What (Meta Skills) Do Computers Teach Us?

Easy: programming. But what does that do for us?

I just read Alan Kay‘s essay: The Computer Revolution Hasn’t Happened Yet. There’s also a video of the lecture on which this essay is based. Haven’t watched it yet.

Here’s the synopsis: when the boys at PARC in the 70s were inventing just about every major component of the personal computer we use today, they had gigantic aspirations. They had a printing press-style revolution in mind and Kay is unimpressed with humanity’s progress using those breakthroughs. He figures we’re still only scratching the surface of its power.  I agree.

Here’s how he rationalizes it:

One way to look at the real printing revolution in the 17th and 18th centuries is in the co-evolution in what was argued about and how the argumentation was done.

Increasingly, it was about how the real world was set up, both physically and psychologically, and the argumentation was done more and more by using and extending mathematics, and by trying to shape natural language into more logically connected and less story-like forms.

The point here is:

As McLuhan had pointed out in the 50s, when a new medium comes along it is first rejected on the grounds of “too strange and different”, but then is often gradually accepted if it can take on old familiar content. Years (even centuries) later, the big surprise comes if the medium’s hidden properties cause changes in the way people think and it is revealed as a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

So, the computer is going to literally change the way we think about and solve problems and this hasn’t really happened yet.

Big thought, that one. I like it a lot.

Kay would answer my questions at the beginning of this post as follows, perhaps: computers let us learn programming, which allows us how to simulate stuff, to play with ideas.

He spends quite some time on his work with children learning science by programming computers to test out ideas of their own. To learn the best way one can learn: by failing. Or let’s dust off an old metaphor: the printing press let us learn by watching, the computer allows us to learn by doing.

If this is right, it means that tomorrow’s people will simply have a better intuitive grasp of difficult concepts: they’ll be smarter. Is it crazy to say that a pedagogy with computer games as its centerpiece will revolutionize education and the world? Sure sounds a bit crazy.

Kay laments that our society sees a computer and thinks ‘super-TV’. Ouch, but he’s right. Remember the One Laptop Per Child program? Kay’s affiliated with it, unsurprisingly. When I heard that I had a flashback to some of the commentary: “What on earth will kids do with a cheap computer when they don’t have water? Watch YouTube?” Imagine Kay’s exasperated reply: “they’d learn, you fool!”

Because they aren’t super-televisions. Oh, no.

Computer literacy was once learning to type. Mechanical skills?!How laughably 19th century. More recently it meant learning how to open a document in Windows: pshah, that’s like teaching one book in an English class. Better to teach the kid to write!

You pick up those basic skills as you go along. The point is that we can’t rely on everyone teaching themselves. Computer literacy means literally learning how to read to and from computers. It is learning programming.

And it’s the future.

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