New Media Seminar Week 5: Behold the Personal Computer

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The good news is that I finally made it to a New Media discussion in ETS. This week's discussion focused on the paper Personal Dynamic Media, a paper by Alan Kay and Adele Goldbergdating to the 1970s. This is a paper which documents a mid-1970s project on children's computing. At this point we see a personal computer with a mouse, monitor and keyboard and "Smalltalk" programs built for drawing, musical play and text editing (with font changes).

Where we were

This all seems very standard now, but I wouldn't see a mouse or change a font until 1986 on the Mac. Believe me, it was hot stuff when I was a college freshman. Personal (stand alone) computers did arrive by the 80s, but they were limited to green screen or black and white text monitors (with a third "amber" option coming in the late 80s). You could do some graphics, but it helped to know a programming language and inserting a Spanish ñ required entering a numeric control code (fixed on the Mac).

Before that though, computers were connected to main frames, and possibly operated via punch cards. You needed specialized training to run these beasts and a high tolerance for memorizing obscure command sequences.

In this paper though, Kay and Goldberg were trying to demonstrate that computers could move beyond executing calculations to a tool where digital data could be manipulated in a wide set of applications. In fact, the data didn't have to be presented as numbers - it could be presented as an audio signal or a set of pixels. And this is what we love about computers. Some of us still are manipulating numbers but many of us are manipulating text, images, and video. We may even be manipulating maps, bibliographies or knit designs. And we use computers to talk to each other, which not even Kay and Goldberg realized would happen. It's an amazingly wide range of functions for a machine that processes ones and zeros.

How Much "Programming"?

A lot of use computer applications, but relatively few of us really contemplate the calculations behind the scenes. Again, this is not what computer engineers had in mind, but what are the implications?

Intuitively, we all realize that being able to hand build a computer is NOT a prerequiste for sending e-mail or checking in on Facebook. And yet, a lot of us in ETS are better able to maximize our technology experience BECAUSE we understand some underlying aspect of the technology. It's definitely the case that knowing "code" gives you more ability to manipulate your data. On the other hand, code requires you to understand the obscure commands computer civilians detested.

This paradox is important to instructional designers because our customers (faculty and students) want more power over their digital environment, usually in the form of a tool that does "something" that isn't available now. But sometimes getting that function requires specialized knowledge to deliver. That's why programmer and other technology specialists are still in business.

In an ideal world, everyone would have the ability to create the tools they need...but we aren't there yet and may well never be. The computer has given us a lot of opportunities we never had before, but there are still more opportunities for those who know code. It could be a good skill to know, kind of like math, public speaking or understanding the Constitution.

And that paradox has also led to a dilemma for me as an instructional designer. One school of thought asks us to focus more on pedagogy and project management and less on the "guts" of technology. It does seem impossible that we could ever keep in touch with all the new developments.

Yet, I have always been afraid of moving too far away from the technology. I don't think I could ever know everything, but do I want to understand the backbone of where we're going? Absolutely, because how could manage a technology you don't understand? It leads to some of the flaky decisions that low level techies would never make.

Why these readings?

A comment I've seen in other blogs about this course is what the "point" of the articles are. Sometimes they're so archaic, they seem laughable (this article assumes that a 72dpi monitor is "high resolution" like newsprint).

But I confess that I don't think the articles aren't all that enlightening by themselves. I'm getting a lot more out of them by discussing different issues with the reading group. We have the techonology, but we are still evolving our culture around them in ways we haven't predicted. Sometimes it's nice to go back to where it all began.

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