23 July 2010

On ritual knowledge

Last Friday the hard drive on my principal machine unexpectedly and suddenly died, gave up the ghost, expired, exited this mortal coil...

Fortunately pretty well all my data was backed up, and so at one level and thanks to a very helpful (and reasonably priced) engineer --Paul West of Bedford Home Computers deserves the plug-- it was relatively simple to install a new drive (twice the capacity of course) and then to re-populate it with everything from scratch. The operating system, the main packages, and then the drivers and the add-ons and the tuning, and the little programs installed for free from magazine cover-discs years ago which have become integral to how I work (particularly ABC Snapgraphics, a really simple template-based vector drawing programme which is the tool which generated most of the graphics on my web-sites; runs under Windows 3.1, from 1995. I have many back-ups of that, some on a single floppy!), the list goes on and it took most of the weekend to get minimally functional again.

But that's the background. As I engaged in the tedium of finding stuff and installing and scrabbling for authorisation codes on packaging that had only narrowly escaped being thrown away years ago---I was reminded once again of David Perkins' discussion of the forms of "troublesome knowledge", particularly in the context of threshold concepts (of course). I'd like to link to his 1999 paper at this point [Perkins D (1999) "The constructivist classroom - the many faces of constructivism" Educational Leadership, Volume 57, Number 3], but it has disappeared from its former open-access home, so what follows is based on my understanding of part of his argument.

Troublesome knowledge may be associated with
  • ritual knowledge
  • inert knowledge
  • conceptually difficult knowledge
  • the defended learner 
  • alien knowledge
  • tacit knowledge
  • troublesome language
Without going into all the detail, the point is that these features of the material to be learned--alone or in combination--make it difficult to learn.

And the longer we go on in teaching, the more inured we get to the difficulty of these forms of knowledge, because the more we are initiated into the little worlds of our disciplines and practices the more they come to make sense to us. And the longer that goes on, the more difficult it becomes to empathise with the difficulties experienced by our students. And of course to engage constructively with those difficulties...

Until it hits home. I have a lot of ritual knowledge about PCs. I know what I have to do to make certain things happen. I haven't a clue why they work (just as I no longer have a clue about how my car engine works, despite having done basic servicing on its predecessors for thirty or so years). But I know I have to go through the motions.

I've never been much of a computer geek, but in the 'eighties I could and did create (rather boring) programs for my son to practise basic maths in BBC BASIC, and later created crude interfaces in CP/M and MS-DOS. Then, as with the car, I at least enjoyed the delusion that I knew what was going on. Now I am disabused of that.

More important, I suspect that nobody knows what is going on.

In the 'eighties, the computer mags (my favourite was PCW Plus for the Amstrad 8/9000 pre-PC series) generally included in each edition an arcane article about programming in assembler, just one step away from machine code. It's of course possible that even in those days only the authors knew what they were talking about, but I wonder if any person (as opposed to a succession of programs and of course millions of machines) exists who can read a few hundred lines of low-level code and even see that they are the nuts and bolts of, say, a state-of-the-art image editor.

Analogously, that is like reading a list of thousands of pixels defined by their colour properties, and then answering Rolf Harris' ritual question, "Can you tell what it is, yet?" I do remember from one of those magazines, a throw-away remark that the difficult thing about programming was not writing code, but being able to read it.

The point? That in all my dutiful behaviour re-creating my desk-top, I haven't actually learned anything. Apart, perhaps, from obeying orders.

More important, for most of us there isn't anything else to learn. I can't reference an op-ed piece I read a few weeks ago pointing out that there is no single person on the planet who knows how your mobile phone works. Its operating system and "apps" have been assembled by specialists across the world who produce a library of "black box", mysterious modules which happen to work. But those who use them--not only the consumers but also the engineers and designers who package them for public consumption, neither need to know how they work, nor do know.

I've just been watching a re-run of one of the marvellous series on BBC TV on the Indian railways. Some of their locomotives are still steam-powered, and I admired the wonderful dance of well-lubricated pistons and shafts and eccentrics and wheels, and the knowledge and skill of the people who made them work. But then I thought--even I could potentially learn how these things work. I can see the components and their linkages. They are concrete objects harnessing abstract principles.

But that is not true of ICT, or of very much modern technology--even the ills of the internal combustion engine can nowadays only reliably be diagnosed by sensors and readouts, at several removes from the actual events causing the mis-fire or the overheating. Instead, one is at the mercy of the oracles...

I'm tangentially reminded of a birthday event I attended a few years ago, where I met up again with a former housemate, an early-retired (full) professor of maths, then working part-time with doctoral candidates at another university on the mathematics of financial derivatives. He, with an Oxford D.Phil long under his belt, was unstinting in his admiration for the technical competence of his high-flying candidates. He admitted that sometimes he was, if not struggling, at least exerting himself to keep up.  Dateline; February 2006.  About 18 months later the significance became apparent of the disconnection between the capacity of the analytical disciplines and and complexity of those all-too-real deals.

The inaccessibility to most of us of the technology which we can merely consume makes us dependent, and perhaps promotes learned helplessness (and hyperbole). Discuss!

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
Arthur C. Clarke (1961) "Profiles of The Future"

1 comment:

  1. If these technicians you consider engineers are oracles, real engineers must be as gods! LOL.

    Engineers do not concern themselves professionally with either complete knowledge or with Truth, that is a pursuit so futile that most philosophers have given up on it, and they have had nothing better to do all day for two and a half millennia!

    Engineers do not need to completely understand things, they need only understand them well enough to reliably control them towards useful ends. Systems too complex to "fully understand" are the norm. This is not a problem, but an inherent feature of engineering, based upon efficient use of resources. An engineer is someone "who does for a dime what any fool can do for a dollar".

    Engineers don't care what is wrong with your hard-drive(almost certainly exceeding its design life)when a technician can fit you a new one for £50. It isn't economic to care.

    Any further understanding is the province of scientists, and beyond that still the dubious claims of philosophers and clerics.

    If those who avoid learning about science and technology are uncomfortable with its products seeming like magic, and its practitioners as oracles, this is something they can remedy. It isn't magic, and we are not oracles. We just know stuff they don't. They might consider learning it.

    I'm always seeing programmes to shoehorn useless humanities nonsense into engineering courses. When is someone going to try teaching technology to the media studies generation? I'm up for it.


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