Vol 4 . . . No 8 . . . April, 1994

Editor: Jamie McKenzie, Ed.D.

Telephone Inquiries via email please

Contents Page

1. Monthly Comments

2. Rubber Rooms, User-Friendly

Gateways and Robust Learning

by Jamie McKenzie

----- Monthly Comments ----

The topic originally announced for this month's issue - project planning software - has been replaced by one more in a series of articles about the electronic highway. I am increasingly intrigued by the influence of edutainment and consumer inspired products upon the educational marketplace. Packaging, glitz and bells and whistles proliferate until it feels as if life were an arcade.

Working with young elementary students, I am repeatedly impressed by the excitement they derive from powerful uses of simple programs like Paintbrush. Beginning with tasks like drawing ten smal squares in a neat row, they go on to make automatic copies of tens of squares until their screen is filled with hundreds and hundreds of squares. "And now . . . a million!" I challenge, and their eyes pop out of their heads and they squeal with delight and disbelief.

The following week, these same first graders go on to construct block temples on the screen by dragging and duplicating block shapes. Then they move on to dinosaur poems constructed from banks of words already on the Paintbrush screen. Simple tools like the chisel have a long history of creating some great sculpture.

Copyright Policy: Materials published in From Now On may be duplicated for educational, non-profit school district use only. In any other case, contact the editor for permission.

Rubber Rooms, User-Friendly

Gateways and Robust Learning

by Jamie McKenzie

Can software become too user-friendly?

Is this an issue even worth worrying or writing about?

When I first heard the term "rubber room" used to describe an entirely safe and user-friendly front end for a computer network and gateway to Internet, I pictured a special room set aside in a mental hospital with soft walls which would permit the patients to bounce around at will without damage to themselves or the walls. I must confess that these connotations immediately set off alarms and raised my level of concern. Even though I had personally grunted and growled at the traps, dead-ends and frustrations I had encountered while surfing with archaic software, it seemed as if Big Brother and Big Sister might be licking their chops at the very prospect of installing rubber rooms across the land.

"Paranoid!" a voice chided. "What's wrong with making visits to the Internet smooth and trouble-free?"

I recalled the teachers who had complained vociferously about their trials and tribulations. "I'm not going back on that thing until they invent some software which makes it work better," promised one.

While many teachers, students and parents were boldly surfing the Net on aging wooden surfboards, a substantial number were crossing their arms and staying out of the water.

I. The Internet as Jungle

At the risk of mixing metaphors, the Internet critics were attacking us for dropping them into the Amazonian jungle with no guide, no supplies, no weapons and no map. The Internet was as warm and welcoming to some of these people as New York City or Miami. Why would anyone want to visit there? And if they did have to visit, it had better be safe within a tour bus with guide and schedule. There was no tolerance for detours or surprises.

Since I had spent a year living in Manhattan and recently enjoyed South Beach in Miami without a car-napping, I was accustomed to taking sensationalist news stories with a grain of salt.

My neighborhood in Manhattan was a wonderful mixture of people of all groups and economic levels most of whom seemed to live in great harmony. Even though my car was gradually stripped of any valuable peripherals, the neighborhood was pretty safe, even after midnight, and it was filled with great restaurants and night spots. Even so, this was a neighborhood out-of-state visitors might rarely encounter in their carefully scheduled tours of the city. Ten blocks north of the Natural History Museum, Columbus and 87th Street was out of bounds.

Tourists mainly visit Mid Town Manhattan. Mid Town becomes a ghost town at night as workers flee to the suburbs, leaving behind tourists and sharks while city residents retire to neighborhoods like mine on the edge of Mid Town which are quite residential and hospitable. The tourists are warned to stay off the streets at night and they return home to their states with horror stories of sharks and high prices. They miss the real Big Apple, which is actually many cities and neighborhoods with thousands of identities and cultures and stories to be told.

