I thought I’d share the video below, since it has some valuable insights on what computer science should be, and what education should be, generally. It’s all integrated together in this presentation, and indeed, one of the projects of education should be integrating computer science into it, but not with the explicit purpose to create more programmers for future jobs, though it could always be used for that by the students. Alan Kay presents a different definition of CS than is pursued in universities today. He refers to how Alan Perlis defined it (Perlis was the one to come up with the term “computer science”), which I’ll get to below.
This thinking about CS and education provides, among other things, a pathway toward reimagining how knowledge, literature, and art can be presented, organized, dissected, annotated, and shared in a way that’s more meaningful than can be achieved with old media. (For more on that, see my post “Getting beyond paper and linear media.”) As with what the late Carl Sagan often advocated, Kay’s presentation here advocates for a general model for the education of citizens, not just professional careerists.
Another reason I thought of sharing this is several years ago I remember hearing that Kay was working on rethinking computer science curriculum. What he presents is more about suggestion, “Start thinking about it this way.” (He takes a dim view of the concept of curriculum, as it suggests setting students on a rigid path of study with the intent to create minds with a cookie cutter, though he is in favor of classical liberal arts education, with the prescriptions that entails.)
As he says in the presentation, there’s a lot to develop in the practice of education in order to bring this into fruition.
This is from 2015:
I wrote notes below for some of the segments he talks about, just because I think his presentation bears some interpretation for many readers. He uses metaphors a lot.
This is an analogy for how an apparatus, or a subject, is typically modified for education. We take the optimized, or the adult version of something, and add compensators, which make it so that beginners can use it without falling all over themselves. It’s seen as easier to present it this way, and as a skill-building experience, where in order to learn how to do something, you need to use “the real thing.” Beginners can put on a good show of using this sort of apparatus, or modified subject, but the problem is that it doesn’t teach a beginner how to become good at really using the real thing at its full potential. The compensators become a crutch. He said a better idea is to use an apparatus, or a component of the subject, that allows a beginner to get a feel for how to use the thing in a way that gets across significant aspects of its potential, but without the optimizations, or the way adults use it, which make it too complicated for a beginner to use under their own power. In this case, a lowbike is better. This beginner apparatus, or component, is more like the first version of the thing you’re trying to teach. Bicycles were originally more like scooters, without pedals, or a chain, where you’d sit in the seat, push it along with your legs, kind of “running while sitting,” glide, and turn by shifting your weight, and turning into the turn. Once a beginner gets a feel for that, they can deal with the optimized version, or a scaled down adult version, with pedals and a chain to drive the bike, because all that adds is the ability to get more power out of it. It doesn’t change any of the fundamentals of how you use it.
This gets to an issue of pedagogy, that learners need to learn something in components, rather than dealing with the whole thing at once. Once they learn one capacity, they can move on to the next challenge in learning the “whole thing.”
Radiation vs. nouns
He put forward a proposition for his talk, which is that he’s mixing a bunch of ideas together, because they overlap. This is a good metaphor, because most of his talk is about what we are as human beings, and how society should situate and view education. Only a little of it is actually on computer science, but all of it is germane to talking about computer science education.
He also gives a little advice to education reformers. He pointed out what’s wrong with education as it is right now, but rather than cursing it, he said one should make a deliberate effort to “build a tribe” or coalition with those who are causing the problem, or are in the midst of the problem, and suggest ways to bring them into a dignified position, perhaps by sharing in their honors, or, as his example illustrated, their shame. I draw some of this from Plato’s Cave metaphor.
