Why the computer revolution hasn’t happened yet

I consider this a follow-up to another post I wrote called Reviving programming as literacy. I wrote the following answer in 2020 to a question on Quora, asking What happened in the past 80 years that produced a much cruder world than the rich one that science, engineering, math, tinkering, and systems-thinking experts in the ARPA-IPTO/PARC community predicted? I got my first upvote from Alan Kay for it, which I take as a “seal of approval” that it must’ve been a pretty good account of what’s happened, or that it at least has a good insight or two. I thought I’d share it here.

I think the short answer is the world proceeded with its own momentum, despite what ARPA/PARC offered. Nothing “happened,” which is to say that nothing in society was fundamentally changed by it. Many would ask how one could say that, since the claim would be made that the computer, and some of what was invented at PARC, was “transformative” to our society, but what this is really talking about is optimization of existing processes and goals, not changing fundamental assumptions about what’s possible, given what computing represents, as a promising opportunity to explore ideas about system processes. It’s true that optimization opens up possibilities that would be difficult to achieve otherwise, but my point is that what ARPA/PARC anticipated was that computing would help us to think as no humans have thought before, not just do as no humans have done before. These are not by any means the same transformations. The former was what ARPA/PARC was after, and my understanding is this is what many of the researchers experienced. That experience, though, didn’t get much outside of “the lab,” and while this experience has expanded into the sciences, becoming a fundamentally important tool for scientists to do their work, it still is “in the lab.”

What Alan Kay, one of the ARPA/PARC researchers, realized was that there was more work to be done to lay the groundwork for it. He, Seymour Papert, Jerome Bruner, and others, tried to bootstrap some processes in society, which Kay thought would do that. Their efforts failed, though. They either didn’t last long, or the intent was “lost in translation,” lasted for many years, doing something that ended up being unproductive, and ended in failure later.

The buzzsaw they ran into was the expectations and understandings of parents and educators re. what education was about. A complaint I’ve heard from Kay is that educators tend to not have a good grasp of what math and science are, even if they teach those subjects. So, with the approach that was being used by Kay and others, it was impossible to get the fundamental point across in a way that would scale.

I remember listening to a small presentation Kay gave 11 years ago, where he talked about a study on education reform that was done in the UK years earlier. It was found that in order for any order-of-magnitude improvement in the curriculum to take hold successfully in the study groups, a change in the curriculum must also involve the parents, as well as the children and teachers, because parents fundamentally want to be able to help their kids with their homework. If parents can’t understand what the curriculum is going after, why the change is being made, understand the material being given to their kids, and buy into the benefits of it, they resist it intensely, and the reform effort fails. So, any improvement in education really requires educating the community in and around schools. Just treating the school system as the authority, and the teachers as transmitters of knowledge to children, without involving the parents, did not work.

A natural tendency among parents and educators is to transmit the culture in which they were raised to the children, thus providing continuity. This includes what and how they were taught in school. This is not to say that any change from that is good, but there is resistance to anything but that. To “live in the future,” and help students get there, requires acquiring some mental tools to realize that you are in a context, and that other contexts, some of them more powerful, are possible.

One thought on “Why the computer revolution hasn’t happened yet

  1. Pingback: Generally Interesting Links – Jan 2021 – Abacus Noir

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