Seeing Through Computers

Illustration by J. T. Morrow

This article continues the series, "The New Media and Learning,"
which opened with three articles in our July-August issue. All
articles were originally presented at a conference sponsored by
The American Prospect at the MIT Media Laboratory on June
4, 1996. Audiotapes of the presentations and discussion are available
by calling 1-800-872-0162 or by ordering from The American Prospect's topical page on Education and the New Media.
The conference and articles were
underwritten by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.

Other articles in the series:

Paul Starr, "Computing Our Way to Educational Reform"

Mitchel Resnick and Natalie Rusk, "Computer Clubhouses in the Inner City: Access Is Not Enough"

Kathryn C. Montgomery, "Children in the Digital Age"

Shirley Veenema and Howard Gardner, "Multimedia and Multiple Intelligences"

Today nearly everyone is certain that schools and universities
should teach students about computers, but exactly what they should
teach isn't so clear. The ideal of computer literacy, of an empowering
relationship with the computer, has changed dramatically since
educators and their critics first began worrying about making
Americans computer literate two decades ago. Originally, the goal
was teaching students how computers worked and how to write programs;
if students could understand what was going on "inside"
the computer, they would have mastery over it. Now the goal is
to teach students how to use computer applications, on the premise
that if they can work with the computer, they can forget what's
inside and still be masters of the technology. But is that enough?
And might it be too much in some fields of education where using
computers is almost too easy a substitute for hands-on learning?

The uncertainty about what students (and the rest of us) need
to know reflects a more general cultural change in the understanding
of computers. When I first studied programming at Harvard in 1978,
the professor introduced the computer to the class by calling
it a giant calculator. No matter how complicated a computer might
seem, what happened inside it could be mechanically unpacked.
Programming, the professor reassured us, was a cut-and-dried technical
activity whose rules were crystal clear.

These reassurances captured the essence of the computer in a culture
of calculation. Computers were thought to be "transparent"
when the users could look beyond the magic to the mechanism. The
first personal computers of the 1970s and early 1980s, like the
mainframes and minicomputers, required users to know how to issue
exact instructions. Someone who knew programming could handle
the challenge more easily. By the mid-1980s, increased processing
power made it possible to build graphical user interfaces, commonly
known by the acronym GUI, which hid the bare machine from its user.
The new opaque interfaces—the first popular one
on the mass market was the 1984 Macintosh—represented more than
a technical change. The Macintosh "desktop" introduced
a way of thinking about the computer that put a premium on the
manipulation of a surface simulation. The desktop's interactive
objects, its dialogue boxes in which the computer "spoke"
to its user, pointed toward new kinds of experience in which people
did not so much command machines as enter into conversations with
them. In personal relationships, we often interact without understanding
what is going on within the other person; similarly, when we take
things at (inter)face value in the culture of simulation, if a
system performs for us, it has all the reality it needs.

In 1980, most computer users who spoke of transparency were referring
to a transparency analogous to that of traditional machines, an
ability to "open the hood" and poke around. But when
users of the Macintosh talked about its transparency, they were
talking about seeing their documents and programs represented
by attractive and easy-to-interpret icons. They were referring
to an ability to make things work without needing to go below
the screen surface. Today, the word "transparency" has
taken on its Macintosh meaning in both computer talk and colloquial
language. In a culture of simulation, when people say that something
is transparent, they mean that they can see how to make it work,
not that they know how it works.

Most people over 30 years old (and even many younger ones) have
had an introduction to computers similar to the one I received
in my first programming course. But children growing up with computers
today are dealing with objects that suggest that the fundamental
lessons of computing that I was taught are wrong. The lessons
of computing today have little to do with calculation and rules;
instead they concern simulation, navigation, and interaction.
The very image of the computer as a giant calculator has become
quaint. Of course, there is still "calculation" going
on within the computer, but it is no longer widely considered
to be the important or interesting level to focus on. But then,
what is the interesting and important level?


Through the mid-1980s, when educators wanted to make the mechanism
transparent, they taught about the logical processes of the computer's
inner workings, typically beginning with an introduction to binary
numbers, and instructed children in programming languages that
would make computational processes transparent to them. In the
highly influential Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful
, published in 1980, Seymour Papert of the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology wrote that learning about the computer
should mean learning about the powerful ideas that the computer
carries. In the Logo programming language he developed, children
were taught to give explicit commands to a screen cursor known
as a Turtle: FORWARD 100; RIGHT TURN 90. The commands cause the
Turtle to trace geometric patterns that could be defined as programs.
The idea behind the exercise went beyond the actual programs;
Papert hoped that the process of writing these programs would
teach children how to "think like a computer." The goal
of the exercise was to experience procedural thinking and to understand
how simple programs could be used as building blocks for more
complex ones.

