Festival provides inspiration to unlearn in changing world


What things should we “unlearn” to be more successful in 2017 and beyond?

What should our governments, our businesses, our community organisations – ourselves – unlearn as we confront and hopefully optimise the most profound technological change in human history?

These questions may surprise many – from students told to learn new skills to companies trawling through oceans of “big data” for insights, to governments investing millions on innovation policy.

Learning is about adding new skills. Unlearning is about removing ourselves from the mental models we used previously and applying new ones.

An ability to unlearn information – that is, to see things differently – is critical to letting go of old habits, challenge traditional thinking and develop new approaches in a fast-changing world.

This is a challenge I have set myself for this year. It will doubtless involve a lot of trial and error, probably lots of errors. But nothing is more affirming than bringing new ideas to life.

The need to unlearn is one reason I am passionate about the future of the arts in Western Australia. Events such as the Perth International Arts Festival, which opens this weekend, encourage us to see the world through another lens.

The arts will never be more important as the line between humankind and machine blurs in coming years. As machines do more “learning” for us, our humanity, our empathy and our ability to imagine will be what sets us apart. It will be the skills derived from the arts that will help us harness the digital economy rather than become slaves to it.

Those who view the arts as mostly a form of recreation or cultural expression miss the bigger picture. The arts’ capacity to see the world differently is a vital life and career skill – a critical tool in the kitbag of anyone who wants to succeed and survive in the digital economy.

Consider what is ahead. A 2013 study by Oxford University’s Carl Frey and Michael Osborne predicts 47 percent of jobs in the United States are at risk of being displaced by technology.

More legal firms using the artificial intelligence of “robo-lawyers” to rack up billable hours and, just last week, energy giant company Woodside was reported to be using the self-learning AI technology of IBM’s Watson to do the work of hundreds of technicians.

Forecasters tell us that within the decade personal computers will have the processing power of the human brain – 10,000 trillion calculations per second. AI machines will be better at remembering, problem-solving and decision making.

But it is imagination, inspiration and empathy, exemplified by the arts, which define us as humans.

Traditional learning and thinking will not keep pace. Developing more students who excel in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields is necessary but not sufficient. We must develop the human capacity for creativity that helps us adapt to whatever the future holds. As Einstein said, “The greatest scientists are artists as well.”

For me, the challenges of unlearning are multiple. The first is to admit some of my mental models have passed their use-by date, or are limited at best. To admit this is a paradox: why would I change something that has worked in the past? I am getting there, and the next steps are to seek out new ways of seeing the world and embedding this new way of thinking.

The arts are a catalyst to this, not just for me but we as a community. What WA needs are sound policies and appropriate funding.

On the eve of PIAF 2017, I encourage Western Australians to attend the Festival not just for entertainment, but with the knowledge that a genuine appreciation and love of the arts helps us challenge the truth, question our thinking and see the world differently.

Granted, the arts are only a part of the puzzle in the new machine age. However, without a vibrant arts sector, we risk having more information and skills yet less capacity to create and innovate. We risk becoming roadkill on the digital highway.

What could you unlearn in 2017 to be more successful? If you don’t know the answer, come to a theatre, music or dance performance or visit a gallery. It will be an inspiration to unlearn.

John Barrington is Chair, Perth International Arts Festival


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