Intuition: Use, Agency, Invitation

You’ve seen the ad copy. I have too. The hard sell for the soft, gentle learning curve promised for a new device is that the device is “intuitive.” That is, the device is easy to use because you can make the device do what you want because the interface design helpfully indicates how to operate the device. You want to save a file? Click on the icon. Of course, in MS Word (and MS Office generally) the icon is a floppy disk. One used to save files on floppy disks. They used to look like that, too–the 3.5 inch not-floppy diskette. Yes, this is getting complicated already. Let’s stop the cascade by admitting that “intuitive” means “familiar,” and that “familiar” itself is more of a moving target than we’d like to think. And there’s a Gordian knot for another time. (Recommended reading: “The Paradox of the Active User,” a major addition to my intellectual armamentarium courtesy of Ben Hanrahan, a wonderful student in last year’s “Cognition, Learning, and the Internet” course.)

So let’s move on. “Intuition” (home of the intuitive) can mean something much deeper than “I bet that’s how I can do that.” It can mean “I bet this device ought to be able to do that.” In “Personal Dynamic Media,” Alan Kay and Adele Goldberg tell the story of one such intuitionist:

One young girl, who had never programmed before, decided that a pointing device ought to let her draw on the [computer] screen.

This kind of intuition is a creative intuition that isn’t about “ease of use” or “I bet I already know how to do that.” It’s an educated guess, a contextual surmise, and a leap of faith. Note the fascinating language in this description. She decided (moment of agency and commitment) that a pointing device ought to let her. This kind of intuition is something like the belief in “Mathgod” that Douglas Hofstadter describes so winsomely in Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies. It’s also (no coincidence) what Jon Udell keeps talking about when he talks about how people “don’t have intuitions” about the World Wide Web. To connect Kay-Goldberg with Udell, to have intuitions about the Web would be to decide that the Web (and the Internet that supports it) ought to let one do this or that–meaning, “given what this system is and what it supports, this thing I imagine or invent should be possible.” Note that you have to know something about what kind of a thing, or network, or web you’re working with. Indeed. But note also that the paranoia, hebephrenia, or catatonia induced by the many double-binds that formal schooling presents to learners are responses that pretty much guarantee that such intuitions will simply not develop. Try to imagine an entering class vigorously discussing among themselves “given the mission statement of our university, this thing I imagine or would like to invent with regard to my own learning ought to be possible. Feel your brain cramping in both hemispheres? Do students read mission statements? If they did, would they seek to shape their learning in terms of it? Do the structures we build to support what we say we intend, we value, we desire, actually stimulate any such activity? Exactly. Learners in formal schooling are not very likely, most of the time, to decide that school ought to let one do this or that related to learning. And if they try to make such a decision, based on such an intuition, they are often hammered back into line. Not always, but often. And any such repression is too much.

But here’s the third level, and it comes next in “Personal Dynamic Media”

She then built a sketching tool without ever seeing ours…. She constantly embellished it with new features including a menu for brushes selected by pointing. She later wrote a program for building tangram designs.

This level of intuition is the invitationist level. This intuition is an intuition not so much about the device per se but about the learning context, an ecosystem of device, peers, teachers, etc. Kay and Goldberg praise the young girl for building her own sketching tool “without ever seeing ours.” Another teacher might have said “did you do your homework? Did you consult the manual? Did you follow directions?” These are often important questions, but they miss the most powerful intuition engine of all: the invitation.

In “The Loss of the Creature,” an essay that articulates the paradox of the active learner with haunting precision, Walker Percy writes about the recovery of being, by which he means the recovery of the person as well as the recovery of the person’s experience. He believes both person and experience to be lost to “packages” which we simply “consume” with an ever-increasing anxiety that our consumption be certified as genuine by others. Worse yet, we become increasingly numb to our consumption, unaware that our souls are rotting from the inside out. As Kierkegaard observes and Percy reminds us, the worst despair is not even to know one is living without hope. No surface receiving our “cognition prints.” No mark of our learning or inquiry or existence left behind. We do not even think to ask.

Toward the end of the essay, Percy tells a story about two modes of experience, a story of music and being:

One remembers the scene in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter where the girl hides in the bushes to hear the Capehart in the big house play Beethoven. Perhaps she was the lucky one after all. Think of the unhappy souls inside, who see the record, worry about scratches, and most of all worry about whether they are getting it, whether they are bona fide music lovers. What is the best way to hear Beethoven: sitting in a proper silence around the Capehart or eavesdropping from an azalea bush?

However it may come about, we notice two traits of the second situation: (1) an openness of the thing before one–instead of being an exercise to be learned according to an approved mode, it is a garden of delight which beckons to one; (2) a sovereignty of the knower–instead of being a consumer of a prepared experience, I am a sovereign wayfarer, a wanderer in the neighborhood of being who stumbles into the garden.

A big house with a Capehart that looks like a casket ready for an embalmed Beethoven and his embalmed listeners. Or: a sovereign wayfarer in the neighborhood of being, and a garden of delight which beckons to one.

We need to work on our beckoning. Beckoning is what Bakhtin calls addressivity: the quality of turning to someone. From design to cohort to community and everywhere in between, especially in the schools that face our present times and equip us to invent our futures: how can we work on our invitations?

One thought on “Intuition: Use, Agency, Invitation

  1. My definition of “intuition”: the sense of knowing (though maybe not being able to describe why or how…) that something is, or what will be. I had not thought before about this extending to the sense of “what could be”, but I think that it does. A hard-to-articulate combination of imagination and dreaming, and a sense of the world – combined in a way that brings out the best of both and makes newness a reality.

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