Contents

  Augmenting brains
  Fleabyte fundamentals
  Orality, Literacy, Computency
  Unfinished Revolution

Elsewhere

  A Flea in the Bonnet


brain

Thus it went, that ancient argument:  1988-1

Thoth: Writing will make people wiser and improve their memories.
 
Thamus: O most ingenious Thoth, the inventor is not always the best judge of his creation's worth. And in this instance what you say isn't true. Your invention will cause forgetfulness in learners because they will no longer cultivate their memories; they will rely on writing rather than remember themselves. Your discovery fosters reminiscence, not memory. Your disciples will hear many things and learn nothing; they will seem omniscient, but know nothing; with a mere semblance of wisdom they will make tiresome company. And answers will be the same always, without any concern for circumstance or audience.1988-2

These musings, written nearly 24 centuries ago by Plato in his Phaedrus were attributed to Socrates. And even then, writing was not new. It had been practiced thousands of years much as it is today: to record business accounts, laws, and scientific observations; and, more recently, to give permanence to man's adventures and thought. Nevertheless, it is not likely that Thamus, or Socrates, or Plato had the same notion of memory as we have today. Socrates regarded writing the doom of cultivated memory, an art held in far greater esteem then than now.  1988-3

A criticism similar to Socrates's can be levelled against the use of on-the-person computers, today's pocket computers. Their high speed and precision could make man's brain lazy, which implies less useful, be it to the brain in question or to fellow man.  1988-4

However thoughtful Socrates, his criticism would not stand up as completely valid today. Mankind has gathered much experience and knowledge since, and has learned to put to excellent use that much more accurate artificial memory, the written record.  1988-5

Similarly, today's preoccupation with information retrieval and routine problem solving makes the computer a useful tool even though it may well happen that some feats of neural memory and thought, ordinary now, will fall by the wayside. Mental arithmetic is an obvious example.  1988-6

I should suspect that writing is less the cause of poor memory than of a different use of brains compared to that practiced by the ancients. Different people think differently under all under all sorts of influence. In his wonderful, little book, Orality and Literacy (Methuen, 1982), Walter J.Ong reports evidence that literacy has changed man's consciousness and that a further change came about due to the mass production of printed books. Extrapolating, one expects that electronic thinking will change man's consciousness further. Human brains will be engaged in an altered mix of activities.  1988-7

Not only because of chronology may computing readily be viewed as an extension of writing. The way a computer is used makes it an instrument for a new form of writing, a form that allows not only man himself, but also his machine to act coherently on the record. Viewed from this vantage computency is merely literacy extended—especially when man and microchip, homo sapiens and pulex exiguus* form a team on intimate footing. The dire collolary is that in line with the difficulties encountered by illiterates who try to slip into the mainstream of contemporary life, one must expect that incomputents are bound to suffer a similar fate.  1988-8

Predating Socrates, the Greek poet Aeschylus regarded memory as the mother of all wisdom. Modern mankind, possibly because literacy provides it with extracranial storage capacity, attachs considerably less value to memory, emphasizing instead the value of a logical train of thought routinely exercised. And it seems reasonable that tomorrow, with massive computing power in Everyman's breast pocket, mankind will sneer a little at rote logic as a mental activity much like today we are apt to disparagingly dismiss the rote memorization of facts. One might speculate that our offspring will be consumers of logic more tnan producers—that they will become, if properly educated, men and women of better judgment than we are,  1988-9

And thus it appears that the computer, being a device permitting rapid retrieval and assessment of information, will allow mankind to climb another rung or two in the cognitive domain. Let's hope there will be time still for our offspring to put that superior judgment to proper use. Their survival on this planet may well depend on it.  1988-10

TABLEAU – Bloom's Parnassus

The Cognitive Domain
Knowledge
   Knowledge of specifics
      Knowledge of terminology
      Knowledge of specific facts
   Knowledge of ways and means of dealing with specifics
   Knowledge of conventions
   Knowledge of trends and sequences
   Knowledge of classification and categories
   Knowledge criteria
   Knowledge of methodology
   Knowledge of universals and abstraction in a field
Comprehension
   Translation
   Interpretation
   Extrapolation
Application
Analysis
   Analysis of elements
   Analysis of relationships
   Analysis of organizational principles
Synthesis
   Production of a unique communication
   Production of a plan, or proposed set of operations
   Derivation of a set of abstract relations
Evaluation
   Judgment in terms of internal evidence
   Judgment in terms of external criteris

This listing is known as Bloom's Taxonomy of the Cognitive Domain. It is a guide for educators.  1988-11

Having contemplated the fate of mankind—our home team on this Spaceship Earth, if you wish—let's now turn to the players as individuals.  1988-12

What common literacy is today was much rarer treasure yesterday, something possessed by only a few. I shall leave untouched the distinction between those of literate mind and those able to employ others' literacy though money or some other form of social power.  1988-13

As with money, the scarser literacy, the weak and meek are the ones especially starved. Fortunately, the art of low-cost printing allowed literacy to diffuse—to become more democratic. And because knowledge is power, difffusing knowledge is diffusing power.  1988-14

Unfortunately, even in literate countries there is still much so-called functional illiteracy. I cannot assess the social and psychological disorder this causes except to sense that it is quite serious. And one must expect it to become worse when the inequities that will be due to incompetency are superimposed on the inequities due to illiteracy.  1988-15

