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Book review: Darwinia
Reviewed: Friday, August 11, 2006

Summer reading: Spin
Reviewed: Saturday, August 5, 2006

Runner
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tinderbox

The Early History of Smalltalk
Alan Kay, 1993 , (Paper URL)
Tuesday, December 14, 2004

This paper of Alan Kay's is amazing! Kay covers the history of Smalltalk the language, of Xerox PARC, and of the many other threads that wove computing into the fabric of lives. Through it all Kay's chief focus is on education - on using computers as "thought amplifiers" (Papert).

Perhaps it's party because we can look at this time period in retrospect but an amazing amount of seminal work was accomplished in a very short time. Even beyond this, I find Kay's insights into education profound and refreshing:

... Knowledge is in its least interesting state when it is first being learned. The representations -- whether markings, allusions, or physical controls -- get in the way (almost take over as goals) and must be laboriously and painfully interpreted. From here there are several useful paths, two of which are important and intertwined.

The first is fluency, which in part is the process of building mental structures that disappear the interpretations of the representations. The letters and words of a sentence are experienced as meaning rather than as markings, the tennis racquet or keyboard becomes an extension of one's body, and so forth. If carried further one eventually becomes a kind of expert -- but without deep knowledge in other areas, attempts to generalize are usually too crisp and ill formed.

The second path is towards taking the knowledge as a metaphor that can illuminate other areas. But without fluency it is more likely that prior knowledge will hold sway and the metaphors from this side will be fuzzy and misleading.

The "trick", and I think that this is what liberal arts education is supposed to be about, is to get fluent and deep while building relationships with other fluent deep knowledge. Our society has lowered its aims so far that it is happy with "increases in scores" without daring to inquire whether any important threshold has been crossed. Being able to read a warning on a pill bottle or write about a summer vacation is not literacy and our society should not treat it so. Literacy, for example, is being able to fluently read and follow the 50-page argument in Paine's Common Sense and being able (and happy) to fluently write a critique or defense of it it. Another kind of 20th century literacy is being able to hear about a new fatal contagious incurable disease and instantly know that a disastrous exponential relationship holds and early action is of the highest priority. Another kind of literacy would take citizens to their personal computers where they can fluently and without pain build a systems simulation of the disease to use as a comparison against further information.

This is strong stuff and from 1993! We live in a world of diminishing expectations and I don't see that anything much has changed for the better about our models of citizenship, education, computing for all, and so forth. Kay's vision, in other words, has not been realized. As he asks in closing "Where are the Dans and Adeles of the '80s and '90s [and 00s] that will take us to the next stage [of computing]"


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