Wednesday, October 10, 2007

our human condition "from space"

The process of really understanding something sometimes takes years. Real understanding is more of a coherent, connected world view, which turtles all the way down, than "the right words".

With this in mind, I'd like to encourage people to spend some time on alan kay's article - Our Human Condition "From Space" (and his other writings and presentations)

Everything about it is beautiful - the illustrations, the writing style and most importantly, the ideas

I like his idea of the unsane, the mental state where our ideas don't fit reality, the map doesn't represent the territory. We like to think of ourselves as mostly "sane" and contrast that with a few "insane" personal moments or the more permanent state of a few unfortunates. But the "unsane" idea makes room for a different self perception. What if more often than not we are unsane?

When alan kay said in his writings from time to time that computers were not all that important, I couldn't really believe that he meant that. Computers have been his career, so I couldn't take him seriously. Even now I feel a strong pressure to qualify this observation.

But in this article he explains it clearly. Most of modern science (400 year tradition) can be done with simple tools - to grasp it requires point of view, effort, time but not money or computers

One of the first quotes I heard from him years ago was "point of view is worth 80 IQ points". Initially, that sounded quaint and elitist, "how old hat to be talking about IQ", I thought. But having read this article and some other of his writings I now see it as an important insight. Point of view changes everything. So what happens? From the outside you look the same but from the inside everything looks different, you see the world through different eyes. My feeling is that the important thing is to pursue the non universal powerful ideas more rigorously.


Wara said...

Praps I'm ignorant for not having read the paper but I would say that understanding points of view is worth another 80 then. To my mind empathy is the key - being able to put oneself in a position where we can see things from anothers point of view. And no, I don't have an IQ of 180.

Bill Kerr said...

empathy - "The power of projecting one's personality into (and so fully comprehending) the object of contemplation" (from my old oxford dictionary)

How does empathy work across conceptual divides, intellectual or social revolutions? Empathy is not possible if the person with the "other" point of view does not comprehend your point of view

In Mindstorms (pp. 142-3) Papert has a hypothetical conversation between Aristotle and Galileo about how quickly bodies of different mass fall to the ground. In this pretend conversation Galileo does not "refute" Aristotle by a practical demonstration of dropping two masses. Rather he understands / empathises with Aristotle's starting assumptions and then looks at those assumptions in ways that are different.

The more modern idea that a body can be divided into parts is used to question the older idea assumption that bodies are indivisible. If two one-pound weights are dropped to the ground independently then Aristotle agrees they will reach the ground together in, say, 4 seconds. Galileo then asks, "if I connect them with a gossamer thread ... is this now two bodies or one? Will it (or they) take two seconds or four to fall to the ground?"

Galileo is fully empathising with Aristotle. The main point is not that Galileo is smarter but that he has a very different point of view - that bodies are not ideal entities but divisible.

The same sort of analysis can be projected into current differences of opinion. eg. it would be an interesting exercise to construct a conversation b/w Stallman and Gates about free software.

Empathy has the same Latin root as emotion. At what social point does emotion end and point of view begin? Aristotle was a very smart person but from our modern point of view he was unsane.

Unknown said...

I like the idea of non-universal powerful ideas. You/Kay define them as:

From anthropological research of over 3000 human cultures, universals, the things that all human cultures have in common and non universals, the things that humans find harder to learn.

But I think the concept is not quite there. Though an idea might not spontaneously occur in all cultures, it might be quite stable once established. The real question is what powerful ideas are poorly served by the other learning aspects of our culture and are best delivered through school or other intentional education activity.

Bill Kerr said...

"Though an idea might not spontaneously occur in all cultures, it might be quite stable once established"

The powerful ideas developed by the Greeks more or less perished with their civilisation and had to be rediscovered 2000 years later. Fortunately a few fragments survived. They were not stable.

