Session 28

Course Wrap-Up


Environment, Technology, and Society

Exercise 1: You Tell Me About You

Let's start with an individual exercise. This is a chance for you to be honest with me -- and yourself. As you should know, class participation counts for 20% of your grade in this course.

Rate yourself on a scale of 0 to 10 on each of these items:

Based on these ratings, assign yourself a grade for class participation on the standard A to F scale.

Be as honest and as fair as you can. I already have a pretty good idea of your level of participation in the course, and I am interested in what you think about the same.

Submit your evaluation before we move on.

Exercise 2: You Tell Me about the Course

Work as an individual for one more exercise.

After fifteen weeks in this course, you surely have at least a few opinions about environment, technology, and society -- both this course and the topic itself.

Construct a list of three to five of the most interesting or important ideas that you encountered in this course.

Think of it this way: If we had only three to five weeks to do this whole course, what should the topics for those weeks be?

Exercise 3: You Prepare Your Answer

Now, for one last time... Work in teams based on the number at the top of this page.

Task 1

Share your lists from the previous exercise. Based on your discussions with one another,

Construct a single list for your group of three to five of the most interesting or important ideas that you encountered in this course.

Task 2

Now, you get to make sure I have a chance to better the next time I teach capstone.

Suggest one concrete change that I could make to this course that would make it better for future students.

Your suggestion can be small ("Sit on the other side of the table when we do group discussion.") or big ("Change the topic of the course to 'Dining Establishments of the Cedar Valley' and take students on a field trip every week."), but it should ...

Make sure you explain why you think this would improve the course!

Submit your group write-up along with your individual write-ups from Exercise 2 at the end of class. As always, and for one last time, we will close with a short discussion.

Summary of Discussion

Why do I ask such questions? Ultimately, you are responsible for your own learning. And, as a member of any community, you also have a responsibility to the community as a whole to be a productive citizen.

What are the interesting or important ideas we discussed?

How can I improve the course?

Another View on Interfaces and the Complexity of Computers

The following e-mail appeared last year on a mailing list I subscribe to. The sender was a guy named Alan Kay. Since his time as undergraduate majoring in music and biology in the 1960s, Kay has been working on problems twenty years ahead of the their time. He programmed the first computer with windows of the sort you see in Windows. He first proposed the idea of a laptop computer. He was among the first proposers of the central idea that underlies today's most popular programming language. So he can't be fairly accused of being a backward thinker.

Kay worked at Apple Computer in early 1990s, along with ... Donald Norman. On the mailing list, he wrote the following. The "this" in the first sentence refers to the idea of making computers as easy to use as Everyday Things.

Don Norman and I used to argue about this all the time, and, as usual, he completely misses the point. It's not whether a car will get you from A to B without you having to understand internal combustion, but whether (1) you can thus afford not to exercise, and (2) whether you can thus afford not to understand science and technology. There is a huge difference between what people "want" and what they (and civilization) "need". (This makes a bicycle a pretty good piece of technology, since it still allows you to go flat out and it then amplifies THAT. This is why the old Apple mantra "wheels for the mind" with a bike as the associated image was a pretty good metaphor.)

Technology brings the need for new ethical systems (or at least extensions) because they bring new choices we now have to make that Nature used to take care of automatically (e.g., exercise via sabre-toothed tigers). This is just as true for intellectual tools as it is for those that give us new leverages in the physical world ...

Don can't separate out stupid user interfaces with gratuitously difficult properties (like most VCRs) from those in which the difficulties aren't gratuitous but eventually pay off big (like a violin). The same thing is true of mathematics, science, and other arts, and even reading and writing: we don't want gratuitous difficulties, but instead want (and need) difficulties that change us for the better when we learn to surmount them.

There are two sides to every good story. And notice the viewpoint on ethics and technology. Maybe the old stuff won't work anymore because technology requires us to ask new questions.

In another message to the same mailing list, Kay made some remarks even more directly related to our discussion of "user interfaces". The emphasis is mine.

When Martin Luther was in jail and contemplating how to get the Bible directly to the "end users", he first thought about what it would take to teach Latin to most Germans. Then he thought about the problems of translating the Bible into German. Both were difficult prospects, the latter because Germany was a collection of provinces with regional dialects, and the dialects were mostly set up for village transactions and court intrigues. Interestingly, Luther chose to "fix up" German by restructuring it to be able to handle philosophical and religious discourse. He reasoned that it would be easier to start with something that was somewhat familiar to Germans who could then be elevated, as opposed to starting with the very different and unfamiliar form of Latin. (Not the least consideration here is that Latin was seen as the language of those in power and with education, and would partly seem unattainable to many, e.g., farmers, etc.

I think Martin Luther was one of the earliest great User Interface designers--because he understood that you have to do much more than provide function to get large numbers of people to get fluent. You should always start with where the end users are and then help them grow and change.

Kay has a pretty far-reaching view of what you and I are doing. Later in the same message he notes that when children in the English-speaking world learn to read and write they are learning the same language used by William Shakespeare, Thomas Paine, and Bertrand Russell. As they grow in the language, they become able to read and write the same great thoughts in the same language. The process is seamless. Is using computers like that for us and our children?

My Last Words

You are coming of age during the flowering of the most powerful technological revolution to affect man in 500 years. Bigger than the Industrial Revolution ... you have to go back to the renaissance and the invention of the printing press. Take its power and your responsibility seriously.

Do good things. I've enjoyed exploring these ideas with you.

Eugene Wallingford ==== ==== December 16, 2003