Subscribe to The American Prospect

Although Logo is still in use, educators now most often think
of computer literacy as the ability to use the computer as an
information appliance for such purposes as running simulations,
accessing CD-ROMs, and navigating the Internet. There is certainly
nothing wrong and much that is right with students having those
skills. But many teachers question whether mastery of those skills
should be the goal of "computer education" or "computer

"It's not my job to instruct children in the use of an appliance
and then to leave it at that," says an unhappy seventh-grade
teacher at a June 1996 meeting of the Massachusetts chapter of
an organization of "Computer Using Educators," a group
known as MassCUE. Most of the 80 or so teachers present have been
in computer education for over a decade. In the 1980s, many of
them saw their primary job as teaching the Logo programming language
because they believed that it communicated important thinking
skills. One teacher describes those days: "Logo was not about
relating to the hardware of the computer, so it wasn't about how
the computer 'worked' in any literal sense, but its claim was
that it could teach about procedural thinking. It could teach
about transparency at its level."

Another adds, reflecting on Logo: "The point was not that
children needed to understand things about the simplest level
of how the hardware worked, but that things needed to be translated
down to an appropriate level, I mean, a relevant level."
Someone asks how she knows what is relevant. She stumbles, and
looks around to her fellow teachers questioningly. A colleague
tries to offer some help: "You have to offer children some
model of how a computer works because the computer needs to be
demystified. Children need to know that it is a mechanism, a mechanism
that they control."

By now, the conversation is animated. Several teachers disagree,
arguing that teaching that the computer is a controllable mechanism
is not enough. One says: "Children know that the telephone
is a mechanism and that they control it. But it's not enough to
have that kind of understanding about the computer. You have to
know how a simulation works. You have to know what an algorithm
is." The problem, however, may be that a new generation no
longer believes they have to know what an algorithm is.


The changing exhibits at Boston's Computer Museum illustrate the
evolution of ideas about how to present computers and the dilemmas
that educators now face. Oliver Strimpel, the museum's current
director, proposed the idea for a "Walk-Through Computer"
exhibit in 1987 when he was director of exhibits. Strimpel describes
his original idea in the language of a computer transparent to
its users: "I wanted to blow up the computer so that its
invisible processes could be made visible. I wanted people to
understand the computer from the bottom up." The exhibit
opened in 1990, its trademark a room-size computer keyboard, a
keyboard kids could play on.

At that time, the exhibit began by introducing the visitor to
a computer program that charted the shortest route between two
cities, World Traveller. All that followed was designed
to help the visitor trace how a keyboard command to World Traveller
was translated to lower and lower levels in the machine—all
the way down to the changing patterns of electrons on a computer
chip. "The key to my thinking," says Strimpel, "was
the idea of levels, of layers. We worked very hard to show several
levels of how a computer worked, trying to take visitors along
the long conceptual path from the behavior of a program to the
anatomy of the hardware and low-level software that made it all
work. We built 'viewports' that attempted to give people a look
inside key components such as the CPU, disk, and RAM."

By 1995, it was time to update the exhibit. The museum's studies
of visitor reaction to the original exhibit had shown that many
people went through the exhibit without understanding the notion
of layering or the message of the viewports. In focus groups conducted
by the staff, children said they wanted to know what "happened"
when you touched a key on a computer. Their question encouraged
Strimpel to go into the first planning meetings committed to a
new exhibit that would show the translation of a keyboard stroke
into a meaningful signal—the connection between the user's action
and the computer's response. He imagined that with improved technology
and more exhibit experience, a new version of the walk-through
computer could communicate layering in a more sophisticated way.

But Strimpel, in his forties, a member of the "culture of
calculation," did not prevail. The people on his staff, mostly
in their twenties, were products of the culture of simulation.
"What seemed important to them when we went to our second
version," says Strimpel wistfully, "was explaining the
functionalities—what a disk drive does, what a CD-ROM player does,
not how the chip worked. The revised exhibit does not attempt
to give explanations at different levels." In the culture
of simulation one does not dwell on how the computer solves "its"
problems. What is important is that it solves your problems. Strimpel
had insisted that the original walk-through computer stress the
notion of algorithm. "You could look into a blow-up of how
information was passed from one part of the program to another
as it attacked the problem of finding the shortest distance between
two points," says Strimpel. "In the second exhibit,
the idea of algorithm dropped out."

