having not gone to art school myself, my information about it is all secondhand. What I know comes from books by art instructors and YouTube videos by art school graduates.

Perhaps I am mistaken, this period ended within the last decade and/or you went to a statistically unusual school. It might be possible to get a statistical measure of the prevalence classical drawing within art schools by examining public course catalogs and graduation requirements.

This included local community college, a tech school focused on computer animation (which included traditional art classes), and visiting Rhode Island School of Design (one of the leading art schools, where I didn't actually get to take classes but got a good sense of their curriculum and it seemed pretty traditional to me).

I'm not sure what your friends' experience was and wouldn't be that surprised if different places were different, but this doesn't match anything I've heard of in terms of art classes.

(My last classes/paying attention to this was approximately one decade ago, today)

Forbids electronic systems for logging their progress? Is it possible there's a separate motivation for this than hostility to technique, ie 'don't sit on the machine and play with your phone' or 'for liability reasons we can't allow you to attach the velocity device to the equipment'?

My experience of weightlifting is highly technique focused. Frequently unsophisticated, but technique focused nevertheless. Sports like powerlifting and olympic lifting are increasing in popularity all the time, and these are utterly reliant on discussion of technique. Copious discussion.

On the other hand, it does occur to me that the comparative dearth of authoritative answers is consistent with a taboo in the relatively recent past.

Officially it's about "don't sit on the machine and play with your phone". However, this gym has many other systems in place to actively discourage people who take lifting seriously. For instance, powerlifting and olympic lifting are physically impossible at this gym despite a gigantic quantity of weights and weightlifting equipment.

Another motivation is that this chain gets most of its revenue from members who don't show up.

I love powerlifting and admire olympic lifting precisely because they run opposite to this trend. But they're relatively unpopular compared to running, cycling, traditional sports and so on. (At least in my social circles. It might be different for those who grew up in violent neighborhoods.)

It might be different for those who grew up in violent neighborhoods

Ha! I suppose the military is the next best thing. The prevalence of bodybuilding is kind of weird, considering that as a profession it is endurance-focused.

A Computer Science Engineering major…well, you get the idea.

My undergraduate degree is in Computer Science (not even any “Engineering”, just plain old academic Computer Science).

Included in the requirements for said major were two semesters of “Design & Implementation of Software Applications”. The class was taught by a tech industry veteran and successful entrepreneur (he was an “associate professor” or some such, i.e. teaching this class was a side job for him), and it dealt directly with practical, real-world software engineering skills, including development methodologies, requirements specification, etc., in addition to the usual techniques of object-oriented application development and so on.

Other classes included Operating Systems (where we did not simply study theory but did things like writing a process scheduler), Computer Graphics, and more; and the final project for the degree was “find some professor / office / organization on campus that needs some app written, or piece of research code, or other useful piece of software, and write it for them”.

So… the idea that CS degrees don’t teach skills, seems to me to be extremely far-out.

I meant that a CS degree usually doesn't teach basic skills like how to use Vim and the command line. A CS degree teaches operating systems just fine.

In fact I was taught how to use the command line—in college (in one of the required courses for my degree), and in my high school Computer Science classes as well.[1] We weren’t taught Vim (why are you so focused on Vim, anyway…?), but we were taught the basics of emacs. (In any case, learning how to use specific text editors is surely something that you can learn on your own…? And if not, then what business do you have being a programmer?)


  1. I even took some sort of supplemental/optional college-level classes, while in high school (this was a long time ago, so I don’t recall what this program was, nor any other administrative details); one of those was a class in C programming—and there, too, we absolutely were taught how to use the command line. ↩︎

Most programmers I know a handful of commands but are not otherwise comfortable with the command line. I was teased for using it at my first software development job. I was once hired to privately tutor a computer science student how to use the command line (among other things) because her school never taught her how to use it and she failed out of her first Systems class due to this omission. I've taught basic Unix skills to a friend with a master's degree in computer science.

I'm focused on Vim for reasons complicated enough to deserve their own separate post and because Vim best illustrates the taboo I'm trying to elucidate.