Do tour guides set up rubber rooms for visitors to protect them from certain neighborhoods, certain types of people and certain experiences? What price do we pay when we turn ourselves over to the guides who promise teflon visits? What do we lose when we elect rubber rooms for ourselves and our students?

II. The Internet as Beach

In April some friends and I drove a rented convertible from Naples to Miami and I must confess that I looked over my shoulder several times as we passed the airport and crossed a bridge to the long narrow island which is Miami Beach. I kept waiting for a car to ram into our rear end and hold us up at gun point.

These were the only images of Miami that the national press had allowed to pass through their filters all the way to Bellingham, Washington. Each night's television news is a kind of rubber room, a user-friendly front end to the world which sorts and sifts reality for us so we can sit back with dinner and digest thought and sound bites which have already been thoroughly chewed over by thoughtful editors and reporters.

And we didn't even have the top down!

No sooner do we leave the bridge and enter the Art Deco section called South Beach than my driving friend pulls the car over to lower the top. I actually consider reminding him of the hoodlums and robbers roaming the highways and streets killing German tourists, but John lives in Florida and his news passes through different filters. Being a bartender, he has heard from friends in the restaurant trade that South Beach is pretty cool and pretty safe. Even in Naples, a retirement haven for New Yorkers, word has leaked out that Miami Beach is experiencing a renewal. While everyone concedes that there have been some spectacular crimes, Floridians, especially those whose incomes have been undercut by reduced tourism, are quick to pooh-pooh the panic. In Washington, the news of crime in Florida is overstated. Florida alternates between denial or declarations of war on crime.

So we drive along with the top down for maybe twenty blocks and it looks kind of seedy, reminding me of Atlantic City before gambling. The crowd along the sidewalks is very mixed, very young (it being Spring Break) and not very affluent (apparently). We are feeling disappointed, until we see one block which is actually humming with energy. Half a dozen blocks away we park the car on the street and wonder if we'll ever see it again, leaving nothing of value in the trunk because we have seen so many stories of convertible thefts.

The high energy block contains a youth hostel and several dozen mostly European young adults hanging out in the sidewalk cafe, drinking beer and swapping stories. A few hours and several beers later, we have quizzed the waiter, found several neighborhood newspapers listing night spots and restaurants and discovered that there is much more to South Beach than meets the eye from a car. Ground level is very different from street level.

The same is true, of course, with the Internet. Some of the most powerful and pleasing discoveries arise from serendipity and ground level excursions. Sometimes it requires a willingness to suffer through getting lost to get to insight. Unfortunately, our culture inclines us to search for truth blinded by the certainties and shop worn verities which have served us for ages. We let our ignorance (tour guides or editors) shape the inquiry, forming questions around what we already know rather than around what we need to know. Since we usually don't know what we don't know, we have trouble entertaining or examining it, so we chase the tail of our own limited knowledge.

We began walking the eight blocks toward the restaurant where we intended to make a dinner reservation. The same shops and restaurants which had seemed seedy from the car began to smell and look more like an exotic bazaar in Casablanca. The people on the street were incredibly mixed, extraordinarily amiable and surprisingly international. There was a jazzy feeling to the street and music around every corner. It felt good to be in South Beach as we noted a half dozen clubs on our short walk. We made a note of each (bookmark) for a night time return. From the restaurant we veered toward the beach itself - on a whim, really. And here the magic really began, as we hit a six block strip was right out of the Left Bank in Paris. More than a dozen sidewalk cafes overflowing with great people. What a surprise! And the greatest majority were from other countries. It was as if we had stepped into a foreign city.

Looking back at it now, I wonder if the tour bus would have shown us this side of Miami Beach - if we would have stumbled into such a neighborhood if we weren't somewhat inclined toward exploration and adventure. Some of what we found was on the tourist map. Most wasn't. Because we happened into a hostel, we found newspapers devoted to night life and adventure. We found word of mouth advice. And we trusted our intuition and instincts.

III. The Internet and the "Hood"

In another recent trip to Florida, I rented a car in Tallahassee and asked for directions into the center of the city. The woman handed me a map and drew a route which seemed torturously circular and inefficient. Remembering school geometry and the shortest route theorem, I quizzed her.

"Why not this road, here? Isn't it quicker?"

Her eyes quickly veiled over and she became very careful. "Oh . . . " she whispered. "That is another way of going, but we suggest the one we showed you. It's safer."

Ignoring the advice, I drove through an area of town which seemed quite safe compared to other cities I had visited, but it was a neighborhood of minority homes. Evidently, the rental agency was leaving nothing to chance. Just as insurance and mortgage companies have engaged in "red-lining" such neighborhoods for decades, rental agencies, acutely aware of the national press, are sending their clients around such neighborhoods even if it means doubling their trips.

The next evening, after quizzing the desk clerk for restaurants of various kinds, the leader of the videotaping project led us back into the very same neighborhood the rental agency had steered us away from.

How is this related to the Internet? I recall growing up in the 1950s and 1960s when many books were banned. There always seem to be people in the society eager to jump forward and start telling us what we should or should not be reading. Some software programs can limit access to information and block users from certain neighborhoods of the Net - usually "in their own interest." Unfortunately, many users will be unaware that such neighborhoods even exist and they will be blocked from them in subtle ways so they are unaware that they are being steered. Next thing we know, students and teachers may be eating nothing but white bread. Some fastidious, earnest bureaucrat may protect them from whole wheat, rye, seven grain and black bread by purchasing a "user-friendly" front end to the Internet which carefully runs them past offensive neighborhoods and realities.

IV. Info-Tactics and Filters

How do we come to know our world? We construct images and insight by piecing together what we are shown. As Toffler points out in Powershift (1991), however, what we are shown is often filtered before it reaches us.

The Visual Almanac videodisc provides some telling examples of this phenomenon. After showing audiences twenty slides from A Day in the Life of the USSR, very few people have any idea that they are looking at the former USSR. The pictures are filled with details which conflict too strongly with those which have been allowed to reach us during decades of Cold War during which it was essential that we see these people as our enemy. We see meat on the shelves of a butcher shop. We see beautiful (and slender) young Russian women. We see many different racial and ethnic groups. We see tenderness and affection. We see smiles. We see ourselves and our neighbors and our grandparents and our children. They would be hard to nuke.

The Visual Almanac videodisc also contains hundreds of photographs of third world people from National Geographic. Most are close-ups of smiling, rural people dressed up in traditional garb. "What's missing?" I ask audiences. "Pain. Suffering. Tragedy. Cities. Technology. Men. Activity." One recent critique of National Geographic coverage of third world peoples claims that the magazine has shown us a sanitized view which minimizes the problems, romanticizes the people and ignores evidence of so-called development.

If we select a filter intentionally to add a rose tint to an image, then filters may be very valuable and desirable, but if filters are employed somewhere in the background to shape and distort our understanding of reality, then something is stolen from us. Toffler would call such manipulation of information and data "info-tactics." He argues that we must equip citizens with the ability to look past conclusions and findings to explore the premises and assumptions built into the information crunching mechanism. Black boxes, he argues, are dangerous because their filters and mechanisms are concealed (transparent?).

When searching for truth on the Internet, we might gainfully employ engines which employ powerful filters. If we limit our search with a publication date of 1993-94, for example, we will exclude a great deal while placing emphasis upon the most current issues. If filters act mysteriously in the background without our knowledge, on the other hand, we may be unconscious victims of mind control.

V. "Artificial Intelligence, Expert Systems, Natural Language Interfaces, Knowledge Engineering and the Librarian" (Davies, Jim, 1987)

Sometimes the irony of techno-babble seems to escape the authors. "Natural language" is a term employed by the artificial intelligence community to describe computer software than can perform searches for us using our regular sentences rather than requiring us to learn Boolean logic and search operators. I find the title of the article mentioned above a fascinating collection of words. "Knowledge engineering" is worthy of an article all by itself. How is that related to insight? intuition? revelation? transcendence?

