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  •                                  NETFUTURE
                        Technology and Human Responsibility
    Issue #128                                               February 12, 2002
                     A Publication of The Nature Institute
               Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)
                      On the Web: http://www.netfuture.org/
         You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes.
    Can we take responsibility for technology, or must we sleepwalk
    in submission to its inevitabilities?  NetFuture is a voice for
    responsibility.  It depends on the generosity of those who support
    its goals.  To make a contribution, click here.
    Quotes and Provocations
       Who says Computers Are Becoming More Intuitive?
       The CIA: Drowning in Information
       Why Television is Habit-forming
       Barry Commoner on the De-throning of DNA
       Comments from Readers
    Books Received
       Our Culture's Crisis of Transition
       Eating Locally: Recipe for a Cultural Revolution
       Coyotes Who Can't Stop Killing Sheep (Vincent LaConte)
    Announcements and Resources
       Val Setzer on Teaching Computer Technology to High Schoolers
    About this newsletter
                             QUOTES AND PROVOCATIONS
    Who Says Computers Are Becoming More Intuitive?
    It's amazing to see the popular credence still given to the notion that
    (in the words of a news story about computers and education)
       Computers are getting more and more intuitive.
    Not only is this untrue; it never will be true, pretty much on principle.
    What people who say this seem to have in mind is that they themselves have
    become more comfortable with computers over time, or that some particular
    thing they used to do with difficulty can now be done quite simply.  This
    is common enough, but has little to do with computers becoming more
    intuitive.  Particular tasks may be getting easier, but it's also the case
    that overall tasks are becoming vastly more complex.  The old, now-more-
    intuitive particulars are just a tiny part of a much greater and less
    intuitive enterprise.
    Take someone off the street with no computer experience and try putting
    him to work using such basic tools as Word, Excel, Access, and Internet
    Explorer.  Does this require less training than was required for a new
    user to come up to speed on the computer tasks typical of fifteen years
    ago?  When something weird happens during his web browsing, ask yourself
    whether he could have any clue as to whether the problem originates with
    his operating system, windowing system, shell, keyboard or mouse, web
    browser, ISP, or the web site he is currently viewing.  I know:  "He
    shouldn't have to worry about any of that.  It should all work together
    transparently".  Sure.
    Since I left the high-tech business several years ago, I have been
    concerned with matters other than the tools I am required to use, and have
    come to begrudge the time put into wrestling with the tools.  Generally, I
    just avoid the time and "make do"; I'm much more interested in my work.
    But it has been dismaying to see how rapidly this stance makes a technical
    "dinosaur" out of me, putting me at the mercy of complexities I don't
    Once upon a time, an authentication problem on my Unix system was
    routinely solvable by editing a single line in the /etc/passwd or
    /etc/group file.  By contrast, I recently encountered an authentication
    error that shut me out of essential operations on my computer for no
    apparent reason.  But now — thanks to a vastly more complex security
    environment in the world of computing — there are not only "shadow
    password" mechanisms, but entire suites of authentication modules.
    Glancing through the (inadequate) documentation for these, I quickly
    realized that dealing with the problem in my old fashioned way — by
    figuring out exactly what was going on internally — was not something
    I was willing to spend the next couple of days doing.  Instead, I wasted a
    few hours flailing about, doing anything and everything I could think of
    as a possible cure or workaround until, somehow, I was able to get back to
    my real work
    Ask yourself:  is it more intuitive to design what passes for a first-
    class web site today than it was in 1995?  Or how about designing what
    passes for a first-class oral presentation with visuals?  Yes, you can add
    this or that feature to your talk much more easily than in the past.  But
    are the technical demands now placed on you for the presentation as a
    whole easier to fulfill than before?  Are you spending less time on the
    form of the presentation relative to the depth of its content than before?
