Modest Goals Give Us Modest Visions

The Second Life New Media Faculty Seminar Group

This fall I am a member of an intriguing academic group that meets weekly for discussion.  This is the New Media Faculty Seminar (started by Gardner Campbell) and you can read more about it here.  The basic idea is a networked collection of small groups, scattered around the country on different university campuses, who meet weekly to discuss a planned series of readings about new media and education.  You can think of it as a book group for educators interested in the way that new media tools and applications could/should impact the way we teach and learn.

The special twist for our group is that we meet virtually  – in Second Life – and our membership comes from over the world. There are about 15 people in our little group – not everyone attends every week (it’s casual) but we typically have ~10 there when we meet on Wednesday afternoons (that’s us in the photo at the top). So far, it’s been a fascinating journey.  You can check into the progress of our SL seminar by  visiting our group blog.

This week’s NMFS reading assignment was Ted Nelson’s Computer Lib/Dream Machine (originally published in 1974).  For those unfamiliar with Ted Nelson, he is an American sociologist and information technology pioneer.  I read the assignment while squished onto an unbelievably tight (I swear to God airline seating areas are getting smaller) airline seat on a cross-country flight. As I read, I guffawed,nodded (vigorously), snorted, and even raised my fist (right on, Ted!). I’m sure my all together too-close row-mates were wondering about me by the end of the flight but I didn’t care — I loved (LOVED!) it.

What did I love about it? I loved the tone of the essay. His happy, joyful way of writing. Casual, funny, irreverent. The little hand-rendered drawings supported the tone and were used well, just when you needed them.

I loved the way he made me think about things we take for granted – that design matters very much indeed. I fully grokked (with an audible slap to the forehead – whoops sorry, I knocked over your drink!). The notion that what we name things, how we organize and structure them, how we interact with them impacts how we use them and can “lock us in” to ways of interacting that might not be the best choices. “What was originally simply a nominal construct becomes quite real as people organize their lives”

I loved his insistence on seeing the big picture – how the small details impact the overall experience, how important it is to keep the long-view in mind. Wasn’t the example of the way the working interface of a car (pedals, steering wheel, gear shift) come together just right? What a perfect illustration of the way our mind works to unify and make sense out of well crafted parts.

“Stretch text” knocked me out (pictured here). Wow. Just wow. My mind went immediately to the biology book I’m working on and how challenging (but how totally cool) it would be to write it that way.

I loved the construct of “fantic space” – like “filmic space” – to consider the environment, the aura, and surrounds in which we are interacting with our information and creating our understanding. Powerful.

I loved his assertion that “when you’re dealing with media, you’re in show business, whether you like it or not” — boy, does that ring true for me. The showmanship of ideas and feelings. I loved the line, “we live in media, as fish live in water”. Too right. Nelson’s cautionary notes about the importance of making our digital environments sensible, bringing wholeness to our working environments, so that we will better learn, produce, grow, connect, and synthesize unearthed an ancient memory for me.

As I read the essay, trying not to elbow the guy pinioned in the seat next to me, I suddenly remembered the two programming courses I took in college. The first was a FORTRAN course. Now this was the late 1970’s (a few years after Nelson wrote this essay, in fact) and we did our programming on punch cards in batch mode. For those of you who’ve never done this, here’s how it worked. You would plan out your computer program on paper, then go to the lab to sit at a punch machine and keyboard-in your commands. Each line of code was recorded on a single card (with holes to indicate your key strokes). A new card indicated a new line. The cards were gathered by the machine into a stack (quite a large stack, actually, depending on the complexity of your program) and you rubber-banded your stack together, slipped a piece of paper beneath the rubber band with your name on it, and submitted it to the technician (literally a man behind the counter). [Important aside: I was one of the only females in this lab]. Your stack disappeared into a black box of computing wonder and you would return the next day (the next day!) to receive a paper print out of your program, rubber-banded to your stack of cards. Invariably, of course, there was a mistake in your code. Some incorrect key you mistakenly punched or some flaw in your logic that resulted in a jumble of machine code. What I distinctly remember is the feeling that “the machine” was evil. It was deliberately messing with my stack of punch cards. It was terrorizing me by shuffling the deck (in that mysterious overnight assembly process). It was choking the life out of my creativity with its blind, cold, calculating, mechanistic insistence on structure. And I wasn’t alone with those feelings – it was the air of that lab. Everyone joked about it, referred to “the machine” by nasty nicknames, disparaged the dour technicians who took our punch cards, and cursed the process. It was, just as Nelson described, a “cold, sterile, oppressive” place where the computer was guarded from we mere flawed mortals. What if that digital environment had persisted? What if that way of interacting with computing devices was still our norm? If there had been no Doug Englebart, no Ted Nelson, no Steve Jobs? I shudder.

The next programming course I took was a BASIC course. By this point, we were working on desktop computers (big ugly ones with flickering green light on a black screen, but they were personal computers and not mainframes). What’s more, the language we were coding in, unlike FORTRAN, somewhat resembled English. It was vaguely understandable. And even more important, we could make changes to our code right there, on the screen, and see instant results. What a difference that made in my “sense” of things. I felt like the computer and I were on the same team. We were pulling together to crack that nut and it was no longer an adversarial relationship. It was almost that “warm, moist, and human” thing that Nelson refers to. The only thing I didn’t like about Nelson’s essay was that, in places, he felt, to me, overly and hubristically critical of teachers.That our present methods are “designed at every level to sabotage the supposed goals of education.” Ouch. My reaction to that was confirmed when I read Jill’s (a fellow seminarian in the Virginia Tech group) wonderful blog post, Ted Nelson Makes Me Cry (me too, Jill, and thanks for saying so). I decided to interpret his description of open-ended, take-it-where-you will learning as hyperbole to make the point. I think we could all agree that schools need to change, that computers and new media can help get us to where we want to be, but that – also – teachers are an important ingredient to the solutions.

Maybe the thing I liked most about the Nelson essay was his reminder that “Modest goals give us modest visions”.

Amen, Ted. Amen.

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1 Comment

Filed under New Media Faculty Seminar

One response to “Modest Goals Give Us Modest Visions

  1. Neil Heyden

    First thought: Yes, it is always better to maintain the big(ger) picuture, but it is human nature to seek understanding through deconstruction, outlining, and organizing. So I guess the trick is to balance the two and occasionally chuck all of the carefully constructed and trusted organization for the insight of seeing the big picture anew?

    Second thought: Isn’t your (and Nelson’s indirectly) insight about the difference between Fortran and Basic programming all about visibility? If we can see and be a part of the process, and there is no black-box magic, we are reassured the error is ours and we have no one else to blame or put more positively we own and are more readily engaged in the entire process.

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