A Monthly Column
Computers And Society
David D. Thornburg
Odds And Ends...
You folks sure love to write letters! My mail load from this column and Friends of the Turtle is large enough that I don't always get answers out right away. If you have written and haven't heard from me, don't despair – I will write as soon as I can.
I received several letters in response to the "computers and the arts" columns. Reader Ted Nemeth of New York wrote in part:
Dear Dr. Thornburg:
In "Computers and Society" in the March issue of COMPUTE! you wrote "... Whitney saw a new medium."
Mary Ellen Bute (my grandmother) was the fiist (absolutely) to use a light pen on an oscilloscope to create animated patterns with music. She worked with Professor Theraman creating this technique. Her work received major acclaim and showed at Radio City Music Hall in New York for years.
I have shown her Mr. Whitney's book and while she enjoyed many of the graphics, she felt his technique of visual-sound interpretation is not all that well developed. She worked with many composers from George Gershwin to Edgard Varese in developing her theories. Since her methods did not include the use of the digital computer, her work (about 25 short films) has been all but ignored. ...
As for myself, I am a student at NYIT. I own an Atari 800 and am working on programs similar to my Grandmother's, except with Rock and Roll music. ...
I found Ted's letter quite interesting. All too often we forget to look at the progress made with technologies that preceded the ones which currently hold our interest.
Several other readers shared their favorite graphics programs with me. Among the finest graphics packages I have seen for the Atari computers is the program Graphics Master written by Courtney Goodin (distributed by Datasoft, $49.95). This program allows the user to create pictures in either of two high resolution (320 × 192 pixel) screens. I use one screen for small graphic elements that I can then "pick up" and stand anywhere I wish on the second screen. The user can intermix text and graphics, and has several choices of text size. Symmetry operations, such as rotations and mirror reflections, can be performed as well. Since text is treated as part of the graphics screen, you can split a word in the middle of a letter if you wish. This fine program provides many features for its modest price. It is a tribute to its author that one can create superb drawings using only the Atari joystick as the input device.
I have just begun to explore a professional graphics package for the Apple – more on that in a later column.
The columns on computer games in the class-room also generated a lot of mail. Most of you who wrote agree with the idea that there is something to be learned from the arcade games. In the area of educational software, I have several new programs I am reviewing, including a beautiful set of programs from The Learning Company (formerly ALT) in Portola Valley, California. As with the graphics program for the Apple, these software reviews will have to wait for another column.
Computer Literacy – Who Needs It?
Those of you who read this column regularly know that I am a proponent of the use of computers in the classroom. There seem to be two extremes to the use of the classroom computer – as a tool for programming the child through rote drill and practice, or as an object of study and exploration. My own bias lies toward the use of intrinsically motivating learning games to reinforce basic skills that were taught using conventional (human teacher) methods. In addition, I am a strong proponent of the idea that children should gain mastery over the computer through the use of user friendly languages such as PILOT and LOGO.
Historically, my argument has been with those who see the computer used only as a replacement for or simple adjunct to a teacher – who see the computer as a data processing tool to probe the student's skills and report all failings and progress to a human for analysis and further action. I guess that the thought of row upon row of school children sitting in front of sterile terminals performing the same tasks that could be performed better under human guidance and supervision is just not comfortable to me.
But now, it seems, there is even another issue to deal with. There appears to be growing concern that computer literacy is not an appropriate topic for our schools to teach. According to Eric Burtis, a member of the Palo Alto, California-based Ad Hoc Committee on Basic Skills Education, the education of children in basic skills is suffering from the use of computers in the classroom. The committee states that "The suggestion that every American citizen must become computer literate is fallacious and untrue, just as it would be untrue to state that every citizen must become an airline pilot if mass air transportation is to remain available to all mankind."
If the committee is of the opinion that our children are being taught computer skills at a level commensurate with an airline pilot's training, they certainly have not been paying attention to what is happening in the classroom. It is erroneous in the extreme to suggest that those of us who are computer literate are an isolated breed that provide services to the masses (as do airline pilots). The reality is that we can either control technology ourselves, or let others control it for us.
The digital computer promises to be the most significant technological development of the twentieth century (Ada, forgive me for leaving Babbage's machine out of the discussion). Today – just a few short years into the era of the personal computer, there is almost no one who fails to come in contact with computers, if only indirectly.
If computer literacy is not appropriate subject matter for our children, then what is? Is our educational system so sound and complete that it is impervious to further improvement? The function of schools is partly to prepare our children for survival in the real world. This requires the acquisition of skills in math, reading and writing, and a sense of historical perspective, etc. It includes the development of the whole child – the creative as well as the analytical mind – in order that each child is prepared to take an active participatory role in society.
Increasingly, ours is a society governed by the flow of information. And, increasingly, this information flow is mediated by computers. By not having "computer literacy" courses in the class-room, groups such as the Ad Hoc Commitee on Basic Skills Education are insuring that only children from certain economic and cultural backgrounds will have a chance to learn about this technology. To suggest that computer literacy be denied to all our children is elitism in the extreme. In the information age, those of us who are computer literate will be at a tremendous advantage over those of us who are not. If we believe the principle of equality of opportunity so central to our national identity, then we must have the foresight to realize that this equality can only occur when we provide equivalent educational opportunities to all of our children – regardless of their economic background. The schools are the most appropriate place to do this.
A Few Words About Innovision...
I own a company called Innovision. In the past, Innovision has made forays into the commercial marketplace with products such as the Presto-Digitizer tablet. It has also served as the umbrella company for my consulting practice, and as the haven from which I write books and articles.
The fact is that I enjoy writing a great deal, and, as an Associate Editor of COMPUTE! I felt a bit awkward also appearing as an occasional advertiser. While I have never done or said anything that, in my opinion, constituted a conflict of interest, it is essential that my readers know that no conflict could ever arise.
Accordingly, I have disbanded the commercial product lines of Innovision. I write, I occasionally consult, and I am involved with some new ventures run by other people. Innovision no longer has any products of its own.
While this was not an easy decision to make, it was aided by the increased time needed to answer your letters to Friends of the Turtle (I received 15 today alone). I have never failed to speak my mind from these pages, and I'm not planning on stopping now! Thank you all for your tremendous support.