Lots of talk, when it comes to computers and education, about those who “get it” and those who don’t. Until 2004, I figured I not only “got it” but understood well what it was I was getting. In some important ways, I was right, but in many more crucial ways, I was wrong. I didn’t understand what I had been given, or why. I didn’t understand why the people who built networked interactive computing had done so. About the time I began writing this blog, I began that journey of understanding, a journey that continues.
The other day, i was preparing for the class I’m teaching this term, a new variant of my Intro to New Media Studies course that I’ve renamed and focused on what I feel was its true subject all along (and it only took me 4 1/2 years to find the focus): “From Memex To YouTube: Cognition, Learning, and the Internet.” The eerie thing is that once I found that focus, more discoveries began falling from the skies into my eager arms. Preparing for the class on J. C. R. Licklider’s “Man-Computer Symbiosis,” I re-read some material from Mitchell Waldrup’s epic The Dream Machine: J. C. R. Licklider and the Revolution that Made Computing Personal. I’ve read this book about three times all the way through, and I dip into it habitually to relive those defining moments of the emergent digital age–including the defining moments of rank unbridled idiocy that almost strangled the revolution in its cradle, such as the British Postal Service’s refusal to let the team that developed packet-switched communications develop their innovation, in any way, for any purpose. Too disruptive, you see; an entrenched bureaucracy and its reliable revenue streams were at stake. Precious years and opportunities for transatlantic collaboration were lost as a result. I have to think that the bureaucratic self-preservation also meant some spirits were bruised or even broken. Perhaps I’m just projecting.
Anyway, as I read The Dream Machine again, I fell upon a lovely Licklider quote that I’d seen before. This time, though, because the pupil was ready (at last–I’m running hard to catch up), the teacher appeared. Did he ever:
No one knows what it would do to a creative brain to think creatively continuously. Perhaps the brain, like the heart, must devote most of its time to rest between beats. But I doubt that this is true. I hope it is not, because [interactive computers] can give us our first look at unfettered thought.
The letters glowed as if lighted from within. “Where do you find time for all these Internet things, Dr. Campbell? Don’t you think we’re in danger of being overwhelmed? Don’t you think Google is making us stupid? Aren’t you a little bit, well, zealous about all of this? Don’t you think all the junk on the Internet is just time-wasting drek?” And just about half a century ago, Licklider dared to give the radical answer. “No one knows what it would do to a creative brain to think creatively continuously.”
But of course if we want to find the answer, we have to take care to help fashion and nurture and value creative brains. We have to think of unfettered thought as a worthy ambition. We have to acknowledge what Blake called our “mind-forg’d manacles” and yearn for them to drop away.
This time the words were on fire in that quotation from The Dream Machine, and I had to find the source of the flame. So I checked the reference, and found that the quotation came from a volume called Computers and the World of the Future, the proceedings of a 1961 conference at MIT held in their School of Industrial Management. Such a provocative title! And such an ironic occasion: as the rest of Licklider’s remarks made clear, this great man championed the digital multiuser computer as the device that could take education out of the industrial management paradigm and into something new, something as rich and bold and full of emergent potential as the human brain itself:
The impact of the digital computer upon university education, it seems to me, will stem mainly from the changes the computer will produce in intellectual activities generally. The pedagogical responsibility of the university is not to lecture or assign problems or grade them. It is to create a situation within which most bright students will automatically learn. The multi-user digital computer opens new horizons for anyone eager to create such situations. (my emphasis)
Licklider was greatly interested in artificial intelligence, and I part company with him in his over-valuation of the idea of teaching machines. Yet the core of his ambition is, I think, exactly right. I say “is,” even though Lick uttered those words above over fifty years ago, because I have many colleagues who share the ambition, the eagerness, to create those “situations in which bright students automatically learn.” Perhaps “automatically” is a bit too strong. Students need nudging, encouragement, a few jokes and some tough love to make it through some of the more arduous roads to understanding. Yet I take the spirit of Licklider’s words to be that when we aim to perfect our lectures, assignments, and grading, we may (and typically do) neglect our own eagerness, our own continuously creative brains, and the prime pedagogical directive of education: to create situations that stimulate curiosity and self-directed, intrinsically-motivated learning.
And let’s not get distracted by the word “bright,” either. Lick may have meant “highly intelligent,” but even if so, I’ll expand that to mean “any student whose eyes are capable of lighting up.” I’ve seen those bright eyes, and so have you, no matter what the Gf scores report. I’ve also seen the lights go out when school forgets its pedagogical responsibility within the compliant “industrial management” strategies of the so-called “learning management system.” We don’t need any more “learning management systems.” We need “understanding augmentation networks.”
Lick gets the last word:
The conclusion at which I arrive is that the present problem is not to assess the role of today’s digital computer in today’s university. It is to get to work on tomorrow’s computer and tomorrow’s university.
If we “get it” about computers and education, it’s because we were “given it,” decades ago, by the people who envisioned new horizons and the continuous creativity that those horizons could stimulate. So forgive me if I’m eager to create the situations Licklider describes above. The waiting is the hardest part–and I swear that I’m just about done (i.e., fed up) with it.
“Computers In the University,” in Computers and the World of the Future. Martin Greenberger, ed. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1962
Waldrop, Mitchell. The Dream Machine: J. C. R. Licklider and the Revolution that Made Computing Personal. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2001.