Art by JT MorrowIn the revised exhibit, the presentation of a giant, walk-through
machine was maintained, updated now to look more like a modern
desktop PC. The walk-through computer had quickly become the museum's
trademark. But its function was now purely iconic. As Strimpel
puts it, "The giant keyboard became a piece of sculpture."

Boston-area schoolteachers regularly take their students to the
Computer Museum. They praise the richness of its special exhibits,
the many chances it offers for students to try out computer applications
to which they would not otherwise have access. Students learn
how buildings and cars and turnpikes are designed. They play with
voice recognition and artificial intelligence. Teachers praise
the museum's internet exhibits; their students can go online at
speeds and with display technology that they cannot even demonstrate
in their schools.

But at the MassCUE meeting, the very mention of the walk-through
computer provokes heated debate. Several teachers remark that
children get excited by the exhibit, but other teachers are skeptical.
One comments: "Sometimes, the fifth graders go through that
and ask, 'What were we supposed to learn?' But what's worse is
that lots of them don't even ask what they were supposed to learn.
They're used to the computer as a black box, something you take
'as-is.'" Another teacher says: "When you look in a
microscope at a cell and the cell gets bigger and bigger, you
are learning that you can see more structure when you change the
scale. With the walk-through computer, you get a keyboard big
enough to sit on. For these kids, it's just part of taking for
granted that you can make a computer bigger and bigger but that
doesn't mean that you can see it better."

At the MassCUE discussion, one currently popular position about
computer literacy is underrepresented. This is the view that computer
literacy should no longer be about the computer at all but rather
about the application programs you can run on it. The arguments
for this position are strong. One is grounded in practical, economic
concerns. Entering today's workforce requires fluency with software.
Word processors, spreadsheets, databases, internet search engines,
computer-aided design programs—these are the tools of contemporary
trades. Learning to use these tools demands a new kind of craftsmanship,
one that confers a competitive edge. Additionally, like all craftsmanship,
there is a thin line between craft and artistry. These tools,
artfully used, enable users to discover new solutions to old problems
and to explore problems that were never previously envisaged.

Another argument for software fluency as an educational goal goes
beyond such practicalities to a more philosophical point. The
computer is a simulation machine. The world of simulation is the
new stage for playing out our fantasies, both emotional and
intellectual. The walk-through computer is its theater, its
perfect icon. From this point of view, what children need to know
is how to play on this new stage, how to sort out the complex
relationship between the simulated and the "real," between
representations of the world and the world itself. The "hands-on"
manipulation of software may bring these heady issues down to
earth. An eleven-year-old child who spends an afternoon manipulating
images on Adobe Photoshop, creating landscapes that exist
only within the computer, may use the software as an object-to-think-with
for thinking through issues at the center of contemporary cultural
debate. And yet it is often the case—too often the case—that experiences
with simulation do not open up questions but close them down.


In the 1980s, the controversy in the world of computers and education
was about whether computer literacy should be about programming.
Would an emphasis on programming skills in the curriculum teach
something important, or would it, as some feared in the parlance
of the time, turn children into "linear thinkers"? Today,
the debate about computers in education centers around the place
of educational software and simulations in the curriculum.

"Your orgot is being eaten up," flashes the message
on the screen. It is a rainy Sunday afternoon and I am with Tim,
13. We are playing SimLife, Tim's favorite computer game,
which sets its users the task of creating a functioning ecosystem.
"What's an orgot?" I ask Tim. He doesn't know. "I
just ignore that," he says confidently. "You don't need
to know that kind of stuff to play." I suppose I look unhappy,
haunted by a lifetime habit of not proceeding to step two before
I understand step one, because Tim tries to appease me by coming
up with a working definition of orgot. "I think it is sort
of like an organism. I never read that, but just from playing,
I would say that's what it is."

A few minutes later the game informs us: "Your fig orgot
moved to another species." I say nothing, but Tim reads my
mind and shows compassion: "Don't let it bother you if you
don't understand. I just say to myself that I probably won't be
able to understand the whole game any time soon. So I just play."
I begin to look through dictionaries in which orgot is not listed
and finally find a reference to it embedded in the game itself,
in a file called READ ME. The text apologizes for the fact that
orgot has been given several and in some ways contradictory meanings
in this version of SimLife, but one of them is close to
organism. Tim was right—enough.

Tim's approach to SimLife is highly functional. He says
he learned his style of play from video games: "Even though
SimLife's not a video game, you can play it like one."
By this he means that in SimLife, like video games, one
learns from the process of play. You do not first read a rule
book or get your terms straight. Tim is able to act on an intuitive
sense of what will work without understanding the rules that underlie
the game's behavior. His response to SimLife—comfort at
play, without much understanding of the model that underlies the
game—is precisely why educators worry that students may not be
learning much when they use learning software.

