Sugar Labs @ NDSU

Building a smarter computing culture in Fargo, ND

Alan Kay read Marshall McLuhan: Duh-piphany!


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.

2 comments on “Alan Kay read Marshall McLuhan: Duh-piphany!

  1. Michael Labay
    June 3, 2011

    excerpted from the 1969 interview:

    MCLUHAN: It is not an easy period in which to live, especially for the television-conditioned young who, unlike their literate elders, cannot take refuge in the zombie trance of Narcissus narcosis that numbs the state of psychic shock induced by the impact of the new media. From Tokyo to Paris to Columbia, youth mindlessly acts out its identity quest in the theater of the streets, searching not for goals but for roles, striving for an identity that eludes them.

    PLAYBOY: Why do you think they aren’t finding it within the educational system?

    MCLUHAN: Because education, which should be helping youth to understand and adapt to their revolutionary new environments, is instead being used merely as an instrument of cultural aggression, imposing upon retribalized youth the obsolescent visual values of the dying literate age. Our entire educational system is reactionary, oriented to past values and past technologies, and will likely continue so until the old generation relinquishes power. The generation gap is actually a chasm, separating not two age groups but two vastly divergent cultures. I can understand the ferment in our schools, because our educational system is totally rearview mirror. It’s a dying and outdated system founded on literate values and fragmented and classified data totally unsuited to the needs of the first television generation.

    PLAYBOY: How do you think the educational system can be adapted to accommodate the needs of this television generation?

    MCLUHAN: Well, before we can start doing things the right way, we’ve got to recognize that we’ve been doing them the wrong way–which most pedagogs and administrators and even most parents still refuse to accept. Today’s child is growing up absurd because he is suspended between two worlds and two value systems, neither of which inclines him to maturity because he belongs wholly to neither but exists in a hybrid limbo of constantly conflicting values. The challenge of the new era is simply the total creative process of growing up–and mere teaching and repetition of facts are as irrelevant to this process as a dowser to a nuclear power plant. To expect a “turned on” child of the electric age to respond to the old education modes is rather like expecting an eagle to swim. It’s simply not within his environment, and therefore incomprehensible.The TV child finds if difficult if not impossible to adjust to the fragmented, visual goals of our education after having had all his senses involved by the electric media; he craves in-depth involvement, not linear detachment and uniform sequential patterns. But suddenly and without preparation, he is snatched from the cool, inclusive womb of television and exposed–within a vast bureaucratic structure of courses and credits–to the hot medium of print. His natural instinct, conditioned by the electric media, is to bring all his senses to bear on the book he’s instructed to read, and print resolutely rejects that approach, demanding an isolated visual attitude to learning rather than the Gestalt approach of the unified sensorium. The reading postures of children in elementary school are a pathetic testimonial to the effects of television; children of the TV generation separate book from eye by an average distance of four and a half inches, attempting psychomimetically to bring to the printed page the all-inclusive sensory experience of TV. They are becoming Cyclops, desperately seeking to wallow in the book as they do in the TV screen.

    PLAYBOY: Might it be possible for the “TV child” to make the adjustment to his educational environment by synthesizing traditional literate-visual forms with the insights of his own electric culture–or must the medium of print be totally unassimilable for him?

    MCLUHAN: Such a synthesis is entirely possible, and could create a creative blend of the two cultures–if the educational establishment was aware that there is an electric culture. In the absence of such elementary awareness, I’m afraid that the television child has no future in our schools. You must remember that the TV child has been relentlessly exposed to all the “adult” news of the modern world–war, racial discrimination, rioting, crime, inflation, sexual revolution. The war in Vietnam has written its bloody message on his skin; he has witnessed the assassinations and funerals of the nation’s leaders; he’s been orbited through the TV screen into the astronaut’s dance in space, been inundated by information transmitted via radio, telephone, films, recordings and other people. His parents plopped him down in front of a TV set at the age of two to tranquilize him, and by the time he enters kindergarten, he’s clocked as much as 4000 hours of television. As an IBM executive told me, “My children had lived several lifetimes compared to their grandparents when they began grade one.”

