Computers, Networks and Education
By Alan C. Kay  

This property applies to all media, not just the new high-tech ones. Socrates complained about writing. He felt it forced one to follow an argument rather than participate in it, and he disliked both its alienation and its persistence. He was unsettled by the idea that a manuscript traveled without the author, with whom no argument was possible. Worse, the author could die and never be talked away from the position taken in the writing.

Users of media need to be aware, too, that technology often forces us to choose between quality and convenience. Compare the emotions evoked by great paintings and illuminated manuscripts with those evoked by excellent photographs of the originals. The feelings are quite different. For the majority of people who cannot make such comparisons directly, there is an understandable tendency to accept the substitution as though nothing were lost.

Consequently, little protest has been made over replacing high-resolution photographs of great art (which themselves do not capture the real thing) with lower-resolution videodisc images (which distort both light and space even further). The result is that recognition, not reverie, is the main goal in life and also in school, where recognition is the highest act to which most students are asked to aspire.

When convenience is valued over quality in education, we are led directly to "junk" learning. This is quite analogous to other junk phenomena, pale substitutions masquerading for the real thing. Junk learning leads to junk living. As Neil M. Postman of New York University says, whether a medium carries junk is not important, since all media have junk possibilities. But one needs to be sure that media incapable of carrying important kinds of discourse for example, television-do not displace those that can.

Media can also lure us into thinking we are creating by design when in fact we are just tinkering. Consider the difficulty of transforming clay-a perfectly malleable and responsive substance into anything aesthetically satisfying. Perfect "debugability," or malleability, does not make up for lack of an internal image and shaping skills. Unfortunately, computers lend themselves to such "clay pushing"; they tempt users to try to debug constructions into existence by trial and error.

Finally, as McLuhan noted, the instant communication offered by today's media leads to fragmentation. Sequence and exposition are replaced by isolated, context-free factoids, often presented simply because they are recent.

 

 

WALKWAY through a garden (top) outside the Open School was designed by the third graders, who chose a herringbone pattern to ensure easy access to all plots. The children settled on the pattern after creating and debating many models, often with the help of their computers. The garden is part of the Life Lab project, in which children plan, plant, tend and enjoy the fruits of their own garden (bottom) as a way of learning about the interaction of living things with the environment.