Cooperation and competition in society
I once heard Kay talk about this many years ago. He said that, culturally, modern corporations are like the ancient hunter-gatherers. They exploit the resources of an area for a while, and once it’s exhausted, they move on, and that as a culture, they have yet to learn about democracy, which requires more of a “settlement” mentality toward what they’re doing. Here, he used an agricultural metaphor to talk about a cooperative society that creates the wealth that is then used by competitive forces within it. What he means by this is that the true wealth is the knowledge that’s ultimately used to develop new products and services. It’s not all developed inside the marketplace. He doesn’t talk about this, but I will. Even though a significant part of the wealth (as he said, you can think of it as “potential energy”) is generated inside research labs, what research labs tend to lack is knowledge of what the members of society can actually understand of this developed knowledge. That’s where the competitive forces in society come in, because they understand this a lot better. They can negotiate between how much of the new knowledge to put into a product, and how much it will cost, to reach as many people as possible. This is what happened in the computer industry of the past.
I think I understand what he’s getting at with the agricultural metaphor, though perhaps I need to be filled in more. My understanding of what he means is that farmers don’t just want to reap a crop for one season. Their livelihood depends on maintaining fertility on their land. That requires not just exploiting what’s there season after season, or else you get the dust bowl. If instead, practices are modified to allow the existing land to become fertile again, or, in the case of hunter-gathering, aggressively managing the environment to create favorable grazing to attract game, then you can create a cycle of exploitation and care such that a group can stay in one area for a long time, without denying themselves any of the benefits of how they live. I think what he suggests is that if corporations would modify their behavior to a more settled, agricultural model, to use some of their profits to contribute to educating the society in which they exist, and to funding scientific research on a private basis, that would “regenerate the soil” for economic growth, which can then fuel more research, creating a cycle of renewal. No doubt the idea he’s presenting includes the businesses who would participate in doing this. They should be allowed to profit (“reap”) from what they “sow,” but the point is they’re not the only ones who can profit. Other players in the marketplace can also exploit the knowledge that’s generated, and profit as well. That’s what’s been done in the past with private research labs.
He attributes the lack of this to culture, of not realizing that the economic model that’s being used is not sustainable. Eventually, you use up the “soil,” and it becomes “infertile,” and “blows away,” and, in the case of hunter-gathering, the “good hunting grounds” are used up.
He makes a crucial point, though, that education is not just about jobs and competitiveness. It’s also about inculcating what citizenship really means. I’m sure if he was asked to drill down on this more, he would suggest a classical education for this, along with a modified math and science curriculum that would give students a sense of what those subjects really are like.
The sense I get is he’s advocating almost more of an Andrew Carnegie model of corporate stewardship, who, after he made his money, directed his philanthropy to building schools and libraries. Kay would just add science labs to that mix. (He mentions this later in his talk.)
I feel it necessary to note that not all for-profit entities would be able to participate in funding these cooperative activities, because their profit margins are so slim. I don’t think that’s what he’s expecting out of this.
What we are, to the best of our knowledge
He gives three views into human mental capacity: the way we perceive (theatrical), how much we can perceive at any moment in time (1 ± 2), and how educators should perceive ourselves psychologically and mentally (more primate and mammalian). This relates to neuroscience, and to some extent, evolutionary psychology.
The raison d’être of computer science
The primary purpose of computer science should be developing a science of systems in process, and that means all processes: mechanical processes, technological processes, social processes, biological processes, mental processes, etc. This relates to my earlier post, “Beginning the journey of becoming a computer scientist.” It’s partly about developing a new kind of mathematics for modeling processes. Alan Turing did it, with his Turing Machine concept, though he was trying to model the process of generating mathematical statements, and doing mathematical tests on them.
Shipping the design
Kay talks about how programmers today don’t have access to anything like what designers in other fields have, where they’re able to model their design, simulate it, and then have a machine fabricate a prototype that you can actually show and use.
I want to clarify this one point, because I don’t think he articulated it well (I found out about this because he expressed a similar thought on Quora, and I finally understood what he meant), but at one point he said that students at UCLA, one of the Top 10 CS schools, use “vi terminal emulators” (he sounds like he said “bi-terminal emulators”), emulating punched cards. What he meant by this was that students are logging in to a Unix/Linux system, bringing up an X-Windows terminal window, which is 80 columns wide (hence the punched card metaphor he used, because punch cards were also 80 columns wide), and using the “vi” text editor (or more likely “vim”, which is vi emulated in Emacs) to write their C++ code, the primary language they use.
