Sherry Turkle: Seeing Through Computers

[Readings] (01.28.09, 1:47 pm)

This article elucidates some material which later appears in Turkle’s book, The Second Self. The subject of this essay is the culture of simulation and its effect on pedagogy. The article is tied between the competing ideas of a computer as a creative tool versus an appliance, and between the role of education as teaching mastery or usage.

Turkle’s article was published in 1997, which gives it some historical distance from the current trends in education, but the state of affairs in 1997 seems to strongly resemble the state of affairs now, at least as pertains to simulation. I think that modern education has become overtaken by the cultural effects of the internet and mass information.

Computer education in the 1980s relied on teaching students programming, and using the metaphor of the computer as a machine or calculator. Educators aimed to portray the internals of the computer as something to be understood and manipulated. This moment was seminally infleunced by Seymour Papert’s Mindstorms. This style of thinking culminates in an example of an exhibit in the Boston Computer Museum, of a computer visually blown up, so that children can see the insides.

Gradually, there is a shift in the way that people think about computers, which is heralded by the desktop metaphor of the Macintosh user interface. Instead of seeing transparency as looking into the lower operations of the computer, the role of transparency changes to the immediacy of metaphors and interfaces. Transparency becomes the value of being able to look at a computer screen and immediately see a document, a spreadsheet, or a desktop.

This shift brings in an educational change, where educators become motivated to teach the computer as an appliance, and instruct children in the operation of programs. Instead of being taught how to build machines, children are being taught to use them. This is partially motivated by the prevalence of computers in the workplace and as a means of training students for future employment. Along this way, students begin to get used to thinking of the computer as a black box, with the internals hidden and unknowable, rather than something to be learned and mastered. The pinnacle of this new moment is simulation, which is all about black boxes.

Turkle gives an example of a child playing SimLife, who does not attempt to ask what the meaning of the terms in simulation are. Instead, he understands things functionally. This is depicted with some degree of terror. Turkle fears that simulation shuts down questions rather than answering them, but I disagree, and say that simulation instead demonstrates answers by playing them out, by exposing procedural and functional relationships. Instead of telling, simulation shows.

Another element is that this demonstrates in kids a comfortability (in simulation culture) to working with partial and incomplete information. This is also a gender issue. In Western culture, Girls are traditionally less comfortable with working with partially understood systems, and prefer having a more complete understanding.

Turkle exposes this question further about simulation culture: why should kids use virtual magnets to pick up virtual pins? However, I think the reason is exactly the same as using real magnets to pick up real pins. Interaction is playful, but is illustrative of relationships.

Describes that concerns over simulation in college education. Simulation results in students detachment from their work. With simulation, educators are concerned that students do not understand importance and effects of the subjects they are learning. It does however enable students to do work and experiments they would not have been able to do before. This is still a subject of some controversy in education today. There is a heretical/blasphemous element to simulation in science, where educators fear that students will mistake world of simulation for the real world. This fear goes back to Baudrillard.

This article discusses Turkle’s ideas of simulation resignation and denial, and poses a third mode of criticism, which examines and challenges internal assumptions. She argues that it would be possible to develop a readership for culture of simulation. This would emphasize a way of distinguishing between the world of the simulation and the real world.

The way to build this would be to have children create their own simulations, to develop authorial skill to learn how to critique and read the simulations. We have centuries-long history of readership for written text, a similar tradition must be made for understanding simulations.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorTurkle, Sherry
TitleSeeing Through Computers: Education in a Culture of Simulation
JournalAmerican Prospect 8, no 31 (March 1997)
Tagscyberculture, specials
LookupGoogle Scholar

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