Awakening The Digital Imagination

[Education] ought to teach and reward initiative, curiosity, the habit of self-motivation, intellectual involvement…. Educators and computer enthusiasts tend to agree on these goals. But what happens? Many of the inhumanities of the existing system, no less wrong for being unintentional, are being continued into computer-assisted teaching.
–Ted Nelson, “Computer Lib/Dream Machines” (1974)

Alan Kay, the enfant terrible of Xerox’s fabled Palo Alto Research Center and the father of the personal computer, once observed that the best way to predict the future was to invent it. There is a promise and a warning implicit in that observation. The promise is that we can build a future together. We are not simply the victims of technological determinism. The warning is that the future we get is only as good as the future we invent. In other words, we must nurture our powers of invention, powers that depend on the depth and strength of our imaginations. How can we do this in a digital context?

We must awaken the digital imagination. Despite numerous “information literacy” or “digital fluency” initiatives, typically in the form of “swimming test” requirements or other bolted-on initiatives, no college or university has yet articulated this goal in its appropriate depth and scope. When the Committee on Information Technology Literacy published its own vision of 21st- century education in Being Fluent with Information Technology (Washington: National Academy Press, 1999), it identified computing skills, capabilities, and concepts as the three essential areas higher education should attend to in its response to the digital age. So far, higher education has ignored the conceptual level almost entirely. As a result, students, faculty, and staff are much like the fish who don’t know they’re wet. We swim in an ocean of networked computers, but we do not have the conceptual frameworks we need to understand what that means or how to invent within it.

Yet those pioneers who invented the future we now inhabit understood the crucial role of the digital imagination in achieving the ultimate goal of augmenting human intellect. Early on, Alan Kay insisted that “a computer is an instrument whose music is ideas.” Not a faster typewriter or an information appliance,  but an instrument whose music is ideas. At Xerox PARC, Kay and his colleague Adele Goldberg wrote a widely influential essay titled “Personal Dynamic Media,” in which they recorded this essential observation:

[T]he ability to simulate the details of any descriptive model means that the computer, viewed as a medium itself, can be all other media if the embedding and viewing methods are sufficiently well provided. Moreover, this new “metamedium” is active—it can respond to queries and experiments—so that the messages may involve the learner in a two-way conversation…. We think the implications are vast and compelling.
Alan Kay and Adele Goldberg, “Personal Dynamic Media,” 1977

Computing as an active metamedium. Computers as as “universal universal machines” with the peculiar ability to simulate and model any other machine. Software, an entirely new human invention that Fred Brooks, author of the classic The Mythical Man-Month, called “pure thought-stuff.” Perhaps not everyone needs to learn to program, but certainly everyone needs to understand the implications of this invention. To read the ambitions and excitement of the history of computing, from Vannevar Bush’s “As We May Think” to Tim Berners-Lee’s “The World Wide Web” is to understand just how dramatically and wonderfully new this invention is, how extraordinary its promise, and how far we have fallen short of realizing that promise.

In 2010, Apple introduced the iPad and proclaimed another revolution. Many writers compared the iPad to Alan Kay’s original conception of the “Dynabook.” Kay, however, was not optimistic that the revolution he and his colleagues had so yearned for had in fact arrived:

One way to look at what we were doing is that we were trying to make new kinds of books, and telescopes and microscopes, etc., to advance “seeing and thinking”, but if you give a microscope to a monkey they only will hold it up to admire their reflection in the shiny brass barrel. And I think this is what happened. Education never got on the bus and the “augmentation of human intellect” (which is right there) got completely overwhelmed by the mirror effect….
Alan Kay, responding to Alan Levine’s blog post “The Dynabook Pad” on October 21, 2010.

We should not let any technology make monkeys out of us or our students. Indeed, education is among other things our uniquely human culture of making the most out of our peculiarly human characteristics. Yet the augmentation of human intellect within the metamedium of networked, interactive computing has not yet become a priority in any significant way within higher education.

It’s tough to go through a paradigm shift. When the earth moved from the still center of the universe to the moving orbit of a heliocentric cosmos, massive intellectual and social disruption ensued. When Hamlet was in its first run at the Globe Theatre, no one knew that a déclassé public entertainment on the wrong side of the Thames would one day be called the primary catalyst of modern self-awareness. Note, however, that in both instances those who were agile and committed enough were able to be among the first not only to enjoy the fruits of these discoveries and accomplishments, but also those who could successfully exercise their own agency and creativity within the rapidly changing context.

Capital Gate, Abu Dhabi. Designed with Building Information Modeling software (BIM), now available for iPad.


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