I had an epiphany about this gulf between the tools that programmers use and the tools that engineers use, about 8 or 9 years ago. I was at a friend’s party, and there were a few mechanical engineers among the guests. I overheard a couple of them talking about the computer-aided design (CAD) software they were using. One talked about a “terrible” piece of CAD software he used at work. He said he had a much better CAD system at home, but it was incompatible with the data files that were used at work. As much as he would’ve loved to use it, he couldn’t. He said the system he used at work required him to group pieces of a design together as he was building the model, and once he did that, those pieces became inflexible. He couldn’t just redesign one piece of it, or separate one out individually from the model. He couldn’t move the pieces around on the model, and have them fit. Once they were grouped, that was it. It became this static thing. He said in order to redesign one piece of it, he had to take the entire model apart, piece by piece, redesign the part, and then redesign all the other pieces in the group to make the new part fit. He said he hated it, and as he talked about it, he acted like he was so disgusted with it, he wanted to throw it in the trash, like it was a piece of garbage. He said on his CAD system at home, it was wonderful, because he could separate a part from a model any time he wanted, and the system would adjust the model automatically to “make sense” out of the part being missing. He could redesign the part, and move it to a different part of the model, “attach it” somewhere, and the system would automatically adjust the model so that the new part would fit. The way he described it gave it a sense of fluidity. Whereas the system he used at work sounded rigid. It reminded me of the programming languages I had been using, where once relationships between entities were set up, it was really difficult to take pieces of it “out” and redesign them, because everything that depended on that piece would break once I redesigned it. I had to go around and redesign all the other entities that related to it to adjust to the redesign of the one piece.
I can’t remember how this worked, but another thing the engineer talked about was the system at work had some sort of “binding” mechanism that seemed to associate parts by “type,” and that this was also rigid, which reminded me a lot of the strong typing system in the languages I had been using. He said the system he had at home didn’t have this, and to him, it made more sense. Again, his description lent a sense of fluidity to the experience of using it. I thought, “My goodness! Why don’t programmers think like this? Why don’t they insist that the experience be like this guy’s CAD system at home?” For the first time in my career, I had a profound sense of just what Alan Kay talked about, here, that the computing field is retrograde. It has not advanced anywhere close to the kind of engineering that exists in other fields, where they would insist on this sort of experience. We accept so much less, whereas modern engineers have a hard time standing for it, because they know they have better options.
Don’t be fooled by large efforts below threshold
Before I begin this part, I want to share a crucial point that Kay makes, because it’s one of the big ones:
Think about what thinking is. Thinking is not being logical. Thinking is choosing the environment that you’re going to think in before you start rationalizing.
Kay had something very interesting, and startling, to say about the Apollo space program, using that as a metaphor for large reform initiatives in education generally. I recently happened upon a video of testimony he gave to a House committee on educational computing back in 1982, chaired by then-congressman Al Gore, and Kay talked about this same example back then. He said that the way the Apollo rockets were designed was a “hack.” They were not the best design for space travel, but it was the most expedient for the mission of getting to the Moon by the end of the 1960s. Here, in this presentation, he talks about how each complete rocket was the height of a 45-story building (1-1/2 football fields in length), most of it high explosives, with only a tiny capsule at the top that could fit 3 astronauts. This is not a model that could scale to what was needed for space travel.
It became this huge worldwide cultural event when NASA launched it, and landed men on the Moon, but Kay said it was really not a great accomplishment. I remember Rep. Gore said in jest, “The walls in this room are shaking!” The camera panned around a bit, showing pictures on the wall from NASA. How could he say such a thing?! This was the biggest cultural event of the century, perhaps in all of human history. He explained the same thing here: that the Apollo program didn’t advance space travel beyond the mission to the Moon. It was not technology that would get us beyond that, though, in hindsight we can say technology like it enabled launching probes throughout the Solar System.
Now, what he means by “space travel,” I’m not sure. Is it manned missions to the outer planets, or to other star systems? Kay is someone who has always thought big. So, it’s possible he was thinking of interstellar travel. What he was talking about was the problem of propulsion, getting something powerful enough to make significant discoveries in space exploration possible. He said chemical propellant just doesn’t do it. It’s good enough for launching orbital vehicles around our planet, and launching probes, but that’s really it. The rest is just wasting time below threshold.
Another thing he explained is that large initiatives which don’t cross a meaningful threshold can be harmful to efforts to advancing any endeavor, because large initiatives come with extended expectations that the investment will continue to be used, and they must be satisfied, or else there will be no cooperation in doing the initial effort. The participants will want their return on investment. He said that’s what happened with NASA. The ROI had to play out, but that ruined the program, because as that happened, people could see we weren’t advancing the state of the art that much in space travel, and the science that was being produced out of it was usually nothing to write home about. Eventually, we got what we now see: People are tired of it, and have no enthusiasm for it, because it set expectations so low.
What he was trying to do in his House committee testimony, and what he’s trying to do here, is provide some perspective that science offers, vs. our common sense notion of how “great” something is. You cannot get qualitative improvement in an endeavor without this perspective, because otherwise you have no idea what you’re dealing with, or what progress you’re building on, if any. Looking at it from a cultural perspective is not sufficient. Yes, the Moon landing was a cultural milestone, but not a scientific or engineering milestone, and that matters.
Modern science and engineering have a sense of thresholds, that there can come a point where some qualitative leap is made, a new perspective on what you’re doing is realized that is significantly better than what existed prior. He explains that once a threshold has been crossed, you can make small improvements which continue to build on that significant leap, and those improvements will stick. The effort won’t just crash back down into mediocrity, because you know something about what you have, and you value it. It’s a paradigm shift. It is so significant, you have little reason to go back to what you were doing before. From there, you can start to learn the limits of that new perspective, and at some point, make more qualitative leaps, crossing more thresholds.
“Problem-finding”/finding the goal vs. problem-solving
Problem solving begins with a current context, “We’re having a problem with X. How do we solve it?” Problem finding asks do we even have a good idea of what the problem is? Maybe the reason for the problems we’ve been seeing has to do with the fact that we haven’t solved a different problem we don’t know about yet. “Let’s spend time trying to find that.”
Another way of expressing this is a concept I’ve heard about from economists, called “opportunity cost,” which, in one context, gets across the idea that by implementing a regulation, it’s possible that better outcomes will be produced in certain categories of economic interactions, but it will also prevent certain opportunities from arising which may also be positive. The rub is these opportunities will not be known ahead of time, and will not be realized, because the regulation creates a barrier to entry that entrepreneurs and investors will find too high to overcome. This concept is difficult to communicate to many laymen, because it sounds speculative. What this concept encourages people cognizant of it to do is to “consider the unseen,” to consider the possibilities that lie outside of what’s currently known. One can view “problem finding” in a similar way, not as a way of considering the unseen, but exploring it, and finding new knowledge that was previously unknown, and therefore unseen, and then reconsidering one’s notion of what the problem really is. It’s a way of expanding your knowledge base in a domain, with the key practice being that you’re not just exploring what’s already known. You’re exploring the unknown.
The story he tells about MacCready illustrates working with a good modeling system. He needed to be able to fail with his ideas a lot, before he found something that worked. So he needed a simple enough modeling system that he could fail in, where when he crashed with a particular model, it didn’t take a lot to analyze why it didn’t work, and it didn’t take a lot to put it back together differently, so he could try again.
He made another point about Xerox PARC, that it took years to find the goal, and it involved finding many other goals, and solving them in the interim. I’ve written about this history at “A history lesson on government R&D” Part 2 and Part 3. There, you can see the continuum he talks about, where ARPA/IPTO work led into Xerox PARC.
This video with Vishal Sikka and Alan Kay gives a brief illustration of this process, and what was produced out of it.
