Blown to Bits: A good book, not as a sole APCS book

June 8, 2011 at 8:43 am 3 comments

At the last commission and advisory group meeting developing the new Advanced Placement course Computer Science: Principles, I heard a lot about the book Blown to Bits by Abelson, Ledeen, and Lewis. The book is all about the pervasive digital technology and how that influences our lives, from privacy, to cryptography, to search engines, and to intellectual property. The book is made available for free at their website, which makes it all the more attractive for use in the CS:Principles pilots. Several have already used it as a source for “readings.” It’s the only book I heard about. I was strongly encouraged to read it.

I finally got a chance to start it, and am really excited about it. It is an excellent example of the popular press CS paperbacks to which I was referring in a previous blog post. It’s filled with strong computer science ideas, which is not surprising since that one of the authors is Hal Abelson, as in Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs Abelson. He knows his CS, and why it’s relevant. The book relates important CS ideas to readers’ daily lives. The book is fun to read. It’s exactly what I would like to see more of, a particular slant on some strong CS, made accessible to contribute to the intellectual life of everyday people.

However, I am not comfortable recommending this to anyone for use in CS:Principles, at least as a sole source. As the authors say in the Preface:

This book emerged from a general education course we have taught at Harvard, but it is not a textbook…We aim to entertain you at the same time as we provoke your thinking…We offer some strong opinions in this book.

I agree that this book is not a textbook. The book offers opinions–statements that the authors believe are true, but are still not accepted as fact. I like the idea of including controversy in a College-level course. I am not okay with presenting a controversial opinion as fact. I prefer that the teacher offer dissenting views.

Here’s one concrete example: While I am no expert in information security and privacy, I don’t buy the argument that they’re making about security and privacy. They refer to the “post-privacy” world, and they subtitle a chapter “Privacy Lost, Privacy Abandoned.” They say, “We then turn to an analysis of how we have lost our privacy, or simply abandoned it.” The claim that privacy is lost surprised me. Sure, I understand the argument that most anything in digital form can be accessed somehow. I understand that everything I do in email or on Facebook could be found and disseminated widely on the Internet. I’ll bet that every reader of this blog, even if not my “friend,” could get my current Facebook status message within 30 minutes and <10 email messages. But does that really mean that privacy is "lost"? What about walking around? What about doing things on paper?

They argue that there are camera everywhere. They argue that even paper is no longer private. Handwriting is recognizable. Typewriters leave unique signatures. And it’s even possible to track the source of a printout from a piece of paper to a particular printer. Color printers actually encode the printer’s serial number on every page that they print.

Now waitaminute. Just because it’s possible to get a search warrant for surveillance cameras and to do forensic analysis does not mean that everything I do in person and on paper can be discovered and made public the same way as digital information. Last week, I was in New York City for the NCWIT Summit. Each morning, I walked to a different restaurant in Manhattan, had breakfast, and paid cash. I simply do not believe that where I had breakfast is public, not private. It’s not the same as my current Facebook status message is.

That’s just one example. The book has lots of other questionable claims, like “Bits move faster than thought.” (Exactly how do you measure that?) Making questionable claims doesn’t bother me as a book — I value the arguments for the claims, even if I disagree with them. I highly recommend the book even with claims about privacy that I don’t agree with. But that’s different than recommending it for a high school class that we hope will be taught to tens of thousands of students. I would recommend it, if it was one of several other readings that could then be contrasted with each other. Having several readings of this caliber would make for a really great class!

What do we want from a textbook, or for a good readings source for a book? For me, a textbook should be mostly be concerned with concepts that are generally accepted as true by a community. A readings book can offer opinions. Particularly in lower-level classes, I want to offer a diversity of opinions. I love collected readings books, like the New Media Reader. That’s a great example of providing a variety of opinions under one cover for one price. Maybe we need something like that for CS:Principles. But just Blown to Bits? I’m worried that that’s too one-sided.

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Owen Astrachan  |  June 8, 2011 at 1:54 pm

    Mark — you identify a key part of all courses, and in particular of CS Principles courses

    I want to offer a diversity of opinions.

    Diversity is the key here — we heard about that at NCWIT and it struck a real chord with me. There’s no one-size fits all approach to most things.


  • 2. Laura  |  June 8, 2011 at 5:48 pm

    I was just looking at Blown to Bits for my HS intro to computing course. I will likely point my students to it for a research project but I can’t use just that book for a course. What I really need is a book that gives a history/overview of the field. I have about 4 weeks at the beginning where I try to give some context and history but when I went looking for reading material, I couldn’t find much. I’d welcome any suggestions.

  • 3. App Inventor goes to MIT « Computing Education Blog  |  August 17, 2011 at 9:55 am

    […] is creating a Center for Mobile Learning (I heard that Hal Abelson is involved), and it will maintain and develop App Inventor. The Massachusetts Institute of […]


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