P5XJS // Mindstorms — week 5 (final)

Since the beginning of July, p5.js’ diversity initiative has been holding an interactive book club in collaboration with Princeton StudioLab.

“A new world of personal computing is about to come into being, and its history will be inseparable from the story of the people who will make it.”

This past Wednesday marked the final rally call for the p5xjs/Princeton CST bookclub. As ready as we were to delve in to the last two chapters of Mindstorms, it was definitely a bittersweet moment as we all hopped on the call. Everyone was excited to discuss how Papert concludes the tour de force that is this book, and with good reason. He really does an amazing job of laying it all out for the reader with a quality of prescience that only the hindsight afforded to our having read his work in 2017 could ever adequately celebrate. But more on that in a second.

First, let’s take a quick moment to just appreciate that a random group of strangers somehow found themselves all together for a little over a month mid-summer, to pick apart a book about how computers and code have the potential to enhance creativity and innovation within the learning process — a book first published in the 80’s, that couldn’t have predicted the ways in which technology has taken hold of society. And yet… Papert kind of saw it coming, or at least he saw the potential for it.

Papert was right when he said if there were to ever be a revolution in education, it would almost certainly not start within the institutions. Revolutions happen on the ground, on a cultural level first, always. He was also right when he argued that learning isn’t separate from reality. Mindstorms makes a great example of Brazil’s Samba Schools, which immediately made me think of every Coding Train livestream Dan Shiffman has ever hosted:

Much of the teaching, although it takes place in a natural environment, is deliberate… For five or twenty five minutes a specific learning group comes into existence. Its learning is deliberate and focused. Then it dissolves into the crowd.
— Seymour Papert, Mindstorms

Shiffman also perfectly embodies Papert’s argument that teachers need not know all the things. Don’t get me wrong, Shiffman know’s his material. But his code can get buggy, which sometimes has him turning to his live audience for help. In these moments he reminds everyone watching that “…this is part of coding. Let’s figure it out together, let’s look at how we can think about this.” I’m of course paraphrasing here, but he really does put a lot of emphasis on how we can think about anything, which also lines up quite perfectly with Papert’s philosophies.

Speaking of debugging, as chance would have it Guillaume and I took a similar approach to our code responses this week. In Guillaume’s case, he made a visual grammar notation system for the english language dissecting each part of speech and attributing it a color. I opted to create a music visualisation that set specific color hues to the low, medium and high frequency ranges of a track.

Guillaume made a beautiful grammar notation system. Each part of speech (nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc.) is given a specific colour. Give it a go here
This week I made a music visualization, which you can see a demo of here

“The aim of AI is to give concrete form to ideas about thinking that previously might have seemed abstract, even metaphysical.”

And this is where we circle back to the wondrous quality of hindsight. Throughout Mindstorms, Papert outlines the importance of exploring not just the topic to be learned (in this case math), but exploring how it is learned. He touches on AI in chapter seven, outlining the exact same approach that Facebook has had to take in solving their rogue AI problem, which I touched on in week three.

To make a machine that can be instructed in natural language, it is necessary to probe deeply into the nature of language. In order to make a machine capable of learning, we have to probe deeply into the nature of learning.
— Seymour Papert, Mindstorms

To put it in a really round about way, learning environments that don’t incorporate the nature of the thing being taught into how it is actually taught will certainly impact the relationship between the student and the nature of the thing. Which is to say, (in slight exasperation,) this why so many kids grow up hating math. They don’t understand it’s nature, and therefore feel entirely disconnected from it.

To learn about anything is to learn about one’s self. As Papert points out and history proves, learning all kind of boils down to differential analysis — local versus global. This has been the basis for Math discoveries since Newton, and yet the same instinctual approach is shunned within schools. Why? Papert notes that while it happens to be the most natural way for anyone, (especially kids,) to go about learning, students are cut off from this approach because of the infrastructure of formal learning, aka prerequisites, around subjects like math and science.

But let’s dial it back for second. We were talking about hindsight, weren’t we? It’s always 50/50, sure, and there’s a certain charm in that. But what is most exciting in this case (imo) is the missing link that Papert kind of touches on but doesn’t quite address with as much certainty as he does LOGO and the role computers can play in education. The how part, that is, the revolution in culture from the ground up that he notes must take place so the institutionalised approach to learning can change.

It seems to me that the only thing missing in Papert’s theories was the advent of the Internet as we know it today. But how could he have guessed? Where the irregular access to computer-equipped drop in centers outlined in Mindstorms failed, the Internet’s constant connectivity has succeeded. I believe that our beloved network of networks has by way of it’s all encompassing (truly global) impact on our daily lives, pricked so many people with a certain curiosity about the machines they use and the code that powers them. It has at the very least made code and computer literacy glaringly relevant.

The internet and the communities it has birthed have created a perfect storm of sorts. One where people feel like they can build, test and tinker — as Papert likes to say — with things. One where open source has been able to really take off, and the creative coding community has flourished. It’s allowed curious minds to repurpose computers and code (and objects! #arduino) into… whatever they can dream up. And since it’s all online, others have been able to discover and assimilate it in their own right.

To me this is exactly the cultural shift Papert was saying needed to happen. He uses the emergence of motion pictures as an example of how a culture creates itself around a new art form, which in turn creates “…a new set of professions made up of people whose skills, sensitivities, and philosophies of life were unlike anything that had existed before.” Excuse me while I *swoon*.

Seems to me that we’re right in the thick of it. I don’t doubt that there’s still much work to be done when it comes to the institution side of things. Those are some muddy, slow moving waters, no doubt. But we can certainly be hopeful in that we live during a time that provides many alternatives to learning. This puts a certain amount of power back into our hands. You might be thinking, “but your one example of Coding Train isn’t for young kids!” To that I’d say don’t underestimate curious and determined young minds. But there are also all kinds of crafty S.T.E.M initiatives for getting young learners exposed to the power of computers and code. Two of my favourites to date have been Hello Ruby and the kits coming out of Technology Will Save Us. These are just two examples among many you can find online. But the point is this: Papert was right, change is on the horizon.


Post-script: While I can’t speak for anyone else, I went into this whole online bookclub thing with zero expectations. I had never really taken part in a book club, be it IRL or digital, so I really had no idea how things would turn out.

If anything I was a bit intimidated, not at all sure what kind of attitudes I’d come face to face with, if my ideas would even have any kind of place in the discussions. I have to say, I was really blown away by the experience. As cheesy as it sounds, there really is nothing more satisfying than digging into a book with people who are just as excited about it as you are. Add to that the creative response prompts and things get really interesting. Points of view become not just verbal, but visual which creates a whole other dimension for conversation.

Big thanks & high fives to p5.js’ diversity initiative , Princeton StudioLab , Sharon, Aatish & everyone who took part✌️❤️


Worth checking out: This rundown about how the p5.js diversity initiative got started. It’s creator Chelly Jin was inspired by Lauren McCarthy’s experience creating the p5.js library, which saw a slew of inclusive individuals come forward to contribute to the endeavour. In what feels perfectly appropriate, my own reticence to get into code was pretty much squashed after I discovered how all-in the creative coding community truly is during my first Processing Paris workshop back in 2012. Processing(older sibling of the p5.js library) pretty much blew the lid off what I thought programming could be about.

LINKS

#diversityp5js #mindstorms