Tuesday Oct. 12, What’s Special about Computers?

Reading discussion led by Sayamindu and Jiye.

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  1. Sayamindu Dasgupta on October 11th, 2010

    A cursory glance at the syllabus of the latter half of the Design for Empowerment class shows a common element – “computation”. Before jumping into consecutive days of discussion on computational “behaviour” (software), or form (hardware), it is natural to ask the question, what is so special about computers, and/or computation? This week’s readings try to answer this question.

    The first couple of readings looks specifically into the area of computers in learning, where Seymour Papert tries to answer the same question that we are asking today – “what’s so special about computers?”. He asks it in the context of a very specific domain, education. While reading “Mindstorms”, we must remember that it first came out in 1980, when the concept of the “personal” computer for the masses was still an unattained dream. In such an environment, people were entirely justified in asking why machines, which were typically used for conducting number crunching for banks and other large organizations, would be specially useful in education.

    Papert starts off “Mindstorms” with something that is totally unrelated to computers. He presents to us an object from his childhood, an object that helped him in his learning process. He describes how the gears that were his childhood toys let him make the transition from the concrete world of movement to the abstract domain of mathematics. He calls it a “transitional” object, and maps it to the concept of “assimilation” put forward by Jean Piaget. He goes even further to emphasize on the fact that apart from letting him connect with the formal knowledge sphere of mathematics, the gears were also a way to connect to his “body knowledge”, where he could “be” the gear by projecting himself in the gear’s space. Moreover, and perhaps, most importantly, what he tries to underline in the chapter is the (oft ignored) “relationship” angle with his object – he asserts that what made the learning possible was his love for the gears. This love, or the personal significance is one of the most important attributes of a “transitional” object, and at the end of the chapter, Papert points out that unless this attribute is present, assimilation (in the Piagetian sense) will not happen. This claim lays out the foundation stone of the next chapters and provides a hint to the answer about the special place of computers. Papert says that as a computer can take on thousand forms and serve a thousand functions, it has the power to appeal to a thousand tastes, enabling it to create a thousand personally meaningful experiences.

    In the next chapter, Papert goes on to propose a new kind of learning model, which is made possible only through computers. He proposes to create a computer-mediated world of objects and artifacts that speak the language of mathematics, and suggests that we let the child converse with the computer in this language. He rejects the popular notion of “computer-aided instruction”, proposing that instead of letting computers train (or program) the child – the reverse should happen where the child would program the computer. He suggests that computers be the “carrier” of artifacts that belong to the “culture” of mathematics, and predicts that when children get immersed in this “culture” they would become comfortable and familiar with the language of mathematics as well as “Mathland” in general. He goes back to his gears example, and proposes a new computational “object to think with” – the LOGO Turtle. He describes how the richness of the Turtle “microworld” lets children follow their own paths of exploration based on their interests. (We must note here that the richness that he speaks about is possible largely due to the Turtle itself being an abstract computational object.) As the children explore this microworld, they become fluent in a new language, a language that lets them talk about and describe velocities, shapes, processes and procedures. This language, Papert claims, is the language of mathematics.

    The third reading is much more recent. In it Wing talks about “computational thinking” in general, and how it can be used to solve problems unrelated to computers. It gives various examples, both abstract (thinking recursively) and concrete (finding a lost item by backtracking). It also gives example of how computational thinking have influenced other disciplines such as biology, statistics, etc. The reading ends with a list of characteristics of computing, and tries to address some of the commonly held misconceptions about computational thinking (eg: it is not programming, it is a combination of both math and engineering, etc).

    All the readings show us how a computer (or more specifically, computation) can be a powerful object or way to think with. While Papert focuses on how a single computational object can deeply influence the way we learn, Wing brings up numerous examples where our thinking process is being influenced by computational principles and ideas. All the readings give us an opportunity to think outside of our traditional sphere and imagine the possibilities opened up by computation outside our own areas. As engineers and designers, we should recognize the fact that computational thinking is indeed, universally applicable, and that it provides us with a very rich set of tools with which to attack any given problem. Moreover, as Papert calls it, the computer is the “Proteus of machines” – something which enables us to create experiences that can follow different paths to be personally relevant to thousands of different tastes and cultures. This is a flexibility that has never been offered before, and we should try to take advantage of this as much as possible.

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