    Again, ask yourself:  is there less need for technical-support
    organizations today than in earlier years?  And is the gap between the
    support people feel they need and what they actually get any smaller than
    The dynamic in all this isn't hard to grasp.  The whole glory of the high-
    tech industry is the speed at which it turns the latest powers at its
    disposal toward ever more complex and sophisticated achievements.  And the
    prevailing tendency of society is to re-shape our activity around these
    latest achievements.  So the governing rule is this:  we will always find
    ourselves struggling with the maximum amount of unfamiliar (read: counter-
    intuitive) complexity we can endure, if not a little more.  This rule is
    less related to technology as such than it is to the values that drive our
    In sum, we will continue to face intuitively opaque digital technologies
    for reasons of our own choosing, whether because we think they are cool,
    or because we have reconceived the challenge of our own lives in the kind
    of technical terms that require us, for progress' sake, to embrace
    whatever is newest and most technically advanced.
    You are free to reply, "Well, at least our tools are getting much more
    powerful, so we get more done with less effort, even if the general level
    of technical challenge in our work remains unchanged".
    But I wouldn't press this if I were you.  We certainly get more
    computation done than ever before, but the relation between this
    computation and economic productivity remains widely debated.  More
    importantly, whether we are "getting more done" depends on what we want to
    accomplish in the first place.  And our powers of computation themselves
    tend to bias us toward certain (computable) sorts of accomplishment.  But
    what if this bias runs counter to our deepest needs?  That, however, is
    another essay.
    Related articles:
    ** See articles listed under "Fundamental deceit of technology" in the
       NetFuture topical index:
    ** "Speeding toward Meaninglessness":
    The CIA: Drowning in Information
    According to an article by Diane Frank in Federal Computer Week
    (January 11, 2002), the inefficiency of digital information systems became
    glaringly obvious in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks.  "We
    had an IT failure", said Gilman Louie, president and chief executive
    officer of the CIA's venture capital firm, In-Q-Tel.  "All of the systems
    that we put together with the best intentions weren't doing the job.  We
    couldn't fuse the data".
    Frank cites Louie to the effect that, after September 11,
       CIA employees at almost every level ended up printing out stacks of
       paper and searching them manually because it was faster than searching
       through data stored in IT systems .... The IT systems in place at the
       CIA and at other agencies within the intelligence community have made
       analysts less efficient, because they spend valuable time searching for
       information stored in many different locations.
    The new resolve, of course, is to get all that good information together
    in one place.  And the continuing problem, of course, is that once they
    have done this, it will be the wrong way to group information for the
    next task they take on.  All of which would be fine if there were a
    wider realization that this is the way it has to work and if we
    didn't keep running after promises that the coming generation of tools
    will solve our information-management problems.  They won't.  The shape of
    the tools we need to manage information depends crucially upon how we
    conceive our problems, and the latter will continually change as long as
    the world changes and our understanding evolves.  In terms of the letter
    to the editor below:  we may want a very different configuration of
    information depending on whether we see our job as killing coyotes or
    protecting sheep.
    The purely technical task of managing information can never get easier.
    As I've written before:  the technologies we use to do the managing are
    the same technologies enabling us to fling off information at accelerating
    rates and to outflank existing strategies of containment.  The arms race
    between information generators and information managers is an endless one.
    We'd be a lot better off diverting many of our resources away from this
    arms race and toward a continuing effort to re-imagine the challenges we
    Unfortunately, a deepened understanding may radically shift our
    informational requirements.  But it is far better to celebrate the new
    understanding than bemoan the consequent obsolescence of our database
    structures.  Failure to accept the need for continual redesign of our
    databases is what allows them to tyrannize us.
    (Thanks to Fred Tompkins for passing along the Federal Computer
    Week story.)
