Qua locus

Keeping both eyes on the long game.

Teaching technology to Plato


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Broadly broadly, there are two ways of thinking about things. First of all, there’s the classic way. Call it the Platonic style – an infinity of absolute abstract forms, all very different from each other and none defined except by the examples which represent them. In direct contrast to this, there is mathematics. Formal, precise and  unambiguous definitions of simple things using simple rules. Then a dizzying array of combinations and the emergent properties which drive Stephen Wolfram wild. Call this by what Platonically exemplifies it best: the silicon style. But wait a moment! What on Earth does this rather obscure philosophising have to do with teaching technology?

It’s important, because most people mostly think using either Platonic exemplars or silicon simplicity. It’s a habit, a preference, and nothing more, but it’s true – the reason why we have the stereotypes of “I can’t do maths” and the borderline-autistic computer nerd.

What’s more, each of these styles is more or less suited to a different set of topics. Platonic ideals fit well to psychology and history and English literature and the distant realms of philosophy too difficult for anyone (even the Siliconites) to formalise. Rather unfairly, these subjects are often described as “soft”. “Hard” might be more accurate.

Like a magic incantation, both a Siliconite and a Platonist can learn how to use some new piece of technology. The difference is that the Siliconite learns the incantation, but also has a logical model in their mind of how it works and how it relates to everything else they know about tech. Which explains the nauseating speed with which a geek can learn to use a new mobile phone, and how short a time more before they’re doing things with it that even the designers never imagined. Sleep Cycle anyone?

In contrast, the bemused Platonist can’t quite work out what just happened. Hence this post. Not that long ago, my beautiful Platonist fiancee asked me exactly this question – to teach her technology. And she meant it in precisely the way I’ve just described. Not just how to do it, but generally: how to think about it and “how it works”.

An aside: It’s a little unfair to call my fiancee a Platonist and by implication unable to do maths. She’s buried in multi-variate regression for her psychology thesis as I write. But broadly broadly she is infinitely better with the Platonic style of exemplars and informal definitions, and has to work hard to think in silicon.

Of course the benefits of being able to think both ways are huge – in a moment (or however long it takes to learn), the world would double in richness and complexity and potential for happiness, like something straight out of Flow.

At least I believe so. I’ve always slanted to silicon. But I’m pushing as fast as I can, taking up gardening and drawing and learning a language and writing a blog, stuff that seems permanently resistant to being simplified and conceptualised in a nice little logical framework – but I love them all and they’re making me so happy, in exactly the way that diving into Lithium is. More on Lithium another day…

To the point at hand. As a Siliconite, how do you teach a Platonist to think about tech in that crucial logical way which opens it right up? I don’t know for certain yet, but here’s my framework…

  • Everyone learns better via examples
  • No one understands all of technology, and that is not the goal – the goal is to think in the “right way”
  • Positive reinforcement – being able to see you are making progress – is crucial
  • Doing is much better than seeing or hearing

So I’m going to help her make a webpage. Writing HTML demands careful abstract thinking and creativity (“but I want the image over there“). You can also see immediately your mistakes – and fix them fast too. As she becomes more comfortable with HTML, next would come JavaScript, or CSS, or whatever she thinks most relevant. Because tech is big and you can never teach anyone all of tech, but by taking that first bite of the elephant you make the future mouthfuls so much easier*.

* As a vegetarian, I don’t think this metaphor will appeal to her

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Written by CGF

June 10, 02012 at 07:57

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