TITLE: Dave Barry on Media Computation AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: July 10, 2011 7:53 PM DESC: ----- BODY: humorist Dave Barry For Father's Day, my daughter gave me the most recent book of essays by humorist Dave Barry, subtitled his "Amazing Tales of Adulthood". She thought I'd especially enjoy the chapter on dance recitals, which reports -- with only the slightest exaggeration, I assure you -- an experience shared by nearly every father of daughters these days. He nailed it, right down to not finding your daughter on-stage until her song is ending. However, his chapter on modern technology expresses a serious concern that most readers of this blog will appreciate:
... it bothers me that I depend on so many things that operate on principles I do not remotely understand, and which might not even be real.
He is talking about all of modern technology, including his microwave oven, but he when he lists tools that baffle him, digital technology leads the way:
I also don't know how my cell phone works, or my TV, or my computer, or my iPod, or my GPS, or my camera that puts nineteen thousand pictures inside a tiny piece of plastic, which is obviously NOT PHYSICALLY POSSIBLE, but there it is.
He knows this is "digital" technology, because...
At some point ... all media -- photographs, TV, movies, music, oven thermometers, pornography, doorbells, etc. -- became "digital". If you ask a technical expert what this means, he or she will answer that the information is, quote, "broken down into ones and zeros." Which sounds good, doesn't it? Ones and zeros! Those are digits, all right!
The problem is, he has never seen the ones and zeros. No matter how closely he looks at his high-def digital television, he can't see any ones or zeros. He goes on to hypothesize that no one really understands digital technology, that this "digital" thing is just a story to dupe users, and that such technology is a serious potential threat to humanity. Of course, Dave is just having fun, but from 10,00 feet, he is right. Take a random sample of 100 people from this planet, and you'd be lucky to find one person who could explain how an iPod or digital camera works. I know that we don't all have to understand all the details of all our tools, otherwise we would all be in trouble. But this has become a universal, omnipresent phenomenon. Digital computations are the technology of our time. Dave could have listed even more tools that use digital technology, had he wanted (or known). If you want to talk about threats to humanity, let's start talking planes, trains, and automobiles. For so many people, every phase of life depends on or is dominated by digital computation. Shouldn't people have some inkling of how all this stuff works? This is practical knowledge, much as knowing a little physics is useful for moving around the world. Understanding digital technology can make people better users of their tools and help them dream up improvements. But to me, this is also humanistic knowledge. Digital technology is a towering intellectual and engineering achievement, of this or any era. It empowers us, but it also stands as a testament to humanity's potential. It reflects us. Dave talked about a threat lying in wait, and there is one here, though not the one he mentions. We need people who understand digital technology because we need people to create it. Contrary to his personal hypothesis, this stuff isn't sent from outer space to the Chinese to be packaged for sale in America. After reading this piece, I had two thoughts. First, I think we could do a lot for Dave's peace of mind if we simply enrolled him in a media computation course! He is more than welcome to attend our next offering here. I'll even find a way for him to take the course for free. Second, perhaps we could get Dave to do a public service announcement for studying computer science and digital technology. He's a funny guy and might be able to convince a young person to become the next Alan Kay or Fran Allen. He is also the perfect age to appeal to America's legislators and school board members. Perhaps he could convince them to include digital technology as a fundamental part of general K-12 education. I am pretty sure that I will need your help to make this happen. I am no more capable of convincing Dave Barry to do this than of producing a litter of puppies. (*) ~~~~ (*) Analogy stolen shamelessly from the same chapter. -----