I agree with this post. I'd add that from what I've seen of medical school (and other high-status vocational programs like law school, business school, etc.), there is still a disproportionate emphasis on talking about the theory of the subject matter vs. building skill at the ultimate task. Is it helpful to memorize the names of thousands of arteries and syndromes and drugs in order to be a doctor? Of course. Is that *more* helpful than doing mock patient interviews and mock chart reviews and live exercises where you try to diagnose a tumor or a fracture or a particular kind of pus? Is it *so* much more helpful that it makes sense to spend 40x more hours on biochemistry than on clinical practice? Because my impression of medical school is that you do go on clinical rounds and do internships and things, but that the practical side of things is mostly a trial-by-fire where you are expected to improvise many of your techniques, often after seeing them demonstrated only once or twice, often with minimal supervision, and usually with little or no coaching or after-the-fact feedback. The point of the internships and residencies seems to be primarily to accomplish low-prestige medical labor, not primarily to help medical students improve their skills.

I'd be curious to hear from anyone who disagrees with me about medical school. I'm not super-confident about this assessment of medical school; I'm much more confident that an analogous critique applies well to law school and business school. Lawyers learn the theory of appellate decision-making, not how to prepare a case for trial or negotiate a settlement or draft a contract. MBAs learn economics and financial theory, not how to motivate or recruit or evaluate their employees.

As far as *why* we don't see more discussion about how to improve technique, I think part of it is just honest ignorance. Most people aren't very self-reflective and don't think very much about whether they're good at their jobs or what it means to be good at their jobs or how they could become better. Even when people do take time to reflect on what makes a good [profession], they may not have the relevant background to draw useful conclusions. Academic authorities often have little or no professional work experience; the median law professor has tried zero lawsuits; the median dean of a business school has never launched a startup; the median medical school lecturer has never worked as a primary care physician in the suburbs.

Some of it may be, as Isnasene points out, a desire to avoid unwanted competition. If people are lazy and want to enjoy high status that they earned a long time ago without putting in further effort, they might not want to encourage comparisons of skill levels.

Finally, as Isusr suggests, some of the taboo probably comes from an effort to preserve a fragile social hierarchy, but I don't think the threat is "awareness of internal contradictions;" I think the threat is simply a common-sense idea of fairness or equity. If authorities or elites are no more objectively skillful than a typical member of their profession, then there is little reason for them to have more power, more money, or easier work. Keeping the conversation firmly fixed on discussion *about* the profession (rather than discussion about *how to do* the profession) helps obscure the fact that the status of elites is unwarranted.

Most of the the examples you have listed are observations made by you and your conclusions are too far reaching, in my opinion. There are many reasons for an art group to decide improving general skills is off topic. Do art schools actively discourage skill improvement? What is discouraging exactly? What defines a skill and getting 'better ' in terms of art? What I think you have observed is a small human behaviour which results in a group wide phenomenon. An emergent behaviour from fundamental systems within the human mind.

The science behind the topic is limited, most of what we can do is observation and speculation. I think the best approach is identifying key behaviours through reduction. One key behaviour I observe is how we learn, it is our greatest strength, it is the ability to learn complex topics and actions. The majority of times we learn a new process and its intricate steps, we continue to reproduce those steps exactly without question. Example:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JwwclyVYTkk

The video above demonstrates, regardless of the reason, that we usually copy almost every action when learning from others. For most steps within a majority of our processes we do them without question. Another great example of something we learn but don't often question is the SIN and COS functions within math. This can connect to what you observed, a teacher learned art a specific way and continues to propagate it that way. You come along and question it, but it is already the norm, you are met with resistance. This is the culture of a topic.

I believe that these problems will always exist as they are based on the nature of how are brains function. A solution would be to teach self awareness on this problem so individuals can catch it. I first thought of suggesting, that we should just teach openness to foreign ideas but that can lead to the same problem, where change and openness are an obsession that we don't question or oppose questioning.

Humans like patterns and sticking to them. We like consistency and predictability.

You are mixing up two topics. Separating them does not provide any immediate clarity, but it's important to separate them. One topic is keeping records, observing progress, and trying to do better. The weightlifters record objective performance. Math students try to see if they can do an exercise. Practice helps, but the feedback of performance doesn't say how to improve. The other topic, evoked in my mind by the word "technique," is breaking down a big skill into small skills. Biology students learn the specific technique of how to use a pipette. The editor is just one tool of programming, but merely identifying it suggests ways to improve (starting with just reading the manual).

In what part of the US do you live?

A prosperous liberal tech-centric city.

SF? Is there a reason you're being obtuse here?

It's very hard to figure out if I agree with your premise if I can't compare to my own experience.

I make a habit of fuzzing my personal information a little when I'm online as basic digital hygiene.

I hypothesize this taboo applies to any prosperous liberal city in the USA.

I don't think I've seen this in Boston or SF, but have in Portland and Berkelely. It appears to me that there are strong cultural differences between different liberal tech cities I've lived in related to skills and competence.