Friday, September 01, 2006

strange beasts with flat tyres

The computer-car analogy doesn't work: the exptrapolation of the idea to computing that you need to be able to drive a car but don't really need to be a mechanic.

One way is to contrast two definitions of literacy:
  • the ability to read and write
  • the ability to read and write AND express original thoughts
and to favour the latter as applied to computers

But I think it's better to define literacy as feeling competent and fluent in the medium. And I think it's true to say that most people don't understand what the computer medium really is, that there is something deep below the surface.

I heard a Sudanese describe recently his first encounter with a motor bike, as a child. He and his friends had never seen anything like it. They ran away. They didn't know whether it was living or non living, a strange type of beast or a new, amazing invention.

I think that is what is happening when people use computers. It's mostly done by handwaving and magic. The GUI and the operating system hides a lot. Of course people adapt and get "used to" computers just as they get used to cars. But the computer is a stranger beast. The fact that it is often used inefficiently (driving with flat tyres) is only part of the problem.

Even at the surface level the car analogy does not hold up.

Lots of little things that cause paralysis for short or long times go wrong with computers all the time. Just think of how many times you have seen an expert user come unstuck whilst presenting with a computer at a conference.

More basic skills are required to drive a computer than a car. Here are some examples of essential knowledge you might need:
  • how to operate a GUI (windows, icons, menus, pointer)
  • how to save and to navigate when saving and / or loading a file
  • the difference b/w Save and Save As ...
  • how to backup
  • what to do if and when your window freezes
  • how to get out of trouble (eg. using Undo or when to close without saving)
  • what are directories, files, different file types, drives
If you are connected to the internet then the amount of knowledge you need to stay functional increases further:
  • a knowledge of security concerning viruses / trojans / spyware, firewall, automatic updates
  • email: how to compose, send, forward, edit
  • email: don't open unsolicited attachments
  • You will need to download plugins to run many programs, so you need some awareness that there are useful and harmful files out there and how to distinguish between them
I'm sure these lists could be expanded.

But beyond the lists of basic skills there is something deeper.

A computer does computation. And most people don't really understand computation and what it is capable of. I was struck by this passage from Rodney Brooks book, Flesh and Machines, where he compares the impact of the computation idea (not disruptive intellectually, continuous with existing ideas) with the impact of quantum mechanics or relativity (which marked a sharp intellectual discontinuity with previous ideas) :
... computation was not disruptive intellectually, although the consequences of the mathematics that Turing and von Neumann developed did have disruptive technological consequences. A late-nineteenth-century mathematician would be able to understand the idea of Turing computability and a von Neumann architecture with a few days instruction. They would then have the fundamentals of modern computation. Nothing would surprise them or cause them to cry out in intellectual pain as quantum mechanics or relativity would if a physicist from the same era were exposed to them. Computation was a gentle, nondisruptive idea, but one that was immensely powerful... [pp. 188-9]
This was a new insight for me, that an idea could be intellectually non disruptive but have enormous technological and social ramifications, which ultimately are disruptive. Maybe the quiet, powerful ideas have the last laugh, because they sneak up on society. It might also explain why many people don't seem to think deeply about what a computer is.
Some computation links for future reference / study:
Turing Machine
Turing Machine Gallery
Theory of Computation
Evolutionary computation

There is a very interesting dialogue between Tony and Paul, about do we need more than immersion to learn the computer (computing concepts), at Paul Chandler's wiki, where Paul suggests that the underlying architecture does pop up at important times:
The somewhat more general context is this: I am deeply suspicious that simply by "immersion" one doesn't develop any concept of von Neumann architecture, and such a conceptual framework is actually quite important in developing good computing skills, and this extends to seemingly trivial matters such as what's in the file menu.

The relevance of von Neumann is, I believe, the $64000 question. I wouldn't presume it's relevance, but its a hypothesis worth testing, I think. Also, I used "von Neumann" (above) to refer to the general concept that a computer has a working memory and a 'permanent store' (von Neumann' contribution was basically to build a computer with a processor and a 'working memory' operating hand-in-hand); I'm guessing, but subdividing down below this general concept is possibly pointless. Lots of stuff goes on behind the scenes.

My point for raising the von Neumann idea in the first place is to postulate that it is not _all_ happening behind the scenes. Loads of it is, but every so often some "thing" comes along and suddenly you are expected to know what's going on. More than the "von Neumann" idea, there is the idea that a document we are working with sits in context with a software environment; when we are working our consciousness has to 'sit' main on the 'internal' world of the document we are working on, and a little on the 'external' work. How many people don't get the idea that a program can have a default printer, which is different to the system's default printer? How many start doing file management in the 'open' dialogue box in (say) Word and look at you slightly odd when it's suggest that you are not 'in' Windows Explorer. There's "something", I reckon ... call it awareness of von Neumann, call it inside/outside ... but a "something" of this ilk which the better, more flexible users "have got" that the strugglers haven't.


Anonymous said...

Do you think that the "awareness" is something to do with visual imagery Bill?

There is a significant correlation between professional success and visual thinking in engineering science and invention.

Would seem plausible that if you can visualise the internal architecture of operating system perhaps you are more able to have an intuitive understanding of how it all works -

you know the trouble shooter who cannot articulate what to do but can take over the keyboard and solve the problem - much like the driver who cannot describe the route but can drive you there

Bill Kerr said...

hi arti,

Different learning styles is a fascinating area in its own right. I was strongly influenced by Dawna Markova (How Your Child is Smart; The Art of the Possible), simply because her categorisations seemed to make a lot of sense when applied to members of my own family. I was a KVA (Kinesthenic-Visual-Aural), expressed by Doing it - Showing it - Talking about it. ("... tend to work best in solitude ... may have difficulty talking and doing something at the same time, given the choice, they'd rather do...")

Looking at the back flap, maybe you are a VAK ("Great storyteller. Skilled at teaching, selling, using metaphors, and telling themselves both sides of the story...")

But then I think you can have "naturals" in engineering / science / maths / programming who still don't look below the surface. In that sense your observation seems, at first feeling to me, orthogonal to what I was trying to get at. Someone who finds computering easy may not ever feel the need to look below the surface (?)

Anonymous said...

I love this. I have never been described as orthogonal - and yet it is such a good descriptor for how I see the world

This is an observation worthy of a new black T-shirt *orthogonal thinker*

And yes I think you are right - I worked in gifted ed in another life and interviewed many highly able students - intuition is the only word that captures the thinking they can do - and asking for a breakdown of the process that led to the insight is a task they describe as a cruel and unusual punishment - and is usually impossible