Just as some teachers do not want to be "reduced" to
instructing children in a computer "appliance," many
resent providing instruction in a learning environment that often
strikes them as an overblown video game. The question of simulation
is posed from preschool through the college years. Why should
four-year-olds manipulate virtual magnets to pick up virtual pins?
Why should seven-year-olds add virtual ballast to virtual ships?
Why should fifteen-year-olds pour virtual chemicals into virtual
beakers? Why should eighteen-year-olds do virtual experiments
in virtual physics laboratories? The answer to these questions
is often: because the simulations are less expensive; because
there are not enough science teachers. But these answers beg a
large question: Are we using computer technology not because it
teaches best but because we have lost the political will to fund
education adequately?

Even at MIT, the effort to give students ready access to
simulation tools has provoked an intense and long-lived debate.
In the School of Architecture and Planning, for example, there
was sharp disagreement about the impact of computer-aided design
tools. Some faculty said that computers were useful insofar as
they compensated for a lack of drawing skills; others complained
that the results had a lower aesthetic value, making the architect
more of an engineer and less of an artist. Some claimed that computers
encouraged flexibility in design. Others complained that they
made it easier for students to get lost in a multitude of options.
Some faculty believed that computer-aided design was producing
novel solutions to old problems. Others insisted that these solutions
were novel and sterile. Most faculty agreed that the computer
helped them generate more precise drawings, but many described
a loss of attachment to their work. One put it this way:

I can lose this piece of paper in the street and if [a day later]
I walk on the street and see it, I'll know that I drew it. With
a drawing that I do on the computer . . . I might not even know
that it's mine.

Another architecture professor felt that simulation not only encourages
detachment from one's work, but detachment from real life:

Students can look at the screen and work at it for a while without
learning the topography of a site, without really getting it in
their head as clearly as they would if they knew it in other ways,
through traditional drawing for example. . . . When you draw a
site, when you put in the contour lines and the trees, it becomes
ingrained in your mind. You come to know the site in a way that
is not possible with the computer.

In the physics department, the debate about simulation was even
sharper. Only a small subset of real-world physics problems can
be solved by purely mathematical, analytical techniques. Most
require experimentation in which one conducts trials, evaluates
results, and fits a curve through the resulting data. Not only
does the computer make such inductive solutions easier, but as
a practical matter, it also makes many of them possible for the
first time. As one faculty member put it:

A student can take thousands of curves and develop a feeling for
the data. Before the computer, nobody did that because it was
too much work. Now, you can ask a question and say, "Let's
try it." The machine does not distance students from the
real, it brings them closer to it.

But Victor Weisskopf, an emeritus professor who had for many years
been chair of MIT's physics department, provided a resonant slogan
for the anticomputer group. When colleagues showed him their computer
printouts, Weisskopf was fond of saying, "When you show me
that result, the computer understands the answer, but I don't
think you understand the answer." Physicists in the anticomputer
camp speak reverently of the power of direct, physical experiences
in their own introductions to science, of "learning Newton's
laws by playing baseball." For one, simulation is the enemy
of good science. "I like physical objects that I touch, smell,
bite into," he said. "The idea of making a simulation
. . . excuse me, but that's like masturbation."

There is general agreement that since you can't learn about the
quantum world by playing baseball, only a computer simulation
can provide visual intuitions about what it would look like to
travel down a road at nearly the speed of light. But beyond that,
simulations are controversial. The pro-simulation faculty stresses
that computers make it possible to play with different parameters
and see how systems react in real time, giving students an experience
of "living physics," but the opposing camp thinks that
using simulation when you could directly measure the real world
is close to blasphemy. One puts it this way:

My students know more and more about computer reality, but less
and less about the real world. And they no longer even really
know about computer reality, because the simulations have become
so complex that people don't build them any more. They just buy
them and can't get beneath the surface. If the assumptions behind
some simulation were flawed, my students wouldn't even know where
or how to look for the problem. So I'm afraid that where we are
going here is towards Physics: The Movie.


Of course, both sides of the debating faculty at MIT are right.
Simulations, whether in a game like SimLife or in a physics
laboratory or computer-aided-design application, do teach users
how to think in an active way about complex phenomena as dynamic,
evolving systems. And they also get people accustomed to manipulating
a system whose core assumptions they may not understand and that
may or may not be "true." Simulations enable us to abdicate
authority to the simulation; they give us permission to accept
the opacity of the model that plays itself out on our screens.