There are a couple metaphors he uses to talk about the lack of flexibility that develops in our minds the more we focus our efforts on coping, problem solving, and optimizing how we live and work in our current circumstances. One is erosion gullies. The other is the “monkey trap.”
Erosion gullies channel water along a particular path. They develop naturally as water erodes the land it flows across. These “gullies” seem to fit with what works for us, and/or what we’re used to. They develop into habits about how we see the world–beliefs, ideas which we just accept, and don’t question. They allow some variation in the path that’s followed, but they provide boundaries that don’t allow the water to go outside the gully (leaving aside the exception of floods, for the sake of argument). He uses this to talk about how “channels” develop in our minds that direct our thinking. The more we focus our thoughts in that direction, the “deeper” the gully gets. Keep at it too long, and the “gully” won’t allow us to see anything different than what we’re used to. He says that it may become inconceivable to think that you could climb out of it. Most everything inside the “gully” will be considered “right” thinking (no reason why), and anything outside of it will be considered “wrong” (no reason why), and even threatening. This is why he mentions that wars are fought over this. “We’re all in different erosion gullies.” They don’t meet anywhere, and my “right” is your “wrong,” and vice-versa. The differences are irreconcilable, because the idea of seeing outside of them is inconceivable.
He makes two points with this. One is that we have erosion gullies re. stories that we tell ourselves, and beliefs that we hold onto. Another is that we have erosion gullies even in our sensory perceptions that dictate what we see and don’t see. We can see things that don’t even exist, and typically do. He uses eyewitness testimony to illustrate this.
I think what he’s saying with it is we need to watch out for these “gullies.” They develop naturally, but it would be good if we had the flexibility to be able to eventually get out of our “gully,” and form a new “channel,” which I take is a metaphor for seeing the world differently than what we’re used to. We need a means for doing that, and what he proposes is science, since it questions what we believe, and tests our ideas. We can get around our beliefs, and thereby get out of our “gullies” to change our perspective. It doesn’t mean we abandon “gullies,” but just become aware that other “channels” (perspectives) are possible, and we can switch between them, to see better, and achieve better outcomes.
Regarding the “monkey trap,” he uses it as a metaphor for us getting on a single track, grasping for what we want, not realizing that the very act of being that focused, to the exclusion of all other possibilities, is not getting us anywhere. It’s a trap, and we’d benefit by not being so dogged in pursuing goals if they’re not getting us anywhere.
Edit 2/9/2019: I highly recommend watching the last episode of a 1985 PBS/BBC mini-series by James Burke, called “The Day The Universe Changed.” The episode is called “Worlds Without End.” Burke gave a nice, long-form exposition of what our “erosion gullies” are like (he called them structures), and made clear that they are a fundamental part of our how brains work. Part of what he demonstrated was the same as what Kay demonstrates about how our perceptual systems distort reality to fit what our brains believe should exist. That’s part of what “erosion gullies” are. We can’t get away from them. Burke also explained that they are the only way that we can understand things. So, the idea is not to reject them, but to understand that they exist, and gain skill in getting out of one and into another one, which is hopefully more accurate, and/or leads to greater human flourishing.
An implication of this is that we can really be certain of nothing, but an important caveat that I can’t stress enough is that we can gain useful knowledge out of that uncertainty that is reliable, within constraints (which is to say “within a structure,” to use Burke’s term, or a “gulley,” using Kay’s term). This is the essence of modern science, and our modern society.
“Fast” vs. “slow”
He gets into some neuroscience that relates to how we perceive, what he called “fast” and “slow” response. You can train your mind through practice in how to use “fast” and “slow” for different activities, and they’re integral to our perception of what we’re doing, and our reactions to it, so that we don’t careen into a catastrophe, or miss important ideas in trying to deal with problems. He said that cognitive approaches to education deal with the “slow” systems, but not the “fast” ones, and it’s not enough to help students in really understanding a subject. As other forms of training inherently deal with the “fast” systems, educators need to think about how the “fast” systems responds to their subjects, and incorporate that into how they are taught. He anticipates this will require radically redesigning the pedagogy that’s typically used.