    PLAYBOY: If you had children young enough to belong to the TV generation, how would you educate them?

    MCLUHAN: Certainly not in our current schools, which are intellectual penal institutions. In today’s world, to paraphrase Jefferson, the least education is the best education, since very few young minds can survive the intellectual tortures of our educational system. The mosaic image of the TV screen generates a depth-involving nowness and simultaneity in the lives of children that makes them scorn the distant visualized goals of traditional education as unreal, irrelevant and puerile. Another basic problem is that in our schools there is simply too much to learn by the traditional analytic methods; this is an age of information overload. The only way to make the schools other than prisons without bars is to start fresh with new techniques and values.

    PLAYBOY: A number of experimental projects are bringing both TV and computers directly into the classrooms. Do you consider this sort of electronic educational aid a step in the right direction?

    MCLUHAN: It’s not really too important if there is ever a TV set in each classroom across the country, since the sensory and attitudinal revolution has already taken place at home before the child ever reaches school, altering his sensory existence and his mental processes in profound ways. Book learning is no longer sufficient in any subject; the children all say now, “Let’s talk Spanish,” or “Let the Bard be heard,” reflecting their rejection of the old sterile system where education begins and ends in a book. What we need now is educational crash programing in depth to first understand and then meet the new challenges. Just putting the present classroom on TV, with its archaic values and methods, won’t change anything; it would be just like running movies on television; the result would be a hybrid that is neither. We have to ask what TV can do, in the instruction of English or physics or any other subject, that the classroom cannot do as presently constituted. The answer is that TV can deeply involve youth in the process of learning, illustrating graphically the complex interplay of people and events, the development of forms, the multileveled interrelationships between and among such arbitrarily segregated subjects as biology, geography, mathematics, anthropology, history, literature and languages.If education is to become relevant to the young of this electric age, we must also supplant the stifling, impersonal and dehumanizing multiversity with a multiplicity of autonomous colleges devoted to an in-depth approach to learning. This must be done immediately, for few adults really comprehend the intensity of youth’s alienation from the fragmented mechanical world and its fossilized educational system, which is designed in their minds solely to fit them into classified slots in bureaucratic society. To them, both draft card and degree are passports to psychic, if not physical, oblivion, and they accept neither. A new generation is alienated from its own 3000-year heritage of literacy and visual culture, and the celebration of literate values in home and school only intensifies that alienation. If we don’t adapt our educational system to their needs and values, we will see only more dropouts and more chaos.

  2. Michael Labay
    June 3, 2011

    What McLuhan is expressing, in part, is that children are learning during every waking moment outside the classroom: standing with mother in the line at the grocery store, the magazines are at eye level and filled with images. That is information, and the child cannot help but receive it through the senses. The public address system is playing music and announcements, and that is also information that must be processed. Conversations are taking place, and these are filled with information.

    Additionally, the literate child is reading text everywhere: magazines, advertisements, labels, on clothing. More information. The techo-child will be playing a Gameboy computer, or texting on their cell phones. All of this simultaneously bombarding the senses.

    The classroom thus becomes a sensory anechoic chamber in comparison.

    Today’s children are non-linear thinkers in a linear, literacy-based education system. Children are developing cognitively in fundamentally new ways.

    An analogy might be this: An adult begins to surf the internet. A link might take him to a youtube video. He suddenly is reminded to check email. He listens to music while simultaneously rabbit trailing through wikipedia, then a scientific news article, then back to another youtube video, checks email again, the searches the company webpage for today’s blog entry.

    This non-linear jumping to and fro in the metaphorical equivalent and electronic extension of how today’s children are processing thought, cognitively.

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This entry was posted on May 25, 2011 by in readingnotes and tagged , , , , .

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