I recently attended a vendor presentation on the Internet during which the vendor bragged about a forthcoming software product which would support "natural language" searching of the Internet. "That means," he crooned, "you won't have to teach your students Boolean logic and search operators."

I raised my hand and asked (innocently), "Why is that a good thing?'

He was silent for a long time and perplexed.

Since I had recently found that 4th graders could learn Boolean searches on an electronic encyclopedia quite easily, I wondered why that was a bad skill for them to acquire and employ.

We need to stop and ask occasionally what these people are trying to protect us from and what we may lose when they make software too user-friendly. Is it possible that some might dumb down software dangerously?

The Hacker's Dictionary has some lovely terms for this whole topic . . .

user-friendly: adj. Programmer-hostile. Generally used by hackers in a critical tone, to describe systems that hold the user's hand so obsessively that they make it painful for the more experienced and knowledgeable to get any work done. See menuitis[1], drool-proof paper[2], Macintrash[3] user-obsequious[4].

drool-proof paper: n. Documentation that has been obsessively {dumbed down} , to the point where only a {cretin} could bear to read it, is said to have succumbed to the `drool-proof paper syndrome' or to have been `written on drool-proof paper'. For example, this is an actual quote from Apple's LaserWriter manual: "Do not expose your LaserWriter to open fire or flame."

user-obsequious: adj. Emphatic form of {user-friendly} . Connotes a system so verbose, inflexible, and determinedly simple-minded that it is nearly unusable. "Design a system any fool can use and only a fool will want to use it." See {WIMP environment} , {Macintrash} .

dumbed down: adj. Simplified, with a strong connotation of *over*simplified. Often, a {marketroid} will insist that the interfaces and documentation of software be dumbed down after the designer has burned untold gallons of midnight oil making it smart. This creates friction. See {user-friendly} .

What does natural language searching miss? The use of Boolean logic and search strategies can be an intuitive trial-and-error process during which the searcher blunders through a number of weak strategies until something finally works. Will natural language searching hide the blunders and conceal the strategy being used?

In using Veronica and the word "salmon" to find articles on the salmon harvest in the Northwest, I found far too many articles on the first search. There were hundreds of salmon recipes . . . salmon hash, salmon cakes, etc. When I added "harvest" or "fishing" the list was too short. But then I noticed the word "fisheries in one of the titles." When added to "salmon," "fisheries," a word not usually employed in my own "natural language made the search productive. Would artificial intelligence figure that out for me?

VI. Truly Friendly User-Friendly Front Ends for Robust Learning

The main point of this article is the danger that user-friendly claims and software can actually insulate users from important information and experiences. This is not to deny legitimate needs to create an information highway with common standards and consistent commands and less arcane procedures. It is a blessing to employ software programs such as Mosaic or Gopher which may simplify procedures by remembering routes to favorite information neighborhoods and automating some functions which are otherwise mind numbing. Even mail programs can differ greatly with regard to deletion of unwanted messages, either supporting or undermining an individual's capacity to engage in listservs. Some software, then is truly user-friendly and worth-while. The question is whether or not the software supports "robust learning."

"Robust learning" is a term for information feasting which includes rather than excludes, which involves a full range of resources rather than a narrow, filtered, sanitized, dumbed-down, diluted, or overly processed, teflon collection of data. Robust learning seeks the truth, even if the truth is uncomfortable, in the belief that "the truth will make us free." Sanitized and heavily filtered learning is indoctrination or what Toffler calls "info-tactics." Democracies thrive on robust learning. Autocracies prefer filters.

Credits: The background is from Jay Boersma.
Other drawings and graphics are by Jamie McKenzie.

Copyright Policy: Materials published in From Now On may be duplicated in hard copy format educational, non-profit school district use only. All other uses, transmissions and duplications are prohibited unless permission is granted expressly. Showing these pages remotely through frames is not permitted.
FNO is applying for formal copyright registration for articles.

From Now On Index Page