He says that the “fast” systems deal with the “atoms” of ideas that the “slow” system also deals with. By “atoms,” I take it he means fundamental, basic ideas or concepts for a subject. (I think of this as the “building blocks of molecules.”)
The way I take this is that the “slow” systems he’s talking about are what we use to work out hard problems. They’re what we use to sit down and ponder a problem for a while. The “fast” systems are what we use to recognize or spot possible patterns/answers quickly, a kind of quick, first-blush analysis that can make solving the problem easier. To use an example, you might be using “fast” systems now to read this text. You can do it without thinking about it. The “slow” systems are involved in interpreting what I’m saying, generating ideas that occur to you as you read it.
This is just me, but “fast” sounds like what we’d call “intuition,” because some of the thinking has already been done before we use the “slow” systems to solve the rest. It’s a thought process that takes place, and has already worked some things out, before we consciously engage in a thought process.
This is the clearest expression I’ve heard Kay make about what science actually is, not what most people think it is. He’s talked about it before in other ways, but he just comes right out and says it in this presentation, and I hope people watching it really take it in, because I see too often that people take what they’ve been taught about what science is in school and keep reiterating it for the rest of their lives. This goes on not only with people who love following what scientists say, but also in our societal institutions that we happen to associate with science.
…[Francis] Bacon wrote a book called “The Novum Organum” in 1620, where he said, “Hey, look. Our brains are messed up. We have bad brains.” He called the ways of messing up “idols.” He said we get serious errors because of our genetics. We get serious errors because of the culture we’re in. We get serious errors because of the languages we use. They don’t represent what’s actually out there. We get serious errors from the way that academia hangs on to bad ideas, and teaches them over again. These are his four “idols.” Anyone ever read Bacon? He said we need something to get around our bad brains! A set of heuristics, is the term we’d use today.
What he called for was … science, because that’s what “Novum Organum,” the rest of the title, was: “A new way of dealing with knowledge.”
Science is not the knowledge, because knowledge is in this context. What science is is a negotiation between what’s out there and what we can represent.
This is the big idea. This is the idea they don’t teach in school. This is the idea we should be teaching. It’s one of the biggest ideas of all time.
It isn’t the knowledge. It’s the relationship, because what’s out there is only knowable by a phenomena that is being filtered in every possible way. We don’t even know if our brain is capable of representing the stuff.
So, to think about science as the truth is completely wrong! It’s not the right way to look at it. But if you think about it as a negotiation between the best you can do right now and stuff that’s out there, where you’re not completely sure, you’re in a very strong position.
Science has been the most important, powerful thought system humans have ever invented, because it gave up the idea of truth, and it substituted for it a thousand variations of false, some of which are incredibly powerful. This is the big idea.
So, if we’re going to think about computing, this is one way … of thinking about, “Wow! Computers!” They are representers. We can learn about representations. We can simulate ideas. We can get a very good–much better sense of dealing with thinking about these complexities.
The last part demonstrates what I’ve seen with exploration. You start out thinking you’re going to go from Point A to Point B, but you take diversions, pathways that are interesting, but related to your initial search, because you find that it’s not a straight path from Point A to Point B. It’s not as straightforward as you thought. So, you try other ways of getting there. It is a kind of problem solving, but it’s really what Kay called “problem finding,” or finding the goal. In the process, the goal is to find a better way to get to the goal, and along the way, you find problems that are worth solving, that you didn’t anticipate at all when you first got going. In that process, you’ll find things you didn’t expect to learn, but which are really valuable to your knowledge base. In your pursuit of trying to find a better way to get to your destination, you might even get through a threshold, and find that your initial goal is no longer worth pursuing, but there are better goals to pursue in this new perception you’ve obtained.
Reviving programming as literacy
The necessary ingredients for computer science
Alan Kay’s advice to computer science students
Alan Kay: Basic reading material for computer science students (and programmers)
—Mark Miller, https://tekkie.wordpress.com