May 2013

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18
May

On Google Glass

  • 9:09 PM

This is Dr. Martin Cooper, the man generally credited with inventing the cellular telephone. He is holding a prototype of the Motorola DynaTAC, the first handheld mobile phone. The DynaTAC cost $3995 (in 1983 dollars!), was the size of a brick, and weighed one and three-quarter pounds. A full charge would give you 30 minutes talk time or about eight hours standby.

You also looked like a bit of an idiot carrying one around or making a call on it.

For at least a decade after the DynaTAC’s release, mobile phones were stereotypically cast as toys of the wealthy and self-important. Growing up in Australia at the time, it was not uncommon to refer to them as “wankerphones”.

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This is a phone stack. Some bright spark came up with an idea where everyone at dinner stacks their phones together on the table, and the first person to grab their phone back from the stack, even if it is ringing, has to cover the bill.

Even thirty years after the release of the DynaTAC, we’re still working out new social mores and tricks to deal with its intrusion into our lives.

I'm pretty bad at predicting the success or failure of new technologies, I just think it's a little too early to write off something as potentially game-changing as Google Glass base on how it looks today, what it costs today, or based on the fact that we're currently entrusting one of society’s most socially tone-deaf groups (nerds) with the question of when it's appropriate to wear them.

The photograph of Dr Cooper was retreived from Wikipedia, copyright Rico Shen and made available under a Creative Commons Attribution, Share-Alike licence. The phone stack photograph was retrieved from Flickr, copyright Roo Reynolds and made available under a Creative Commons Attribution, Non-Commercial licence.

If you look at the widely-retweeted code.org campaign, or the recent petition to add programming to the official Australian curriculum, you see a common theme.

The core of the petition:

The Digital Technologies section of the draft Curriculum for Technologies is a massive step in the right direction. If enacted, it will equip Australian students with the skills they need; not just to become competent consumers of technology, but to design and create our shared technological future.

Or, amongst the quotes from luminaries on code.org, President Bill Clinton:

At a time when people are saying "I want a good job - I got out of college and I couldnt find one," every single year in America there is a standing demand for 120,000 people who are training in computer science.

Mark Zuckerberg:

There just aren't enough people who are trained and have these skills today.

Ashton Kutcher:

If we want to spur job growth in the US we have to educate ourselves in the disciplines where jobs are available and where economic growth is feasible.

This theme, that we should teach coding because it will lead our children to IT jobs and help our growing software industry, comes across far too strongly from both campaigns, and it's the wrong message.

Sure it might be the right message for bureaucrats, industry insiders and parents worried that their child's grade seven teacher isn't properly preparing them for a lifelong career as a sysadmin, but it's a really bad reason to set educational policy. General childhood education isn't, and shouldn't be vocational training.

Luckily, code.org has some more redeeming things to say.

Learning to write programs stretches your mind, and helps you think better, creates a way of thinking about things that I think is helpful in all domains. — Bill Gates.

I think everybody in this country should learn how to program a computer because it teaches you how to think. — Steve Jobs

Programming is probably the greatest, and most criminally untapped teaching tool we have developed in the last century. At its heart, programming is applied logic, a discipline that requires you:

  • to break a problem into its component parts
  • to construct those parts from a set of logical building-blocks
  • to combine those solved parts into a greater whole

These are powerful, fundamental skills that are worth teaching to anyone. They're not only the building-blocks of a career in computing, they're building-blocks for critical thinking, for scientific thinking, even for creative thinking. Programming teaches all of this in an environment where you can keep students interested by having them use the skills they are learning to build tools, toys and games.

Programming even provides an answer to that question every school kid asks, “What the hell am I learning maths for?” I'm pretty sure my high school trig and calculus would have stuck a whole lot better if I had been asked to build a game with them instead of just solving equations on a piece of paper, or being assessed on my ability to draw a curve neatly on the provided graph paper.

Sadly, though, I suspect the problem with programming at school is far more practical than intellectual. All the willingness to add programming to the curriculum isn't worth anything if we don't also have enough teachers qualified to deliver those lessons. And so long as we as a society continue to devalue teachers and teaching, that's a much bigger challenge.