Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 52 / SEPTEMBER 1984 / PAGE 102


Build A Computer In Your Mind

Fred D'lgnazio, Associate Editor

Fred D'lgnazio is a computer enthusiast and author of several books on computers for young people. His books include Katie and. the Computer (Creative Computing), Chip Mitchell: The Case of the Stolen Computer Brains (Dutton/Lodestar), The Star Wars Question and Answer Book About Computers (Random House), and How To Get Intimate With Your Computer (A 10-Step Plan To Conquer Computer Anxiety) (McGraw-Hill).

As the father of two young children, Fred has become concerned with introducing the computer to children as a wonderful tool rather than as a forbidding electronic device. His column appears monthly in COMPUTE!.

In my recent column, "The Morning After," in the May and June 1984 issues of COMPUTE!, I wrote about a new kind of programming that I believe people are beginning to do on their computer. I called this "neoprogramming" to distinguish it from traditional programming in BASIC or Pascal and from "no programming" in which people treat the computer as a thinking machine and let it do their thinking for them.

In this month's column I'd like to explore neoprogramming and see how it can be related to computer activities that will help people develop thinking, learning, and communication skills that they can practice and refine using the computer, and that they can also take away from the computer and use, on their own, in all areas of their lives.


Neoprogramming can be defined as borrowing the most powerful ideas from programming languages and turning them into thinking skills that people can use, inside their head, in their daily life.

Another way to look at neoprogramming is as a toolbox that has three kinds of tools inside:

  • Tools to Help You Think
  • Tools to Help You Learn
  • Tools to Help You Communicate

These are practical tools that will be valuable no matter what people's goals are. Mastering these tools is more worthwhile than simply learning how to operate a computer.

Thinking, learning, and communication tools can be found in many places—in textbooks, in courses, in jobs, etc. But they can also be found, in a concentrated form, in the computer. And through extensive use and familiarity with these tools on a computer, people can learn how to use the tools to think better without the computer.

How Not To Use A Computer

Learning how to operate a computer, on its own, will not automatically guarantee people a successful career, help them learn how to use more advanced computers of the future, or give them thinking skills they can apply to other areas of their lives.

Also, it is possible to have a relationship with computers that actually deadens or stifles the ability to think. Many people, for example, use computers mechanically and passively. They spend their time in front of a computer entering information, making trivial, routine queries, or typing other people's documents.

The Thinking Appliance

There is a strong assumption in many people's minds that computers are labor-saving appliances. People ask, "What can I do on a computer?" But what they mean is, "What can the computer do for me?" The labor that many people hope computers will save is not mechanical labor but thinking labor. For most of us, thinking is work—work that we would avoid if we had the chance.

Many people would be happy (though few would admit it) if computers would do their thinking for them. In the near future, with the advent of expert systems and friendlier computers, there is a great risk that computers will take over more and more of the thinking that people do. As a result, people and organizations will become increasingly dependent on computers.

Dumbo's Feather

For adults at work and at home, and for children in school, there is the risk that computers will become super calculators. When they want to do real work or thinking, they will, by habit, turn to the computer. The computer will become an adjunct to the person's mind. The computer will be like Dumbo's feather. Dumbo the elephant could fly because of his big ears, but he thought it was because of his magic feather. If he didn't hold on tight to his feather, he was afraid he couldn't fly. People may come to feel incapable of thought unless they do it using their computer.

The Computer Crutch

There is a real risk that many people will use computers as a crutch. They will expect computers to do their thinking for them, or they will be afraid that they cannot think without the aid of the computer. Either way, they will be tied to computers to help them carry on their daily affairs.

Also, if people use computers (or anticipate using computers) as a crutch, they will not get the most out of them. They will be using computers' powerful computational, communications, and information handling functions sloppily, indiscriminately, and inefficiently.

The Computer Lever

In fact, the computer is not a thinking machine, a magic feather, or a crutch. It is a complex lever. It amplifies our abilities to move information around, but we must position and guide it to get what we want.

In addition, we don't need to tie ourselves to the computer to use its lever. We can build the lever inside our head. The lever is, in fact, just an assortment of thinking skills embedded in general-purpose (BASIC, Logo, Pascal, Assembler, etc.) procedural languages and special-purpose (word processing, spreadsheet, file handling) builder kit languages. Once we have acquired these skills, we can employ them on the computer, or we can use them inside our heads. If we recognize and master these skills, we can get more out of using the computer, and we can become less dependent on it and more skilled, on our own, to think, learn, and communicate.

Building A Computer Inside Your Head

Burrell Smith, Apple's hardware wizard who helped create the Macintosh, has written that he never just goes into a workshop and builds a new computer. Instead he first spends considerable time building mental prototypes inside his head. Burrell's prototypes are like a writer's rough drafts. Using mental prototypes, he takes a rough, simple idea and turns it into a cluster of complex ideas, and eventually into an advanced concept or design. Then he begins building the computer.

