What is programming-as-literacy, what does it look like, and what should we worry about? Alan Kay in Scientific American

December 17, 2018 at 7:00 am 3 comments

Last month, I wrote a blog post about programming as a kind of literacy. I got some pushback.  Really? Literacy?  That programming in C stuff?  Well, no, programming in C is not what I mean by a form of literacy.  I recommended looking at some of what Alan Kay had written in Scientific American.

I decided to do that for myself.

Alan’s first article for Scientific American was in 1977, “Microelectronics and the Personal Computer,”  about the idea of a personal computer and the explorations they were doing at Xerox PARC with Smalltalk. I liked this one a lot because it emphasizes simulations “the central property of computing.”

The second was in 1984, “Computer Software.” Here’s where he defines literacy with the computer. It’s way more than just programming.


The third was in 1991, “Computers, Networks and Education.” This is the one where Alan really questioned whether things with computing were going in the right direction. For example, he worried about how people thought about “literacy” on the computer.


He returned to the importance of simulation.


And he was worried about people being critical of information that they find on the Internet (note that this is 1991, before Web browsers).


But in the end, Alan was hopeful, that we might develop a skeptical attitude with computing.


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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. orcmid  |  December 17, 2018 at 12:23 pm

    A beautiful rhapsody. Thanks Mark.

  • 2. alanone1  |  December 18, 2018 at 3:42 am

    In yet another essay, I tried to make a different point about “literacy”: that it was not just reading, but writing, and not just both of those, but being able to deal with “a literature” — in other words, that the roots of “literacy” are *ideas* worth learning and delving into, and especially if all are helped by the special properties of writing and reading that speech lacks.

    From this perspective “being literate” means being able to both handle and learn and read and write the ideas in “a literature”.

    Another perspective that is worth bringing up here comes from the fascinating book of the even more fascinating studies by Sylvia Scribner and Mike Cole “The Psychology of Literacy”. Two of the many important observations were:

    (a) that “pretty much everything is different” for “literate” and non-literate populations (a number of the studies were able to compare members of the same African tribes who underwent (or didn’t undergo) schooling in Senegal, etc.).

    (b) that just learning to read “didn’t do it” (i.e. effect the large transformation in epistemological outlook). It strongly seemed to be the case that what was required was *both* learning to read *and* schooling. They even thought that just the discipline of schooling might be as important than the knowledge gained in schooling.

    (One way to interpret this is that a school looks like a culture (is kind of one) to human minds, and we have genetic drives to acclimate to things like cultures that surround us. Montessori used this idea as central to her designs for schooling. Most American schools don’t understand this and badly botch the environment.)

    To me, if we try to characterize a small number of the most central ideas of computing, “effective procedures” (a better term than “algorithms”) might make the top five, but just barely. This is because computing is about relationships and representations (both analog and digital). It is about systems and processes (the making and understanding of things that do more than the individual parts, and whose largest interest are informational and representational).

    And so forth. There’s quite a bit of evidence by now that the typical focus on early learning of simple programming using data structures sets up very weak ideas about computing, which nonetheless seem to hang on like grim death in so many computerists. To me, there is a very “Roman Numerals” tinge about all this. Or perhaps a kind of faith healing? In any case, the result has been an enormous amount of “not at all good” code — but so much of it that establishes a “normal” that is quite disastrous, and sets up a kind of blindness to the larger ideas and needs of the field.

    If we refer this back to “literacy” and “reading and writing” it is rather like teaching reading and writing and “literature” so badly that most of the learners never get fluent enough to make them an important part of their lives. Then give them a high school diploma that certifies them as “OK” so they don’t have to worry. I think this is what has been going on for many decades now.

    I believe that this is a kind of moral crime, right up there with suppressing the creative impulses of children to “make them ‘normal’ “.

  • 3. rwhite5279  |  December 29, 2018 at 11:05 pm

    The link for the “Computer Software” article from 1984 is tucked behind a Georgia Tech paywall, but can be found at http://www.vpri.org/pdf/tr1984001_comp_soft.pdf


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