    Related articles:
    ** "Please Don't Love Me Only for My Architecture" in NF #84:
    ** "There is No Such Thing as Information" in NF #84:
    Why Television is Habit-forming
    An article in the February, 2002 Scientific American is entitled,
    "Television Addiction".  Written by Robert Kubey and Mihaly
    Csikszentmihalyi, it notes that people watching TV feel relaxed and
    passive and "show less mental stimulation, as measured by alpha brain-wave
    production, during viewing than during reading".
       What is more surprising is that the sense of relaxation ends when the
       set is turned off, but the feelings of passivity and lowered alertness
       continue.  Survey participants commonly reflect that television has
       somehow absorbed or sucked out their energy, leaving them depleted.
       They say they have more difficulty concentrating after viewing than
       before.  In contrast, they rarely indicate such difficulty after
       reading.  After playing sports or engaging in hobbies, people report
       improvements in mood.  After watching TV, people's moods are about the
       same or worse than before.
    There is, in all this, a parallel with habit-forming drugs:
       Because the relaxation [upon sitting down in front of the TV] occurs
       quickly, people are conditioned to associate viewing with rest and lack
       of tension.  The association is positively reinforced because viewers
       remain relaxed throughout viewing, and it is negatively reinforced via
       the stress and dysphoric rumination that occurs once the screen goes
       blank again .... A tranquilizer that leaves the body rapidly is much
       more likely to cause dependence than one that leaves the body slowly.
    Viewers tend to watch more television than they had planned to, even
    though the longer they watch, the less satisfaction they report.  The
    researchers ascribe TV's attractive power in part to the "orienting
    response".  This is "our instinctive visual or auditory reaction to any
    sudden or novel stimulus", and it includes dilation of blood vessels to
    the brain, slowed heart, and constriction of blood vessels to major muscle
    groups, all while attention is focused on information-gathering.  So the
    cuts, zooms, pans, and sudden noises so typical of television presentation
    serve to keep the orienting response continuously engaged.  (However, more
    than ten cuts in a two-minute period result in reduced accuracy of
    The authors summarize their own research and that of others to the effect
    that heavy television viewers and self-described addicts differ in various
    ways from light viewers:  they feel more anxious and bored in unstructured
    situations; they are more easily distracted and have weaker powers of
    attention; they use television to escape any unpleasantness in their
    lives; and they tend to be more obese.
    Kubey and Csikszentmihalyi briefly mention that much of this applies to
    computer use and video games as well, with the difference that these
    latter are "interactive".
    Personally, I have often noticed a curious little twinge of reluctance to
    shut my computer down after spending a while browsing on the web.  There's
    a little pull that says, "Not yet; click on something else".  I've paid
    some attention to this for a very long time, and yet I still don't
    have any good sense for where it comes from.  Perhaps in part it has
    something to do with the appeal of being passively entertained instead of
    moving on to what I should be doing.
    If that is true, well, so much for "interactivity".  Actually, it's rather
    strange that clicking, or even keyboarding, ever came to be associated
    with the virtues of "doing something" relative to television's passivity.
    Activity can be fully as passive as non-activity; it's all a matter of the
    nature and quality of our attention.  All activity is, in the end, inner
    Which means that we can watch television actively, even if its
    powerful invitation is toward passivity.  This same invitation issues, in
    one way or another, from nearly all our machines, and finding a way to
    counter it through a proper inner activity is perhaps the overriding
    challenge of a machine-dominated age.
    (See http://www.sciam.com/2002/0202issue/0202kubey.html for the
    Scientific American article.  Thanks to Michael Corriveau.)
    Barry Commoner on the De-throning of DNA
    In the February issue of Harper's, one of the elder statesman of biology,
    Barry Commoner, dissects the so-called "central dogma" of genetics.  There
    is, according to this dogma, a one-way path of control through which genes
    determine an organism's traits.  Much of the article is given over to a
    discussion of the work that has disproven the dogma.  Along the way
    Commoner makes these observations:
    ** An early supporter of the Human Genome Project, Walter Gilbert, once
    observed that you and I will be able to carry the code for our personal
    genomes on a CD and say, "Here is a human being; it's me!"  And James
    Watson (who, with Francis Crick, discovered the structure of DNA)
    proclaimed the genome as "the ultimate description of life":  it will
    yield the information "that determines if you have life as a fly, a
    carrot, or a man".
