Posted by: Jim | April 2, 2004

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On How I Found Hope In a Pessimistic Novel

My eleven-year old daughter can code HTML way better than I can. When I talk to her it is very clear that she “groaks” the language of code in a way that I never will.

I asked her how to have text appear when you “hover” over a link. She started rattling off an explanation much the same way I, when I was eleven, would have rattled off how to exercise safety when using a BB gun. When I asked my daughter to slow down, she looked at me crest-fallen as if to say, “What happened to you … you used to be so bright ….”

Well I’m not very bright when it comes to computer usage, in spite of my chosen career path. My daughter on the other hand is exceptionally bright at computer usage.

Then I remembered a book I just read called “Snow Crash” by Neal Stephenson. It’s a not-so light-hearted romp through a cyberpunk world. Not the greatest story arch in the world, but there are some very poignant insights into the way people learn. Stephenson drew upon his theories about “deep pathways” to help him draw conclusions about how the future might look. Our future looks pretty bad according to him.

His theory of “deep pathways”, however, is an unwitting message of hope. What he purports is that our brains start off somewhat like a blank hard drive but with one important difference—some rudimentary kernel of “source code” that essentially makes the brain ready to receive input. In a way, it’s like a formatted hard drive but where the formatting is more than a mapping the sectors, but also a sort of deep, unutterable language that helps us to make sense of everything. It’s the language we think in when we are a fetus. Are you with me?

Stephenson goes on to imply that what we lay on top of these deep pathways is what makes us … us. So for a little kid in Borneo who grows up around adults who are always eating human flesh, it won’t ever seem like a big deal to eat human flesh unless you eat it with mustard, which might be simply preposterous. For the Borneo kid, his deep pathways underwent a form of praxis with the kid’s early life experiences, and formed themselves in such a way as to make sense of the Borneo kid’s perceptions. The end result is the thought that human shanks are yummy.

OK, so back to my daughter.

She started experiencing the joy of Microsoft Windows at a much younger age—at a time when these deep pathways were still receptive to rearranging themselves to best survive in her universe. I, on the other hand, first experienced MS Windows as a dull-witted adult with hardly any ability to learn anything new at all. This allowed my daughter’s brain to format itself to Microsoft’s horribly convoluted logic. Except to her it’s neither horrible nor convoluted.

So this line of reasoning is making me amend my somewhat pessimistic view of the future of computing. In spite of bad programming and bad business practices in Redmond Washington, kids will eventually grow up with a holistic understanding of their primary workplace tool.

There … I said it. I was wrong.

Damn kids.

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