Building a smarter computing culture in Fargo, ND
I just picked up Multimedia From Wagner to Virtual Reality and stumbled upon Alan Kay’s “User Interface: A Personal View (1989). As Kay tells his story, he acknowledges McLuhan’s Understanding Media as one of his keys to understanding the computer. McLuhan helped him see the computer as a medium, not just a tool. “When he [McLuhan] said “the medium is the message” he meant that you have to become the medium if you use it” (124).
Kay goes on at length about McLuhan’s insights–we invent the tools, but then they reshape us; mediums like print, the television, and the computer reshape thought. Then he links McLuhan’s thinking to the work of Seymour Papert and LOGO, which Kay saw as a kind of enactment of McLuhan’s thinking, as Papert and collaborators tried to immerse children in this new medium, this new environment. They tried (and still try) to give them the fully powerful and encompassing access to literacy that the computer has made available to children since the 1960s, but has not been fully realized. We have settled for a largely print-based literacy, even in the digital, computer age.
Kay’s words have a bit of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance about them: “I had believed that end users needed to be able to program before the computer could become truly theirs” (125). And he drops in a powerful definition of literacy:
The ability to “read” a medium means you can access materials and tools created by others. The ability to “write” in a medium means you can generate materials and tools for others. You must have both to be literate. In print writing, the tools you generate are rhetorical; they demonstrate and convince. In computer writing, the tools you generate are processes; they stimulate and decide. (125)
The article goes on to explain how Kay developed the early gui interfaces, but this initial string of connections–McLuhan-Kay-Papert-print and computer literacy–pretty succinctly sums up why we are engaged in this project. We are trying to figure out how to immerse children (in Fargo and souther Sudan directly, all children indirectly) in the most powerful medium of their lives, not to achieve basic transactional computer literacy, but to obtain powerful, critical, dynamic computer literacy.