06 February 2010

General Purpose Computers and Tinkering to Learn

I sympathize with Mark Pilgrim's thoughts on the Apple iPad and the Tinkerer’s Sunset. As I said in Disappearing Technology in Praise of Closed Systems, for narrow purpose appliances, the closed-ness of the Apple iPad is a good thing:
When it comes to narrow purpose appliances, it sure seems that closed software and hardware is good while open is bad...The iPad is to the traditional personal computer, as a modern house's in-wall plumbing is to exposed pipes.
It's a real shame though if through law, or otherwise, all computers turn into narrow purpose appliances. I personally prefer general purpose computers, especially for it to be available for some students to use (but not necessarily for all). Why would that be?

Simply put, because if I didn't have a (relatively) open general purpose computer to tinker with when I was young, I probably would've never turned to math or computer science.

I won't bore you with my biography of learning some basic BASIC, making QuickTime animations on a Macintosh Classic II, making games with HyperCard, looking at the innards of programs with ResEdit, etc.

Pilgrim's post on his journey to programming and all that isn't atypical for programmers and scientists. Just read Coders at Work (which I review here) and it's clear just how important the opportunity to tinker is to learning and fostering an interest in science and engineering.

My earliest interest in science wasn't in math or computing, however. It was in physics and cosmology. One of my favourite books of all time is Michio Kaku's Hyperspace: A Scientific Odyssey Through Parallel Universes, Time Warps, and the 10th Dimension (which I review here). During that time, I had plenty of opportunities to tinker and learn various things about physics.

I had one of those science kits (something like one of these Ginsberg Scientific 7-1828 Electricity And Magnetism Kit), in which I never really understood the science underlying the experiments suggested in the manual. However, it gave me a chance to manipulate some parts or widgets, and see that it creates an effect in other parts or widgets.

It helped me learn about cause and effect in physical systems, and helped me form categories of thought that saw physical things as being composed entirely of physical parts.

That's how tinkering helps students learn.

When all kids see are narrow purpose appliances that are hermetically sealed, it takes away from them the opportunity to see how the parts interrelate and interact. It would be as if all cars are sealed so that what's under the hood is completely unknown.

But that's exactly what happens with cars. Very few drivers actually know enough about what's under the hood of the car to be able to do anything about problems. If you take your car in to the mechanic for absolutely all the manufacturer recommended maintenance year-round (which is more than the car really needs), you might not even have to lift the hood to refill the windshield washer fluid!

The difference between cars and the Apple iPad is that in principle, it's easy to take the car apart to get at the guts. The hood isn't locked down and we don't need to jailbreak it to show the children the engine.

As another example though, compare the iPad (or any narrow purpose appliance) with bathroom plumbing. Certain functions are exposed, but the guts of the system are hidden behind the wall. Of course, to show the in-wall plumbing, one might need to hammer through the wall to "jailbreak" the pipes. Some might compare Apple's iPhone OS system and all the barriers it puts up against running non-approved Apps as the wall hiding the pipes.

Putting it that way, it seems I can no longer complain that Apple's system is closed. Yes, it is closed. It's as closed off as pipes are closed off behind a wall I can choose to break down.

If I choose to open up the system on my own, I may have to cause some damage to the system, jailbreak it and risk bricking the device. But if the thought of having to cut through the drywall to get to the in-wall pipes is a problem for you, maybe you want to buy a house with exposed pipes or an undeveloped basement, etc.

That brings us back to that Electricity Science Kit.

I always enjoyed watching my dad fixing pipes, building the deck, installing wires, etc. I always enjoyed understanding how things work. My dad wasn't insane though. He didn't crack open the wall (or let me do that) to see the pipes in the wall. He didn't let me tinker with the electric wires in the house.

He bought me an Electricity Science Kit.

It would certainly be a shame to see general purpose computers disappear, but as computer technology succeeds in adding value to society, it will gradually disappear from view. We'll end up with narrow purpose information appliances, built to do very specific things in very specific ways (even if that means a single device that can change its operational mode).

I'm sure though that there'll still be a large community of technology pros, hobbyists, and other interested parties to support a market for general purpose computers even after narrow purpose appliances become the ubiquitous computers.

A father somewhere would buy one of those general purpose computers for his daughter to tinker and play with. She'll still have her iPad, iPhone, or whatever other narrow purpose appliance to use on a daily basis. Hopefully she'll develop an interest in the interrelationship and interaction of the software or hardware parts, and grow up to love science, math, and computing.

At least I sure hope there'll be such a community and market. Otherwise I wouldn't know where to get parts for assembling my own computer to run Linux.

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