All your metaphors about computers are wrong

With the release of the raspberry pi, a lot of words have been flying around the information super high tubes about why getting children to learn to program computers is so important.

BBC’s click informs us that the first users of cars became enthusiasts and learned how they worked. We are told that using programs is akin to reading but that programming is akin to writing. The guardian tells us that children will learn to control computers rather than being controlled by them.

However, I think that all of these explanations fall far short of Dijkstras view that computers are “radically novel.” Meaning that no metaphor to previous technology can explain their relevance. Unlike the car, the VCR, the mp3 player, the word processor, the computer itself is a mathematical machine capable of “realising any mechanism that can be imagined.”

Until one understands the difference between pressing a button and seeing a light turn on as compared to the immense void of a blinking prompt that asks us to “imagine any possible mechanism” then our educational process is, ultimately, in vain.

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8 Responses to All your metaphors about computers are wrong

  1. Adrian Buyssens says:

    That’s the whole reason why so much advancements, programs, features, techniques and whatnot are made. Because it’s possible. The Raspberry Pi in itself is one huge ‘because I/we can’-project.

  2. nobody says:

    Steve Jobs said the computer is a bicycle for the mind. I (currently) think that’s the best metaphor I’ve heard for a computer, and it also sort of covers your observation. It’s up to you where the bike takes you.

    • jgw says:

      He then proceeded to try to sell us a bicycle that will only work with his tires, his air pumps, his headlamps, and his air horn – all of which he personally invented.

      When you tried it out, the handle bars fell off, and he told you it was your fault for holding them wrong.

      This is a stupid metaphor. I’m getting seriously bored of people quoting Steve Jobs ad nauseum.

      • Justin says:

        @jgw I disagree with you. Just because you don’t like the creator, that does not make his quotes or products stupid. Everyone knows and agrees that Steve Jobs was a control freak. He wanted to take control of every single aspect of his products. It can be debated whether that is good for the costumers or not. But the point is that Steve had the right idea about the computers (it being a bicycle for the mind). His targets were mass consumers and not the geeky programers like us. And to be honest he did a hack of a job making computers “easy” and “friendly” to the general population.

    • Jorge says:

      Bicycle for the mind? Used as the tool to release the mind’s power it is more like as spaceship.
      Unfortunately, for most people it is most as a red wagon for adults, they just want to ride it and let others to pull out. People trust too much on what computer and gadgets can do that most humans are losing their ability to think and be creative. More and more people are ‘educated’ low paid workers for the same reason.

  3. krb says:

    If we’re going so far as to stop to consider what the blinking prompt actually implies, can we back up the Pattern train and make a firm distinction between Pattern and Paradigm. Pattern is measurable (even if Christopher Alexander failed to arrive at a proven formula); Paradigm is dogmatic. Canonical examples:

    Pattern is mergesort which can be measured to perform better than selection sort.

    Paradigm is putting the shopping cart status in the upper-right corner of a web application.

    This doesn’t need to be about feelings; I’m not passing judgement on Pattern versus Paradigm. I’m passing judgement on contortions that lead to confusion and dilutes the science of computers.

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