Writing in this journal ["Seductions of Sim: Policy as a
Simulation Game
," Spring 1994], Paul Starr has pointed out
that this very abdication of authority (and acceptance of opacity)
corresponds to the way simulations are sometimes used in the real
worlds of politics, economics, and social planning. Perhaps screen
simulations on our personal computers can be a form of consciousness-raising.
Starr makes it clear that while it is easy to criticize such games
as SimCity and SimHealth for their hidden assumptions,
we tolerate opaque simulations in other spheres. Social policymakers
regularly deal with complex systems that they seek to understand
through computer models that are used as the basis for actions.
Policymaking, says Starr, "inevitably re[lies] on imperfect
models and simplifying assumptions that the media, the public,
and even policymakers themselves generally don't understand."
He adds, writing about Washington and the power of the Congressional
Budget Office, America's "official simulator," "We
shall be working and thinking in SimCity for a long time."
So, simulation games are not just objects for thinking about the
real world but also cause us to reflect on how the real world
has itself become a simulation game.

The seduction of simulation invites several possible responses.
One can accept simulations on their own terms, the stance that
Tim encouraged me to take, the stance that Starr was encouraged
to take by Washington colleagues who insisted that even if the
models are wrong, he needed to use the official models to get
anything done. This might be called simulation resignation. Or
one can reject simulations to whatever degree possible, the position
taken by the MIT physicists who saw them as a thoroughly destructive
force in science education. This might be called simulation denial.

But one can imagine a third response. This would take the cultural
pervasiveness of simulation as a challenge to develop a new social
criticism. This new criticism would discriminate among simulations.
It would take as its goal the development of simulations that
help their users understand and challenge their model's built-in

I think of this new criticism as the basis for a new class of
skills: readership skills for the culture of simulation. On one
level, high school sophomores playing SimCity for two hours
may learn more about city planning than they would pick up from
a textbook, but on another level they may not know how to think
about what they are doing. When I interview a tenth grader named
Marcia about SimCity, she boasts of her prowess and reels
off her "top ten most useful rules of Sim." Among these,
number six grabs my attention: "Raising taxes always leads
to riots."

Marcia seems to have no language for discriminating between this
rule of the game and the rules that operate in a "real"
city. She has never programmed a computer. She has never constructed
a simulation. She has no language for asking how one might write
the game so that increased taxes led to increased productivity
and social harmony. And she certainly does not see herself as
someone who could change the rules. Like Tim confronted with the
orgot, she does not know how to "read" a simulation.
Marcia is like someone who can pronounce the words in a book but
doesn't understand what they mean. She does not know how to measure,
criticize, or judge what she is learning. We are back to the idea
over which the MassCUE teacher stumbled when trying to describe
the notion of an "appropriate" level at which to understand
computers and the programs that animate them. When Oliver Strimpel
talked about wanting to use the computer museum as a place to
teach the power of a transparent understanding of the layers of
the machine, he was talking about understanding the "naked"
computer. As we face computers and operating systems of an increasingly
dizzying size and complexity, this possibility feels so remote
that it is easy to dismiss such yearnings as old-fashioned. But
Marcia's situation—she is a fluent "user" but not a
fluent thinker—re-poses the question in urgent terms. Marcia may
not need to see the registers on her computer or the changing
charges on a computer chip, but she needs to see something. She
needs to be working with simulations that teach her about the
nature of simulation itself, that teach her enough about how to
build her own simulation that she becomes a literate "reader"
of the new medium.

Increasingly, understanding the assumptions that underlie
simulation is a key element of political power. People who understand
the distortions imposed by simulations are in a position to call
for more direct economic and political feedback, new kinds of
representation, more channels of information. They may demand
greater transparency in their simulations; they may demand that
the games we play (particularly the ones we use to make real-life
decisions) make their underlying models more accessible.

We come to written text with centuries-long habits of readership.
At the very least, we have learned to begin with the journalist's
traditional questions: who, what, when, where, why, and how. Who
wrote these words, what is their message, why were they written,
how are they situated in time and place, politically and socially?
A central goal for computer education must now be to teach students
to interrogate simulations in much the same spirit. The specific
questions may be different but the intent is the same: to develop
habits of readership appropriate to a culture of simulation.

Walt Whitman once wrote: "There was a child went forth every
day. And the first object he look'd upon, that object he became."
We make our technologies, our objects, but then the objects of
our lives shape us in turn. Our new objects have scintillating,
pulsating surfaces; they invite playful exploration; they are
dynamic, seductive, and elusive. They encourage us to move away
from reductive analysis as a model of understanding. It is not
clear what we are becoming when we look upon them—or that we yet
know how to see through them.

You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)