Are PCs “Gardens of Reclamation” for the Mind?

Athens, Greece, 1974.

First grade.

We’re learning the alphabet.

My classmates and I are sitting in orderly rows, quietly facing Ms. Anna, awaiting her next command.

Her eyes turn to me. She requests I write a lambda on the blackboard.

I’m glad she picked me. I practiced hard last night. I’m ready.

I get out of my chair, walk to the front of the class, step on the raised platform that allows me to reach the chalk, stand on my tiptoes, raise my arm high so that everyone can see, and proceed to get lost in my letter. My hand movement is precise. Steady. Careful. I have a clear picture of the shape I’m going to make. I am excited. I watch my writing tool deposit its white dust exactly where I tell it to, following loyally my hand’s commands, leaving behind a shape I love. I am mesmerized.

I complete the last curl and stop. I am finished.

I turn around.

Ms. Anna’s eyes are squinting. Her smile doesn’t look right. “What did you do?” she snickers. “Take your lambda to the beauty parlor?!”

The hearty laughter that bursts out of the 35 bellies in front of me pierces straight through my ears and makes me dizzy. Head down, I stumble back to my seat.

I never get lost in my lambdas again.

New York City, 1990s.

Puerto Ricans in East Harlem, Lower East Side, Brooklyn, and the South Bronx take over vacant, littered, and rat-infested lots. They have a clear picture of how they want to transform them. Drawing on their local traditions back home, they plant gardens that yield rich crops of fruits, vegetables, flowers, medicinal and culinary herbs. They also build traditional casitas, one- or two-room wooden structures that “enable them to take control of their immediate environment and, in the process, to rediscover and reconnect with their cultural heritage.” Photographer Ejlat Feuer and landscape architect Daniel Winterbottom document the process. They name their exhibitCasitas: Gardens of Reclamation.”

The Puerto Rican “curls” on the faceless lots don’t last long. Most of the properties are city-owned. They are repossessed for development.

In their 1977 paper “Personal Dynamic Media,” computer scientists and then-researchers at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center Alan Kay and Adele Goldberg describe a design idea that embodied their dreams. They call it a “metamedium.” What they have in mind is a radical departure from conventional media like paper, TV, and movies. The latter, they argue, tends to deliver static messages to passive learners and are unable to absorb or transform from learner responses. The metamedium is different. It is a device as small as a notebook that stores information in multiple forms (e.g., text, photographs, drawings, music, animation) and invites learners into a two-way “conversation.” Individuals interacting with the metamedium are able to not only insert in it new information, but also to manipulate what’s already there. Knowledge can be edited, embellished, linked in innovative ways, colored with different aesthetics and moods, and even transformed into new media (e.g., new programs to highlight historical interrelationships or to make math come to life) that are “limited only by [the learner’s] imagination and ingenuity.”

Thirty-four years after the publication of “Personal Dynamic Media,” when the use of metamedia is widespread and taken for granted, we have confirmed the enormous value of Kay’s and Goldberg’s work. The interactivity between user and personal computer (PC) has led to the creation of an infinite number of programs that make our lives easier, as well as more efficient, manageable, creative, and exciting. It has also made possible realities that didn’t exist before, which has expanded vastly the universe of ideas now considered “practical.” All this has, no doubt, helped to augment the human imagination.

What intrigues me most, however, about Kay’s and Goldberg’s prescient vision is the effects that the “conversation” between learner and device may have on our relationship to learning.

If we can touch, embellish, and transform information, can’t we also inject ourselves into the knowledge we are expected to learn? Aren’t we, under these circumstances, empowered to take more “control” of the often static and unadorned messages delivered to us in school, at work, elsewhere, and in the process to “discover” and “reconnect” with the richness of our own intellect? Aren’t we, as a result, able to make “official” and “vacant” knowledge our own, and thus experience the excitement, pride, accomplishment, caring, protectiveness, and love that characterize the relationship between creator and creation? What’s the effect on learners when the knowledge they are expected to learn reflects their very own minds? Their very own imaginations? Interests? Curiosities? Concerns? Innovations?

Did Kay and Goldberg in 1977 realize that their personal matamedium contained all the tools necessary for a learner’s reclamation of unadorned lots of knowledge, by turning them into fertile gardens of the mind, filled with luscious fruit trees, ripe vegetables, fragrant herbs, and beautiful casitas? Oh! And with curly lambdas too?

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