SPACEWAR Is Still My Metaphor

It’s important sometimes to realize that while we are blazing new trails in mainstream education, we are really dealing with the dam of industrial culture finally breaking.

We’ve been paying attention enough to know why it’s breaking. We deserve credit for that.

In fact, we’ve been waiting for it to break.

But the ideas that fuel me (and I think possibly you) aren’t as new as most of my colleagues think. What we are looking at is the transference of a hacking culture to a mainstream population. That’s the revolution in a nutshell.

Educational institutions need to turn out more hackers. Because it’s the hackers, not the planners, that will save this planet.

So while the idea of the “hacker next door” might be novel to our co-workers, the culture is warmly familiar to us. It’s decentralized, it values recursion, iteration, intervention. It sees consumer/producer divisions as quaint. It sees five-year-plans as authoritarian and unproductive. It sees the Machine as an extension of Self.

In a way, it was all so predictable.

But I went back and reread Stewart Brand today and, well, if you haven’t read his early stuff recently, treat yourself to it. It will take your breath away. The wisdom of crowds, planner vs. hackers, machines as community builders, it’s all there.

From Stewart Brand’s brilliant 1972 article in Rolling Stone on the playing and creation of SPACEWAR:

Where a few brilliantly stupid computers can wreak havoc, a host of modest computers (and some brilliant ones) serving innumerable individual purposes can be healthful, can repair havoc, feed life. (Likewise, 20 crummy speakers at once will give better sound fidelity than one excellent speaker – try it.)

Spacewar serves Earthpeace. So does any funky playing with computers or any computer-pursuit of your own peculiar goals, and especially any use of computers to offset other computers. It won’t be so hard. The price of hardware is coming down fast, and with the new CMOS chips (Complimentary Metal Oxide Semiconductor integrated circuits) the energy-drain of major computing drops to Flashlight-battery level.

Part of the grotesqueness of American life in these latter days is a subservience to Plan that amounts to panic. What we don’t intend shouldn’t happen. What happens anyway is either blamed on our enemies or baldly ignored. In our arrogance we close our ears to voices not our rational own, we routinely reject the princely gifts of spontaneous generation.

Spacewar as a parable is almost too pat. It was the illegitimate child of the marrying of computers and graphic displays. It was part of no one’s grand scheme. It served no grand theory. It was the enthusiasm of irresponsible youngsters. It was disreputably competitive (“You killed me, Tovar!”). It was an administrative headache. It was merely delightful.

Yet Spacewar, if anyone cared to notice, was a flawless crystal ball of things to come in computer science and computer use:

  1. It was intensely interactive in real time with the computer.
  2. It encouraged new programming by the user.
  3. It bonded human and machine through a responsive broadband interface of live graphics display.
  4. It served primarily as a communication device between humans.
  5. It was a game.
  6. It functioned best on, stand-alone equipment (and diarupted multiple-user equipment).
  7. It served human interest, not machine. (Spacewar is trivial to a computer.)
  8. It was delightful.

In those days of batch processing and passive consumerism (data was something you sent to the manufacturer, like color film), Spaccwar was heresy, uninvited and unwelcome. The hackers made Spacewar, not the planners. When computers become available to everybody, the hackers take over. We are all Computer Bums, all more empowered as individuals and as co-operators. That might enhance things … like the richness and rigor of spontaneous creation and of human interaction … of sentient interaction.

Treat yourself, and go read the whole article now. It should be required reading for anybody going into learning technology.


Flexible, User-Constructed (non-metaphorical) Spaces

From email from my co-worker, Jenny Darrow:

I’ve done some thinking about the physical space that we will need to promote and support technology and engagement pedagogies. I’m concerned that our emphasis has been so focused on learning, teaching, and curriculum that we’ve been delinquent in addressing physical space requirements….

She goes onto link to Stanford’s Wallenberg Hall classrooms as examples of new design thinking, which I think is exactly right.

What does Wallenberg replace the traditional classroom with? Reconfigurable space combined with media infrastructure. Few assumptions about what your class will be, but many features that can help it be what you want. Here’s how they put it (emphasis mine):

We have already addressed some of these issues with a new type of classroom design that allows learners and instructors to control the configuration of their environment. Next we propose to integrate this type of room with other learning spaces to form “flexible agenda spaces” designed to adapt, moment-to-moment to the activity requirements of the user community.

To put it even more precisely, the design avoids planning in favor of an environment that encourages hacking.

It’s strange how all these things come together. For programmers, it’s small pieces loosely coupled. For architects it’s reconfigurable space. For graphics people, it’s the move from “design” to “style”.

The upshot everywhere seems to be that design is always perfect for last year’s ideas. But last year’s ideas are not what keeps us moving forward.

If you want to keep moving forward, you’re going to have to hack your space. Metaphorical or not.


Social Reboot

Might be time to get off Facebook, depending on the level of violation you feel about the recent Beacon revelations.

Far more interesting to me though is Cory Doctrow’s observation that you are going to want to get off Facebook at some point anyway, no matter how much you like it. As he points out we shed our skin quite a few times in real-life, so who the hell wants a persistent identity?

 It’s not just Facebook and it’s not just me. Every “social networking service” has had this problem and every user I’ve spoken to has been frustrated by it. I think that’s why these services are so volatile: why we’re so willing to flee from Friendster and into MySpace’s loving arms; from MySpace to Facebook. It’s socially awkward to refuse to add someone to your friends list — but removing someone from your friend-list is practically a declaration of war. The least-awkward way to get back to a friends list with nothing but friends on it is to reboot: create a new identity on a new system and send out some invites (of course, chances are at least one of those invites will go to someone who’ll groan and wonder why we’re dumb enough to think that we’re pals).

That’s why I don’t worry about Facebook taking over the net. As more users flock to it, the chances that the person who precipitates your exodus will find you increases. Once that happens, poof, away you go — and Facebook joins SixDegrees, Friendster and their pals on the scrapheap of net.history.

What Cory is onto here fascinates me — because it’s not only that creepy guy friending you that’s the problem.

Life, or at least modern American life,  is built around the possibility of the social reboot. We move constantly, change jobs frequently, and keep only the relationships worth keeping from those previous locations. We get to redefine ourselves to some extent, by shedding our social skin. We don’t always have to be what we were in our hometown, or college, or first job. We can throw away a whole set of the expectations around us with a simple job or location hop. When we start to feel a little too hemmed in, that’s often exactly what we do.

And whether or not we admit it, most of us love the freedom.

In modern American life, persistent identity is the exception, not the norm, the province of your brother and Mom, not your friends.

In fact, if I were to define Family, I’d define it as that social application that you can’t fix by rebooting. Which is a joy and a burden, of course.

But the problem is in a persistent identity network everybody becomes family. You can’t escape them. You can’t reboot your locale or your job. You have to blog as a Democrat and have your Republican high school friends read it. You have to deal with the people that will forever remember you as the guy that did the funnel of Wild Irish Rose in Fiske Hall. You have to tell all your Catholic school buddies that your now an atheist instead of just letting that one quietly slip under the radar.

I’m with Cory. The best feature of Facebook is I know at some point I’ll be out of it. God save us from persistent identity societies, and long live the social reboot.


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