    ** One startling result of the Human Genome Project, as you'll recall, was
    the fact that we have only about 30,000 genes instead of the expected
    100,000 or more.  A consequence is that our genes by themselves can't
    begin "to account for the complexity of our inherited traits or for the
    vast inherited differences between plants, say, and people".  In fact, "an
    inattentive reader of genomic CDs might easily mistake Walter Gilbert for
    a mouse, 99 percent of whose genes have human counterparts".
    ** "The most dramatic achievement to date of the $3 billion Human Genome
    Project is the refutation of its own scientific rationale", which was that
    genes uniquely determine traits.
    ** "Billions of transgenic plants are now being grown with only the most
    rudimentary knowledge about the resulting changes in their composition
    .... The genetically engineered crops now being grown represent a massive
    uncontrolled experiment whose outcome is inherently unpredictable.  The
    results could be catastrophic.
    ** "DNA did not create life; life created DNA .... The experimental data,
    shorn of dogmatic theories, points to the irreducibility of the living
    ** Commoner strikes back at the arrogant biotech spokesmen who condemn
    their opponents as scientifically backward, irrational, and uneducated.
       The irony, of course, is that the biotechnology industry is based on
       science that is forty years old and conveniently devoid of more recent
       results, which show that there are strong reasons to fear the potential
       consequences of transferring a DNA gene between species.  What the
       public fears is not the experimental science but the fundamentally
       irrational decision to let it out of the laboratory into the real world
       before we truly understand it.
    ** Finally, Commoner suggests that the central dogma has been protected
    rather like a religious belief, with dissent given the status of heresy.
    One reason:  the dogma provides such "a satisfying, seductively simplistic
    explanation of heredity that it seemed sacrilegious to entertain doubts.
    The central dogma was simply too good not to be true".
    Related articles:
    ** See articles listed under "Genetic engineering" in the NetFuture
       topical index:  http://www.netfuture.org/inx_topical_all.html.
    Comments from Readers
    In NF #126 I invited readers to explain what steps they take to "hold the
    balance" with technology.  Karen Lucci (inateapot@hotmail.com) reports
       This past weekend to get away from all the noise and clutter, I
       participated in a completely silent retreat at a Jesuit retreat house
       (www.montserratretreat.org).  I'm not even Catholic!  It was a rich
       weekend full of silence and solitude.  It gave me room to breathe and
       room to think .... to turn down the volume in my head and just be.  It
       was wonderful.
    Gail Campana (gailcampana@hotmail.com) tells how "some years ago, I
    recognized the ways in which the technology we routinely allow into our
    lives robs those lives of immediacy and connectivity to ourselves and to
    the reality around us".  So she threw out her television and some of her
    household appliances, such as microwave oven:
       The impact of the banishment of the TV is profound.  I have a life.
       And I control what is in that life.  I have found wonderful books that
       have nurtured thought and reflection on my part, have time to listen to
       music, maintain a vegetable and large flower gardens, refinish old
       furniture, and have time to be with people I care about:  face to face
       in conversation.  And sometimes, I just sit in the evening out in the
       back and watch the sun go down and listen to the birds singing
       regardless of the dirty dishes in the sink.  (No dishwasher either.)  I
       relish this solitude and the inner awakening to the spiritual life all
       around.  It keeps me centered, whole and aware of what is important.
    And Minh Ha Duong (minh.ha.duong@cmu.edu) writes:  "I do my own geek
    version of sabbah:  no computers on Saturdays. It feels really good!"
    NetFuture reader Yong Bakos (ybakos69@yahoo.com) recently wrote me, asking
    for advice about "how I can take a more active part (eg, my own
    'NetFuture') in spreading ideas and initiating change?"  When I suggested
    that, whatever he chose to do, he might want to begin as close to home as
    possible, starting with the circumstances in which he found himself most
    deeply entwined, he responded by sending along this poem by Walt Whitman
    (from Leaves of Grass):
       A noiseless patient spider,
       I mark'd where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
       Mark'd how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
       It launch'd forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
       Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.
       And you O my soul where you stand,
       Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
       Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect
       Till the bridge you will need be form'd, till the ductile anchor hold,
       Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.
    Goto table of contents
                                  BOOKS RECEIVED
    Our Culture's Crisis of Transition
          Between Two Ages: The 21st Century and the Crisis of Meaning,
          William Van Dusen Wishard (Xlibris.com, 2000).  320 pages.
    If William Van Dusen Wishard's book is any indication of what we can
    expect from the self-publishing, web-expedited book industry, then the
    future may hold promise.  This book offers a bracing tour of the twentieth
    century — a penetrating, high-interest historical sketch designed to
    delineate the challenges now facing us during what "may be the most
    decisive thirty-year period in the history of mankind".
    It is impossible to summarize this broad-ranging work.  Just one
    relatively brief chapter (about the period between the two world wars) is
    given these governing rubrics:
       Rise of American industry.  First use of overhead cranes, power-driven
       hand tools, compressed air, conveyors such as gravity rollers.  Rise of
       professional industrial engineers.  Quality control is introduced.
       Emergence of the consumer society as wants become needs.  Rise of
       public relations.  Toynbee, Durant, Sorokin offer first expressions of
       historic seminal shifts taking place.
    Among the trends Wishard documents, three are overarching:  globalization,
    founded on western secularism; the dissolution of traditional sources of
    meaning given through myth and symbol, religious belief, and inner images
    of wholeness; and triumphant technology, which is designed less to improve
    the human condition than to deprive it of significance.
    He does not write to bemoan these trends, but only to point out the
    critical need now facing us:  the individual, increasingly cut off from
    his collective and cultural and earthly roots, must plumb his own inner
    depths for the meaning that was once given from without.  (In this regard,
    Wishard draws heavily upon Jungian psychology.)  "The challenge
    confronting us demands a radical change in what has become our expectancy
    that life is an automatic cornucopia of endless entertainment and
    technological gadgets.  It's not; life is a struggle to find meaning and
    relevance beyond the daily requirements of sustenance".
       If we're going to have a workable global age, it cannot be simply a
       mechanical process.  It must also be a human process, a psychological
       process, a spiritual process, a process of deepening consciousness and
       increasing sensitivity to other people and cultures.  For common sense
       suggests that a unified world must be built on the solid foundation of
       a unified self in us as individuals.  For each of us, this means we
       must take the time to deepen our inner life so that we are anchored in
       stabilizing realities as the storms of change blow ever more
       forcefully.  There's no one way to achieve this, and each person must
       confront this need for himself or herself.
    Wishard, a NetFuture reader, is head of WorldTrends Research, a
    Washington-based consultancy.  He has for several decades served in
    various government agencies (sometimes at high levels) and has worked in
    over thirty countries.  During the 1980s, as an assistant to the U.S.
    Secretary of Commerce, he wrote on global competitiveness, international
    trade, and U.S. economic policy.  His commentaries have been distributed
    to broader audiences through the Voice of America and C-SPAN.
    Between Two Ages has a foreword by Dr. Mitchell B. Reiss, Dean of
    International Affairs at the College of William & Mary.  (If you have
    trouble ordering the book through Xlibris, you can also obtain it through
    Eating Locally: Recipe for a Cultural Revolution
          This Organic Life: Confessions of a Suburban Homesteader, by
          Joan Dye Gussow (White River Junction VT: Chelsea Green, 2001).
          273 pages.  http://www.chelseagreen.com/Food/OrganicLife.htm.