Here's the list :
- reading and writing
- deductive abstract mathematics
- model based science
- equal rights
- democracy
- perspective drawing
- theory of harmony
- similarities over differences
- slow deep thinking
- agriculture
- legal systems

Which ones are taught well in school, out of school? I would say that school is only serious about reading and writing (and some would argue about that) and all the others are regarded as optional extras. On the surface some of them seem to be done but they could be done much better, eg. deductive abstract mathematics, model based science

Out of school? Entertainment not education is the norm and increasingly education is only seen as valid if it conforms to the status quo of entertainment. Postman argues that TV had dragged as from an "age of exposition" (print medium dominant) to an "age of show business" (entertainment dominant). This article is a good introduction to Postman's ideas even though to fully understand him I think it's necessary to read his book, "Amusing Ourselves to Death"

I think the issue about powerful ideas is this. Everyone one will agree - powerful ideas is a good idea. What makes alan kay's approach different is that he has introduced an underlying scientific criteria for his list. If people don't grasp that then the whole concept will become fudged as everyone's favourites are added to the list.

eg. someone recently sent me a link to this video about John Marsden's experimental school. Of course John Marsden is a great writer and would be a great writing teacher. But the video contains anti-science sentiments, his whole approach is being done in ignorance of the implications of alan kay's list.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the Marsden videos.

Anti-science, I dont think so. Yes, anti-consumerism and anti-technology. Leaning towards the humanities, yes, as the thoughts of an author would.

Kay's list gives a good underpinning for the half formed ideas and rejection of vocational education in the Marsden videos.

Bill Kerr said...

hi tony,

John Marsden's school only features in the first of the videos. I think you are correct that my initial off the top of the head assessment is unbalanced.

Marsden expresses view about wisdom that are congruent with alan kay's approach - that in today's world consumerism and vocationalism relegates wisdom to something that is seen as frivilous, trivial, irrelevant.

btw this is a central point of Frank Furedi's book too ('Where have all the intellectuals gone?') - that post modernism and politcally correctness have undermined our whole notion of Truth.

Later on in the first tape some anti-maths and anti-science views are expressed. An articulate student says contrasts English favourably to maths ("maths is about making money"). Then Marsden says that at University the Arts Faculty is the only one dedicated to opening peoples minds - "every other faculty by necessity is dedicated to closing your mind by focusing intently and specifically on one area". I took these remarks out of context.

Your comment that: "Kay's list gives a good underpinning for the half formed ideas and rejection of vocational education in the Marsden videos" is closer to the mark.

I looked up Marsden's school, Candlebark . It's an "alternative school" with a strong traditional component - as implied by Kay's list

One thing that comes through in John Marsden's novels is his belief that young people are capable of taking on a lot of responsibility. Similar to Papert's idea that School infantilises students artificially.

Yes, there are some aspects of it that are quite strongly congruent with my thinking. The section on "WHAT WE ARE NOT" is interesting:

* We are not a school without rules, a free school, a hippie school. We expect students to be on time for lessons, with the right equipment, and ready to learn

* We are not a democracy. We have a clear understanding of what we want and how to get there. Suggestions for change and improvements will be received with interest, unless we have had a bad day, in which case they may be received with a certain lack of grace

* “Fun” is not a word that we use very often. People looking for fun might be better advised to consult the Yellow Pages under the heading “Clowns”. On the other hand, we know how powerfully motivation affects learning. Enjoyment of an activity can of course significantly improve learning capacity, but other motivations can be powerful too. For example, understanding that an activity is important can be highly motivating. Recognising that there is a greater purpose to an activity can be highly motivating

Wara said...

When I originally read this posting I had just finished watching Wade Davis. My understanding of empathy was a bit more than "projecting ones personality into". Check out the video and you'll see what i mean. I think this video also relates to some of the other comments here about things that are common across cultures. There is also some very interesting 'intelligences' talked about. The people that are able to tell the difference between plants that we consider as the same species is an example. Thanks to lucychile for the link to the Wade Davis video.

Bill Kerr said...

Wade Davis (video ) is very knowledgeable and empathic about other cultures

What are the underlying assumptions here:
* that different cultures and nature are a treasure house which should be worshipped and preserved?
* that modernity is bad because it destroys old cultures and nature?

Tony has pointed out that the OLPC project will be disruptive to old cultures, based on his knowledge of Vanuatu

In my view modernity is a very good thing. I also reject philosophically the notion of stasis, that it is desirable or possible to freeze the world in some imagined spot. The law of nature that I support is that everything changes, everything evolves. An Ethnocentric or Biocentric world outlook simply does not conform to this reality

Noel Pearson also understands this very clearly in his attitude towards aboriginal progress -
"Keep our diverse languages and cultural traditions by excelling in education and digital technologies, the only means of arresting the decline of our ancient and oral traditions"

"Never forget history but engage in the future"

It's part of a larger discussion - what is progress?