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Page history last edited by PBworks 16 years, 10 months ago

Adam's talk


What are the Three Rs for today? Tomorrow?

(or) A Basic Input/Output/Processing Layer for Computer Humans.




I don't have any clear point to push here, and I want this to be a discussion. The question of "what are the three r's for today and for tomorrow?" certainly deserves to be asked, and answered with more than one response. To start things off, I have a few ideas on the subject.


For reference, "Reading, Riting and Rithmatic" are the three r's I'm talking about.


These are what we hold up, or at some point did, as some Basic Skills everyone must master before they can participate effectively in society and in furthering their own education. Adopting a possibly ill-fit computing metaphor, it is necesary for people to be able input, output, and peform simple computations before we expect them to build highler level functionality. Implicitly, this has been understood to be able to read and write (as well as speak and listen) English, and to perform the basic pocket calculator operations by hand. I would like something a little different, and with a (I hope) contraversial goal.


I propose that the reading and writing, as well as manipulation of basic data structures as basic skills. This would put kids and computers on equal footing. This is hardly a common goal, so let me explain. It's not that in some matrixian way I wish to integrate all humans as components in a great machine, as interesting as it is. I want to have basic, formal communication be a machine-independent trait -- it should be the same whether it runs on computers or humans. Our natural language is riddled with subtleties, ambiguities, and incompatibilities between regions. If every one could speak, in a sense, in the language of formal structures, it would be possible to have clearer communication across traditional human boundaries as well as between humans and computers.


Getting back to pragmatics, consider the web. Countless numbers of people, children included, understand the idea of links between documents, bulleted lists, and hierarchical outlines. They may not ever think of why these particular structures are used, but they certainly understand what you can make with them.


Sequences, trees, graphs and beyond are abstract formal structures, but we are surrounded by concrete instances of them, some more clearly defined than others: the sequence of posts on a blog, the nesting of files in directories, the links between pages on a wiki. All of these live on the Internet, sure, but they need not. We could encourage students to work out paper versions of these.


Consider a spiral bound notebook. If one writes a title or other identifier at the top of the page, one is free to refer to that page by name in the contents of other pages. On paper, any page is editable, by anyone, and the linking between pages is implicit (assuming you know how to find a page for a given title by scanning the tops of the pages manually). This is just the dead tree form of the familiar wiki structure. It requires no wireless access, no specialized adapters, no batteries, just the idea of the structure and a way of creating and manipulating it. Citing your references is just a matter of linking (naming). An index of table of contents is simply a helper structure, to make lookup faster. Using page numbers is simply a convenience to save writing. These need not all be separately taught ideas, just things to make working with your paper wiki easier and more effective.


Any number of other structures can be recreated outside of the computer in a simple way, and all of them can be easy to transcribe back into digital form given knowledge of some or another input method.


I won't get into it here, but I've been considering a whole heap of ideas that are machine-independent in the same sense. With little (or negative, depending on how you look at it) added complexity, for many purposes we can but humans and computers in the same bucket, a common platform.


I claim that this basic level of I/O and processing is more fundamental than natural language, and more useful than calculator functions. Computers are far better as certain kinds of processing than humans, and humans far better at learning fuzzy concepts. We can continue to make each kind of machine better at the natural job of the other, but meanwhile we can at least make it easier for them to ask each other for help.


To stress at least one point here, I claim that the skill of formalizing data for a computer can be immensely important for relations between humans (computers already talk amongst themselves pretty well).


What else could the three r's be today and for tomorrow? What sort of platform do they support? Can we simplify online and offline communication by unifying the structures used in them? How soon can we stop asking kids to write five paragraph essays (a particular skill highly sharpened but only applied in school)?

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