Burrell can create mental prototypes because he has a computer inside his head. Burrell has built this computer from an array of thinking skills he has learned from programming real computers and from his other experiences in life. These skills aren't mysterious, nor are they Burrell's alone. They can be mastered by anyone.

Environments For Thinking

Programming languages offer an environment for thinking—a place in which these skills can be learned, practiced, mastered, and then used. Learning a programming language offers an opportunity to explore new avenues of thought.

For example, if taught properly, BASIC, Pascal, Logo, and other languages can help people learn algorithmic thinking, how to break complex problems into smaller, simpler problems, and how to organize large quantities of information.

A word processing program can give people a feeling for the fluidity and mobility of words, ideas, thoughts, and knowledge. It can help them learn how to create several rough drafts, in quick succession, that sharpen an image, refine a concept, or lead to new ideas.

A spreadsheet program can help break a complex situation down into lists and arrays of smaller parts. It can display the whole forest and the individual trees in the forest, all at the same time. It can also reveal the relationships between all the parts.

A file-handling (data base) program can teach how to organize thoughts, feelings, experiences, and information. It can show how to group facts according to categories of likeness, how to sort and prioritize, and how to cross-reference facts that have certain traits in common.

Graphing languages, word processing languages, and telecommunications languages, singly or together, can teach how to better communicate feelings, ideas, and desires. They can teach how to use visual images and symbols, page layout and design, and grammar and style to communicate more effectively.

Magnets For Thinking, Learning, And Communication

Computers, like other media, can have a push-pull effect, depending on how people use them. If computers are used inefficiently or inappropriately, they have to be pushed just to get meager, mediocre results.

On the other hand, computers can also exert a powerful pulling effect. They can be so attractive, so elegant that they will pull at the mind, like a magnet. They can almost seduce a person into performing a task or solving a problem.

Magnets And Road Maps

Computer tools can pull you like a magnet to the computer, but they can also become magnets inside your head that draw related information and ideas toward them. They can help you make sense out of chaos. They can let you mentally map out individual facts in some kind of logical, coherent, and practical order.

For example, what happens if you think about two things: a paper route and a spreadsheet? What kind of associations can you make? How might you map the paper route onto a spreadsheet?

You don't need to use a computer to do this exercise. Instead, you can perform what Albert Einstein called a thought experiment. You can build a mental prototype of a paper-route spreadsheet inside your head.

Associating spreadsheets and paper routes is not a dull, artificial, or mechanical activity. If you have the proper image, appreciation, and passion for using spreadsheets as a thinking skill, you start mapping the paper route onto the spreadsheet even before you know it. The spreadsheet, as a thinking tool, or metaphor, will draw your thoughts playfully and automatically. When you begin thinking about the paper route, your mind will unconsciously make an association with spreadsheets and figure out how the two are related.

For example, you might start thinking of the different houses on the paper route as columns. You might think of the people's names, addresses, telephone numbers, amounts owed, and your last collection date as rows in the spreadsheet.

You might also think of mapping the spreadsheeted paper route into a data base in which you could quickly determine who owes you for the papers, who is the most overdue, and what might be the most effective collection route for you to follow on your bicycle or in your car.

In fact, you might never put all this information onto the computer. It might be too much trouble entering the information and keeping it up-to-date. But this doesn't matter as long as you have a model of the spreadsheet or the data base inside your head.

For many, many applications in life, building a mental prototype inside your head is enough. It's not practical to go any further. The value of the computer skills is not that you use them on the computer, but that you can organize information, perform tasks, and solve problems better inside your head. This helps you become a better thinker, learner, and communicator on your own. You don't need a real computer around. You can carry one inside your head.

Learning Through Play

One of our greatest joys in life comes when we play—or when we feel we are playing. We might be working, but if it feels like play, we will be more motivated, more intense, and do a better job.

Passion and joy are not attributes of work but of love. And when we love what we are doing, it is never work. No matter how difficult the activity is, it feels like play.

I think that people can use computers to think playfully, learn playfully, and communicate playfully. The real joy of computing doesn't come from getting a job done faster, easier, or cheaper; it comes from making the job more challenging and more fun while you're doing it.

Are You A Neoprogrammer?

How is your relationship with your computer? Does your computer challenge you to think, learn, and communicate better? Does it make work more fun and interesting? Have you been able to take your computer skills with you when you leave the computer? Can you think on your own when your computer is turned off?

If you can, congratulations. Maybe you are a neoprogrammer and you don't even know it.

Whether you think you are a neoprogrammer or not, I'd like to hear your thoughts. What do you think about building a computer inside your head? Please write to me:

Fred D'lgnazio
2117 Carter Road, SW
Roanoke, VA 24015