On The Road With Fred D'lgnazio
Bits, Bytes, And Black Sheep
Late last fall I attended the Bits & Bytes Show at the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim, California. Bits & Bytes was the first national computer conference for kids, and I was there to cover it for COMPUTE! and for two PBS shows—"The New Tech Times" and "Educational Computing."
The show was a terrific success—especially for children. Thousands of kids came, played with the newest computers and robots, and got a chance to tell the bigwigs of the computer industry what they thought about their products. For example, one little girl, Kimberly Williams, returned from the show and wrote to the conference organizers: "Thank you for inviting my class to the computer show. It taught me and my friends a lot about computers. The computers were very learningful to my brain."
At the show, I gave a presentation on a favorite topic of mine: the ways in which a computer could become a "sandbox" for little children. I also made a few critical remarks about the programming language Logo. I said that although I enjoy programming in Logo, I don't think computer languages are especially appropriate for younger children because the rewards are not commensurate with the amount of effort required. Also, I said that the Logo environment is somewhat artificial, abstract, and not meaningful to a small child.
I had made similar remarks at other conferences, so I didn't expect the kind of reaction I got. What a shock! Ten minutes into my talk, people in the front row rose to their feet and furiously denied that anything I had said was true. They were teachers who had been teaching Logo to their classes at school, and they said their experiences had been exactly the opposite of my own.
After listening to their point of view for a few minutes, I asked other members of the audience if they agreed. By the end of the session (which turned into a free-for-all debate), I learned that there are many different points of view about Logo and very few points of universal agreement.
However, my feelings about the Logo controversy were strengthened the other night when I picked up a copy of an excellent Canadian magazine, Computers in Education, and read an article by Elias Leousis, a teacher and the founder of the first full-time computer literacy program at the elementary level in the province of Quebec. In the article, entitled "Black Sheep and Logo," Leousis wrote that "Logomania" is starting to become a cult. Leousis himself uses Logo to teach programming skills, but he worries about the absurd claims made by some of Logo's admirers. "As a result of such claims," he wrote, "disillusioned educators, having followed the 'Logo route,' may cause an anti-computer backlash, destroying all advances made in the area of introducing computer literacy in the education field."
People Inside The Machine
A few years ago, I wrote a book introducing computers to children. I interviewed dozens of computer pioneers, including J. Presper Eckert, who along with John W. Mauchley invented the ENIAC, the granddaddy of today's electronic digital computers.
I wanted to call the book The People Inside the Machine because I concentrated on the inventors and the excitement and joy they had received from working on computers. The book showed youngsters how real people with hopes, dreams, and frailties had built computers, step by step, over many, many years. By showing the people inside the machine, I hoped to encourage young readers to see a reflection of themselves inside machines of the future. The book's message was that inventions like the computer may require a dash of genius, but even more important are hard work, a playful imagination, devotion, and stubborn, mulelike persistence in following through with your own ideas and magnificent obsessions.
As it turned out, the book was retitled Messner's Introduction to the Computer (Simon & Schuster, 1983), but it's still oriented to young people. If you're a grownup who wants to read about the people inside the machine, I recommend Tom Mahon's new book, Charged Bodies: People, Power, and Politics in Silicon Valley (NAL, paperback, 1985). Mahon's account is one of the most honest, eloquent, and fascinating books I've read in a long time. You learn about computer technology—the semiconductors, microchips, operating systems, and Winchester disks—but Mahon weaves the technology into the lives of the industry's famous and obscure pioneers, and has made what could have been a dry history of computers into a very interesting story.
Mahon doesn't pull any punches, either. He devotes equal attention to the dark side of computers as well as the light side. And he does it all in a vivid style reminiscent of Tracy Kidder's Pulitzer Prizewinning Soul of a New Machine (Little, Brown, 1981).
This book is an excellent primer on computer technology and the computer industry, and it will make a good computer literacy text for high school and college introductory courses on computers.
Fred D'lgnazio loves to get electronic mail. Here are his electronic mailboxes: The Source (BCA638); CompuServe (75166,267); MCI Mail (Fred D'lgnazio); and EasyLink (62856637).