Mindstorms

Learning to ride does not mean learning to balance, it means learning not to unbalance, learning not to interfere. (Papert Mindstorms p. 159

I was having a conversation with Tim at Recurse (SP1 19) about conscious computation (or what a friend said I should rename to relational computation- but that sounds too much like social networking).  Tim did some work, perhaps a MA, in the lifelong kindergarten group at MIT and said that the ideas I had were very similar to those by Seymour Papert, the founder of Logo (the programming language where make geometric shapes with a digital turtle).

I have had the book, Mindstorms, forever, but have not read it. So, I took a nice long bath with some epsom salts and a little cinnamon incense and read it.  At a later point I will do a blog post on ritual bathing 🙂

What is my idea behind conscious computation? It is a exploration in the ways that we can use computers to change our modes of consciousness- whether that is through meditation or virtual reality. On a higher level, all tools change consciousness. The telescope and the microscope changed our perceptions and what we imagined that we could perceive and this directly changes consciousness.   What I am interested in computers is the world building capacity of computers and programming.  It is not just altering consciousness, but creating new modes of consciousness or frameworks. What is consciousness? It is awareness. We have a binary right now between the conscious and the unconscious. The conscious is what we are aware of, while the unconscious is that which we are unaware of.

But I prefer to think of consciousness as a framework for describing the relationship between the thinking and action (perhaps the mind  and action, and then the mind and the body). AIn this way,  the unconscious is a framework of thinking and acting in which we are unaware of the reasons for our actions, where the conscious is a framework of acting where there is deliberate reasoning between our thoughts and actions.  But are these the only two relations between thinking and acting.  Awareness and unawareness. What are the different ways that we can be aware, what are the different ways we can formulate thoughts or desires. I can feel a pang in my stomach that triggers my desire for food. This is not a mental action. I can drink a cup of chamomile tea and feel a sense of calm, my mind will reason differently in this state, then were I to drink a cup of coffee or mate or a shot(s) of tequila.

In Mindstorms, Papert is interested in:

talking about how computers may affect the way people think and learn. …noting a distinction between the two ways computers might enhance thinking and change patterns of access to knowledge.  (Papert Mindstorms p.3)

This is an epistemological approach: how do we know things. And he is influenced by Piaget, an epistemologist who studied how children know.  Piaget is not interested in the truth (or validity) of knowledge but the growth of knowledge and the acquisition of knowledge.  Some of my take aways from the book is that computers move us away from a true/false right wrong dichotomy.

A program is not wrong but buggy and the goal is to debug.  A student or learner is constantly improving code by removing bugs.

Computers introduce serendipity and creation into learning. I might learn to draw a square using a computer program but I draw a diamond instead. I may learn something new in debugging this, as I turn the diamond into a square, and I may create something new that I did not anticipate.  The computer is about learning through doing not learning through memorization or drills- which closes off this capacity to create and learn something accidentally.

There is also the idea of building microworlds, such as the world of logo and the turtle, to learn fundamental concepts. That learning is accomplishing within the framework of exploring a world. The goal is to create the correct world to learn a particular thing.  This idea is brought up in context of prerequisites.  Students do not need a prerequisite to study Shakespeare because this language acquisition is part of our culture in the domain of world building (since culture is worldbuilding). However to study linear algebra we must already know basic algebra. This is a prerequisite, since it is not learned in our culture. A solution would be microworlds that would allow people to learn prerequisite concepts and to integrate this into our culture.

Finally there is a theory of knowledge acquisition itself, the bricolage theory. This is the idea that we learn things by thinking and acting. That learning is recursive and a dance between these two modes and they compound. the more you learn the more you can learn.

Towards the end of the book there is a discussion of Poincare vs Freud. Poincare argues that mathematical mind is not logical but aesthetic.  I can appreciate this.  Good mathematics like a good program is not only correct but elegant. This is two minds the logical mind and the aesthetic mind, which Papert contrasts with Freud’s notion of conscious and unconscious  mind.  For Poincare the unconscious is presents aesthetically pleasing options to the conscious mind to prove. Where as, for Freud, the unconscious is primarily the site of sexual repression or prelogical thought causing nonsensical neurotic action that the conscious mind becomes aware of while acting in the world.

But, for me the question is there a choice between dichotomies. Why not let a multitude of consciousness (or unconsciousness) flourish and how does a computer facilitate that.

Papert is not focused on how we make a decision or why we do what we do, but how we learn. For me how we learn is a question of consciousness, since a mind that is structured in a particular way can only learn in a particular way. So if we want to learn new kinds of things heretofore not posited we have to restructure our mind and provide a multitude of minds for the different kinds of knowledge we want to acquire.

 

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