    I doubt whether there is an activity more radical in its social and
    cultural consequences than growing nearly all your own food year round.
    And there could hardly be a healthier counterpoint to the increasing
    physical and mental immobilization of our society in front of the
    alternately intimidating and hypnotic glare of illuminated screens.
    Raising her own food is part of what NetFuture reader Joan Dye Gussow
    does, and writing beautifully about it is another part.  But she is not a
    romantic.  Residing on the lower Hudson River — and suffering from
    the fact that her garden is on the flood plain — she has given us a
    tale with "enough plagues and pestilence to furnish a new book of the
    Bible" (this in the words of a full-page-plus New York Times
    feature story).  And what emerges from the tale is, if not Biblically
    inspired, nevertheless wonderfully inspiring.
    Gussow, a nutritionist, has taught for a number of years at Columbia
    University Teachers College.  According to the Times article, she
    "invented a course called Nutritional Ecology, so popular that chefs like
    Peter Hoffman of the Savoy in Manhattan are still inspired by it".
    According to K. Dun Gifford, another food pioneer, "she was the first
    person to talk about what became, in our lingo, sustainable food choices
    .... She was a powerful force, and affected a lot of people very early
    And there is this blurb from novelist Barbara Kingsolver on the dust
    jacket of the book:
       This is the most important book I've read in a long while .... For
       many years, as I've worked hard to raise some of my family's food and
       attend closely to the sources of the rest of it, doubtful observers
       have asked me why I bother, when stores nearby sell anything in any
       season, cheaply.  I've struggled to explain that this effort is for
       me a matter of moral responsibility.  From now on I'll simply hand
       them a copy of This Organic Life.
    I find nothing in this praise to be overstated.  Gussow is down to earth,
    and therefore uplifting.  Her book has recipes, eminently practical
    gardening advice, and economic and political savvy.  Even when things get
    a little uncomfortable, there is always a reassuring human touch.  A
    neighbor once offered her some organic tropical juice canned in Patagonia:
       "This is from Patagonia! I said in a shocked tone of voice.
       "That's at the foot of Latin America!  What an incredible waste of
       resources to ship it all the way here."  She was offended, of course,
       and rightly so, since her organic juice was intended to please.
    Gussow goes on to ruminate:
       How should I behave when I am at a local restaurant with a friend and
       the menu features salmon baked in horseradish?  And I'm just back from
       a meeting where I learned that it takes three pounds of wild-caught
       fish to raise one pound of farmed salmon?  Should I go ahead and order
       the horseradish-crusted salmon, which sounds delicious?  I suppose my
       one salmon wouldn't matter in the overall scheme of things.  Should I
       refrain from ordering it even though I want it, and just shut up?  Or
       should I not have it, and explain to my dinner companion why I'm having
       vegetable tacos instead, thereby making her feel defiantly guilty if
       she orders salmon, and — even if she doesn't — annoyed with
       me for telling her something she was happier not knowing?
    Of course, as Gussow notes, eating wild-caught fish is what all salmon
    do.  They are near the top of the food chain.  She goes on to remark that
    farming salmon is rather like raising tigers for meat.
    Gussow is not insensitive, but she is willing to call us to our senses.
    She mentions a cartoon showing an angry housewife holding a bag of
    groceries and shouting at a man in a cowboy hat:  "What do I care if a
    bunch of farmers go broke?  I buy my food at a grocery store!"  Gussow
    comments that the housewife's stance "is close enough to how most of us
    act that discomfort makes us laugh.  Most of us buy food as if the only
    question that needs asking is whether we have enough money to pay for it".
    You and I might not want to make all the same food choices Gussow makes.
    But after reading this book, at least we will be conscious of the fact
    that we are making choices.