One major inequity of incomputency must be the helpnessless felt by those not able to assess and protect themselves against the influence of those in control of machine computation. They may accomodate themselves in the short run, but this does not necessarily eliminate stronger shocks in the long term as the computer's influence gradually pushes them off to the side or intrudes on them insome other manner and with increasing force.  1988-16

Another aspect of incomputency will be the utter dependence on programs written by others, programs that are not understood by their users. This willbe increasinglybstronger felt if and when personal computing becomes a more valued part of our daily lives as reading and writing are now. Withe an eye to personal choices, I once wrote that "a close electronic assistant for our neural brain can help us quickly sift chaff from wheat and do so any time we want it to. However, to employ such help we must know how to use it. And that includes knowing how to program, believe it or not.  1988-17

"Those not skilled in reading and writing are more likely to be in the control of others, Unless we know how to make and read programs, we shall perforce depend on programs made by others—experts, presumably, at writing programs—and, if we are lucky, experts also at solving exactly those problems we happen to encounter. Their algorithms will solve our problems the way they see them—or, and here is a mean rub, wish to see them. There will be no opportunity to amend a computer program to suit one's personal needs, to solve problems in one's own way. Future-God shall be the Programmer. And in sofar we have not been brainwashed yet, we shall be soon.  1988-18

"Programmer, Thy Will Be Done."*  1988-19

Like personal writing, personal computing is likely to bring a variety of benefits. Most obvious, one might expect, are those bearing on personal education. Then there are potential social benefits. I magine how more comfortable Canadians might have felt iof they had been able to make personal computer-aided assessments of the pros and cons of the proposal for free trade between Canada and the United States during the 1988 election campaign. One may well regard that the need for making better choices faster and from palettes that offer increasingly complex assortments of facts to scrutinize.  1988-20

It is heartening to observe that the need for the individual adaptation of programs is felt by others as well. "Software," I recently read, "can be made as simple that computer owners can modify programs to their taste without knowing anything about bits and bytes. 'Our whole interest,' says Apple's Kay, 'is letting ordinary people make tools for themselves. In the future you'll get an application out of the box and, after a couple of weeks, you'll have some ideas and change it.'"*  1988-21

But did you notice that ominous word!? That word ordinary? That would not by chance be akin to functional incomputent, now would it?  1988-22

* * *

Our primary interest is not computing, it is learning and how to use what has been learned now that computers and computing are coming of age. One form of learning is study, which is learning concentrated. It is literacy that permits study. Ong, mentioned earlier, wrote, in the context of language study,  1988-23

"All thought, including that in primary oral cultures, is to some degree analytic: it breaks its materials into various components. But abstractly sequential, classificatory, explanatory examination of phenomena or of stated truths is impossible without writing and reading. Human beings in primarily oral culture, those untouched by writing in any form, learn a great deal and possess and practice great wisdom, but they do not 'study.'  1988-24
 
"They learn by apprenticeship, by listening, by repeating what they hear, by mastering proverbs and ways of combining and recombining them, by assimilating other formulary materials, by participating in a kind of corporate retrospection—not by study in the strict sense.  1988-25
 
"When study in the strict sense of extended sequential analysis becomes possible with the interiorization of writing, one of the first things that literates often study is language itself and its uses"  1988-

Study, we know, requires careful attention to words to the point even of often giving precise descriptions of words' meanings and contexts. Defining words, for example, is an art no student can escape—see Knowledge of terminology in the tableau.  1988-27

Thus literacy plays a unique role in learning. It is a role believed to be beneficial as well. The next question is whether, in similar vein, computing will (or, perhaps already does) play a unique beneficial role.  1988-28

I shall be brief—for now—and simply quote Seymour Papert, a man whose name is inseperably associated with computing and intellectual development in children at a time in their lives where its domains of orality and computency overlap more with one another than with that of literacy:*  1988-29

[The computer] "puts the latest in a qualitative new kind of relationship to an important domain of knowledge. Even the best of educational television is limited to offering quantitative improvements in the kinds of learning that existed without it. 'Sesame Street' might offer better and more engaging explanations than a child can get from some parents or nursery school teachers, but the child is still in a position of listening to explanations. By contrast, when a child learns to program, the process of learning is transformed. It becomes more active and self-directed. In particular, the knowledge is acquired for a recognizable personal purpose. The child does something with it. The new knowledge is a source of power and is experienced as such from the moment it begins to form in the child's mind."*  1988-30

This brief quote barely does justice to Papert's extrensive, highly disciplined work and thought. I justify my using it to convey the notion that if such transformation is wrought at the very outset of a person's academic career, one may safely assume that a lifetime of practicing the best of orality, literacy and computency may well produce persons intellectually much advanced from where we are today.  1988-31

Footnotes

Computency = computer literacy..  *  *   fn1


Fr. puce = flea, computer chip; Lat. pulex = flea.  *   fn2


In Literacy Across the Curric ulum, Dawson College, 4: 1 (Nov. 1987, p. 2.  *   fn3


Newsweek, Oct. 24, 1988, p. 54.  *   fn4


Seymour Papert, Mindstorms, Basic Books Inc., 1980. The quoted paragraph pertains to children exploring with LOGO, which is a computer language as well as a philosophy of education, but I have no qualms endowing it with a somewhat bbroader scope.  *   fn5

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