Powerful Ideas

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Resnick and Kay

Brian Silverman, Mitchell Resnick, and Alan Kay

Wow! A no longer blank page. I recently watched Alan Kay on Learning Creative Learning, MIT’s open course on programming and making. The one-hour session was called “Powerful Ideas.”

Science, the ability to not let our brains fool us, as it were, is a powerful idea. Though not explicitly mentioned, “computational thinking” is another powerful idea. I’m still thinking about the video because the subjects discussed have something constitutionally to do with why I’m starting this blog.

Kay’s comments were provocative, if not cantankerous. The beginning of the session, which took place on March 2013, had a conversational feel, but around the 32 minute mark, Kay gets on a hobby horse about people not getting the powerful idea of computing. For the next 10 minutes he unloads on the subject of most people not reaching a proper threshold in computer use.

I have trouble figuring out where to start writing about his beliefs, because he makes a number of different points. First, it’s good to understand his stance as a student of anthropology. Kay talks about cultures that accomplish certain things, but don’t achieve science.

Forgive me for not unpacking  this part of his discussion. For my purpose, I only want to establish that Kay thinks many people don’t get the powerful idea of computing even if they’re using a computer just like many cultures, advanced in their own way, don’t get science.

I think I’m being fair to Kay when I say that he believes you can tell stories and tinker without reaching a deeper understanding: “Scientific knowledge is not in the form of a story.” He makes an analogy to music, where he talks about Guitar Hero as an entry point to music in which the players only get a “pop culture” understanding and miss the bigger point. He says the same happens in computing. Students work on computers, but their understanding of the world goes no further than that of their parents.

He punctuates his remarks by saying, “Maxwell’s equations just [don’t] have a narrative. I’m sorry.” Something needs to be added. Students need to take the extra step toward understanding scientific concepts. Stories and tinkering just muddy the issue.

But if there weren’t stories about the enlightenment and this Maxwell you speak of, I believe, the equations would have been a little longer in coming. I now believe we live in a culture of computing, a fandom of computing, so that thousands of users inspire dozens of creators to press on.

I’m also biased against Kay because I feel like some of what he was doing was a form of breast beating. His own admission of living professionally amidst a culture of dissension and rivalry makes me think the primacy of knowledge was a matter of “eat or be eaten, beat or be beaten,” in the words of Iggy Pop. In a world differently networked than that of defense department funded academia, you will not be coming up with the inevitable, canonical answer. You are coming up with answers that satisfy numbers of people for a while (for example, the Windows operating system).

Some answers, like Unix and Lego, last longer. Should we say these were tinkertoys when we radically retool them or cast them out as we reach the new threshold? There will be more important operating systems in the future. There will be more important toys in the future. Operating systems and toys that are just stories to be told and impediments to Kay’s next step.

Kay does say that he only wishes to add the next step and not take anything away. I believe he contradicts himself with his statement about stories and culture muddying the issue.

He also waxes on the idea of zen and the art of archery: that programming doesn’t necessarily invoke virtuous behavior but it could. “Among the least enlightened people you might meet on the planet are programmers,” says Kay, invoking what he calls a makable generalization.

What stories are to be told? What thresholds are we approaching? What “powerful ideas,” to use Seymour Papert’s usefully ambiguous term, are we acquiring? Making an arrow fly through the air doesn’t make you more enlightened, but it can. We make things, shaped pieces of wood, skyscrapers, meccano-sets, and lines of code. What we think about those things makes all the difference.

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