    Goto table of contents
    Coyotes Who Can't Stop Killing Sheep
    Response to:  "Ecological Conversation" (NF #127)
    From:  Vincent LaConte (tulio22@yahoo.com)
    Hi Steve,
    Just finished reading this AP story in Salon about the recent GAO study of
    "animal threats to humans":
    I was immediately struck by the resonances here with the most recent
    NetFuture. I am appalled at the notion that animals are somehow
    encroaching on our territory, and must be shooed away, whether by
    humane or inhumane (here meaning deadly) means.
    Most intriguing was this passage:
       For example, lamb carcasses were laced with a chemical to make coyotes
       throw up, in the hope they would steer clear of lambs.
       The wily coyotes stopped eating them. But they kept killing them.
    Here is a perfect opportunity for a thoughtful conversation with nature,
    beginning with the cautious question: why do you coyotes kill my sheep, if
    not to eat them?  How might learning the answer to this question help me
    think of other ways to convince you to leave my sheep and my livelihood
    I despair of the vast majority of humans ever adopting a conversational
    approach to our interactions with nature. What can one do to facilitate
    this occurring?  Lately my thoughts have turned to communicating by
    example rather than by argument — a highly visible project or
    initiative that demonstrably and explicitly engages nature in an
    interesting, accessible-to-the-layperson way.
    Goto table of contents
                           ANNOUNCEMENTS AND RESOURCES
    Val Setzer on Teaching Computer Technology to High Schoolers
    Professor Valdemar Setzer, a leading computer scientist in Brazil, has
    made available three papers as resources for high school teachers of
    computer technology:
    ** "Algorithms and Their Analysis".  Setzer and his co-author, F. H.
    Carvalheiro, write that "programming a computer" should not mean
       giving the machine some commands expressed in the syntax of some
       programming language, modifying and then rearranging them until the
       expected result is obtained, as happens with an electronic (video)
       game.  The essence of programming and computing, the subject that
       should really attract students' interest to that area, is the
       development and analysis of algorithms.
    This paper describes a three-hour curricular block in which students work
    in groups to develop and understand what an algorithm is.  Computers are
    not required for the block.
    ** "The Paper Computer".  This essay describes how students can themselves
    be made into a working computer in the classroom, acting out computations
    in a way that teaches them basic concepts:  stored program, address, the
    difference between instructions and data, conditional and unconditional
    jumps, registers, CPU, arithmetic unit, and so on.  It is Setzer's view
    that students should always learn computer programming at the fundamental,
    machine-language level, so that they understand how the machine works.
    ** "The HIPO Computer".  When students are ready to program a real
    computer, they can begin working with the HIPO computer — a virtual
    machine implementable on any common computer.  The virtual computer is a
    10-digit, fixed-word, decimal machine with 4-digit address, indirect
    addressing, and an index register (to show how to implement indexed —
    matrix — variables in the compiler course).  There is an accompanying
    assembly-level language.  The students progress from machine language to
    assembly language to high-level language.
    You will find these three papers available for download (along with a
    number of other papers by Setzer) at
    This, in my view, is how the technical side of computing ought to
    be taught.  On the non-technical side — which is even more important
    — the crucial prerequisite for a would-be programmer working in a
    particular field of application is wisdom within that field.  It is
    probably foolish of us to expect worthy software in, say, medicine, or
    law, from someone who has not spent years or decades working in that
    field.  The software, after all, is going to re-shape the work that goes
    on; does the programmer have enough insight within the discipline as a
    whole to understand what sorts of re-shaping are needed, and what far-
    rippling effects the software will actually have?
    I'm sure an appreciation for all this could readily be conveyed to
    students, and Setzer's approach is an excellent foundation for it.  The
    problem with mainstream education isn't that it spends too much time
    trying to help students understand the computer.  It's that the job isn't
    taken at all seriously enough, but is instead trivialized.  Students are
    put on computers before they have any real need for it; and then, when
    they badly need an understanding of the technology, they are not offered
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    Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #128 :: February 12, 2002
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