Friday, September 10, 2010


A lot of education is disposing of the "magic" of things.

When we look at a vast field of study that we don't understand, our natural reaction is to treat it as un-understandable—so great and complex that it might as well be arcane in nature. You hear a scientist giving a lecture, you shake your head at terms and concepts you don't get. You watch a martial artist break a board, and without an understanding of the technique (and the relatively low strength of pine when pressure is applied that way) it seems like he's done the impossible. You read a book, you wonder where the author gets his ideas.

So when you teach, you work to convince the student that there is no "magic," that even very complex ideas can be grasped, wrangled, and tamed. In effect, all teachers teach their students the same thing: how very much we are all capable of.

The problem with teaching people about computers, though, is that (as much as I hate to admit it) they actually have a lot in common with magic.

Where else but in computer code do words have such immediate power? A web address might as well be "abracadabra" or "lumos" for all that it can bring you. But since, on a low level, all the words are translated into numbers, perhaps we're really talking about arithmancy.* I imagine Professor Vector of Hogwarts would have done just as well at MIT, had she chosen that path. And since computers are so literal, so bound by the code that runs them, they can wait for a thousand years, a latter day Sphinx, for the right response.

*No wonder gesture-based controls keep getting explored. We feel like we should be using wands.

No comments: