Turtle Totems

Seymor PapertSeymour Papert , the inventor of Logo, spoke at Teachers College on Monday April 10th. I was lucky enough to hear him talk in a standing-room-only event. My former employer, Idit Caperton
studied with Papert, and MaMaMedia incorporated many of the principles he advocated.

His ideas, once stated, are remarkably simple and obvious–usually a mark of the good ones. He thinks we are teaching mathematics ass-backwards, and that we ought to introduce it the way it came about in the history of humanity – engineering first. This approach will create and foster the demand for mathematics. Pyramids, navigation, astronomy, all drove the development of mathematics – and robotics and programming can provoke and instigate the need for mathematical abstraction in education. Sounds about right.

Interestingly, his experiments have led to anecdotal accounts of a reversal of the gender discrepancy in science/math. He claims with an engineering first approach, girls actually quickly excel beyond the boys, venturing beyond speed and destruction to the mastery of a much wider variety of skills with the systems.

He also demonstrated, in 10 minutes flat, how logo can be used to teach 2nd graders the notion of a mathematical theorem (in creating any closed shape, the turtle will rotate through a full 360 degrees – repeat N {fd 10 rt 360/N}) as well as how to introduce calculus (through the idea of the limit). He made the point that once a second grader is arguing — “that’s not a circle, its lots and lots of short lines”, you have already won…

If logo has a failing, its that it does not provide the necessary scaffolding for teachers other than Papert to effectively teach with it. I have been exposed to logo in the past, but never really understood its appeal until Seymour started turtling.

Interestingly, Logo is far from irrelevant. Mark Shuttleworth’s ClassroomCoders curriculum imagines a logo->squeak->python pipeline for educating the programmers of the future…

Seymour is also heavily involved in the $100 laptop project, a project which many consider to be one of the most important educational initiatives currently underway.

soft metamedia?

April 7th I heard Lev Manovich talk at Pratt. I am a big fan of Manovich’s written work, and the Language of New Media was instrumental in my analysis of tagging.

Friday night Manovich showed us ideas in progress, and bravely admitted that they were not completely formed. He talked about describing the evolution of media in evolutionary terms. As in, the next logical progression after getting all our media digitized (i.e., simulating physical processes w/in the digital environment) is the breeding and hybridization of the media. He is claiming that some of what we are now seeing in ‘moving graphics’ or ‘design cinema’ is actually a new form of media, distinct from what came before it. And he is interested in identifying the trunks and branches of this media evolution.

Plaid Itsu was a film he used as an example of a completely new form. Whereas multimedia was the assembly of multiple forms of media adjacent to each other, metamedia is the combination of these forms into a new unified whole. He pointed out the live action photography, combined with traditional design aesthetics, combined with graphics, etc etc. Not sure I bought it, but it was an interesting assertion.

The best question from the audience alluded to a longstanding disconnect between media and communication theorists. Manovich is looking exclusively at the end product of the media being created, and not examining the cultural and social conditions that lead to its creation. There may be mileage from this rarefied approach, as some patterns are discernible, but it does seem to be lacking the depth to explain the creative dynamics and underlying motivations.

After the talk, I began to this relate his line of reasoning to Arthur Young’s theory of process:

The Theory of Evolutionary Process as a Unifying Paradigm
Theory of Process Poster (too bad this isn’t really visible online)

Which I first became exposed to through the work of the Meru Foundation:
letter matrix

It seems to me that the evolutionary forces that Manovich is documenting conform to the trans-disciplinary evolutionary process that Young articulated. For what its worth, the hybridization of media that Manovich claims we failed to predict, was foretold back in this book on the MIT Media Lab, published in 1988.

Another New Kind of Science?

Last weekend’s Cultural Studies conference reminded me of a viscous cycle that many humanities-oriented researchers are being subjected to. Disciplines such as educational research, ethnography, anthropology, cultural studies, sociology etc have effectively been colonized by the methodology of the social sciences and they are being forced to play a numbers game which they may not be suited for.

Many projects striving for credibility are subjected to the tyranny of statistics – forced to transform their qualitative information (interviews, transcripts, first person accounts) into quantitative information through the process of coding. This reduction forces the data into buckets and creates a significant degree of signal loss, all in the name of a few percentages and pie-charts.

Perhaps we have lost sight of the motivation for this reduction – the substantiation of a recognizable, narrative account of a phenomena, supporting an argument. Arguably, the purpose of the number crunching is to provide supporting evidence for a demonstrable narrative. Modern visualization techniques may be able to provide one without all the hassle.

True, this is not always the only reason that qualitative is transformed into quantitative data, but advanced visualization techniques may provide a hybrid form that is more palatable to many of the researchers active in this area, and is still a credible methodology. It seems as if many people are being forced into coding and quantification, when they aren’t thrilled to be doing so. But the signal loss that coding is responsible for, all in the name of measuring, might be unnecessary if people think about using data visualization tools, that comprehensibly present the data, in all of its richness and complexity, as opposed to boiling it down to chi-squared confidence levels (and does this false precision actually make any difference? Does a result of 0.44 vs. 0.53 tell significantly different stories?)

In a thought provoking post on the future of science, Kelly enumerates many of the ways new computing paradigms and interactive forms of communications might transform science. The device that I am proposing here might lead to some of the outcomes Kelly proposes.

For a better idea of the kinds of visualization tools I am imagining, consider some of the visualization work on large email corpora coming out of the M.I.T. media lab, or the history flow tool for analyzing wiki collaborations, but even the humble tag cloud could be adapted for these purposes, as the power of words and visualizing the state of the union demonstrate.

Crucially, tools analogous to Plone’s haystack Product (built on top of the free libots auto-classification/summarizer library) might help do for social science research what auto-sequencing techniques have done for biology (when I was a kid, gene sequences needed to be painstakingly discovered “manually”).

The law firms that need to process thousands of documents in discovery and the commercial vendors developing the next generation of email clients are already hip to this problem – when will the sciences catch up?

For any of this to happen the current academic structure needs to be challenged. The power of journals is already under attack, but professors who already have tenure can take the lead here and pave the road for their students to follow.

Permanent Records

Sonnabend DiagramToday I presented last year’s bioport Part II paper to the 2nd annual Cultural Studies conference at Teachers College.

Permanent Records: Personal, Cultural, and Social Implications of Pervasive Omniscient Surveillance

I think the distilled version of this model if far more digestible and accessible than the papers.

One of my co-panelists is doing some really interesting work with urban
youth in the bronx, and gathering incredible interview materials about
the perceptions of surveillance by these youth, and their forms of
resistance. These stories might help convey the violence of a
surveillance society.

The conference format was a bit disappointing. I can barely believe academics still read their papers to each other at conferences – there are so many things that Open Source does right, including, knowing how to throw a great conference. Even the variety of presentation formats is an idea that needs to spread – BOFs, lighting talks, presentations and posters all create different spaces and dynamics for interactions between participants. The traditional model is so intimidating that it seems like many people are discouraged from participating.

More importantly, the social justice issues and governance models that are being explored by F/OSS projects are really important for the Cultural/Critical studies folks to be considering. It is also shocking how disconnected they are from the freeculture movement, and its theoretical roots. Arguably, the freeculture movement is a shadow struggle, mirroring the struggles for sustainability, and against globalization and the logic of capitalism being conducted in the physical world. But, it may also represent the actual ground on which that struggle is being conducted.

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