Why and how I'm learning: A cultural case for general outlines
This post is about my motivations in learning about programming and how I am going about it. I invite any ideas or criticism from readers by way of email. I am still looking for good general primers (e.g. on compilers, internet protocols, and quantum computing in AI).
Consider the phrases “digital natives” (cf. Barlow) and “electronic/cybernetic frontier” (cf. Dyson et al.). In 2022, would you say they were descriptive of the space that we inhabit daily? For educators at least, the past few years have marked what could be termed a forced migration — one that many were unprepared for. As a teacher of culture who uses and discusses technology, this is an area of interest.
There probably won’t be mass reflection over what this all means and what the shift entailed. But I hope that the book that I am writing will bring at least a little clarity to some of the elements involved. These elements include some description of the digital technology itself that constitutes the new frontier that many are busy staking out and claiming.
But the frontier is a metaphor. And metaphors have their limitations. Also, it is an example of interculturality, involving a culture of colonizing, a culture of technology, a culture that is not tech-literate, etc. But humanity continues to de-prioritize understanding of “the other” — especially if deemed to hail from unfriendly waters — so the cultural dimension of the new frontier is bound to be a source of added complexity.
Because the new frontier is digital, it requires knowledge of the digital. But the collective repository of digital knowledge today is such that soon no single person will be able to hold a mental model of it in their head. How can the non-expert, like myself, even hope to come to terms with it?
I have two attractions to digital learning. The first is practical. There are things I want done my way, so I am motivated to learn how to get them done, even if — let’s be honest here — I often lose entire nights of sleep to succeed.
Second, as a teacher hoping to prepare students for this new frontier, for these new trends, I am trying to get a picture of its general context. This would be far easier if I were friends with industry insiders who could talk me through some of the more important features. But I do not have that benefit.
I am also a particular kind of learner when left to my own devices (hardy har, that’s also a pun: for example, I think I’m going to boot pmOS to my old tablet). Not innately pedantic, I jump in to higher-level problems because I find it interesting. I do not endorse such an approach; the methodical is more comprehensive. But in real life, limited by time and multiple constraints, I prefer to come closer to the source than to be precise; to delve into problems that are genuinely interesting, if beyond my present capabilities, and reverse engineer, becoming a detective of key words, noting how they change according to context.
That’s how I’ve approached programming. I suffer from bouts of accute imposter sydrome — yet there are moments when I realize that while my tech knowledge is negligible, it is not nothing. I want to be open with this because I feel that at this time in history, it will help us if we are transparent about how we are learning, because it seems that we will need to learn a lot more in the time to come, whether to keep up with changing technologies or to remember what was known in the past.How am I learning?
- I joined a community, the free software community, where total newbies are not only welcome, but where it’s subtly implied that if you aren’t hacking, you’re slacking off. I love this. Because in real life there are always myriad tasks and processes we can tweak to make better: hacking is the means by which to achieve improvement.
- For years, I read everything and anything on Hacker News, Lobste.rs, and blogs I found through research to support my totally amateur hacking. Only now am I beginning to see patterns: of key topics and a rudimentary (if still very vague) outline of the domain knowledge.
- I ‘test’ what I think I know with accounts from other sources, like industry podcasts, which extend far beyond my level of competence. There is an old proverb, though, that says that if a person spends enough time with a knowledgeable crowd, they, too, will eventually sound knowledgeable in their own speech. I hope so!
- This has come at a personal cost because of the time involved and if I did not have such good and understanding friends, this endeavor would be socially detrimental. That said, these problems could be allayed by having multiple industry-insider friends.
I’d like to expand on the topic of podcasts as a resource. In addition to podcasts I’ve mentioned earlier on this blog (e.g. Hope in Source, CoRecursive, Exponential View, and Techtonic), here are some episodes of new ones that I have particularly enjoyed:
- A really old (2015?) interview with Philip Laureano about compilers on .netrocks which demonstrates the strength in an approach that seeks the telos and ontology of knowledge: having a knowledge hierarchy takes more time but clarifies more later
- Coder Radio’s recent episode 471 cogently ties economics together with programming and with a cliff-hanger title to boot: Technical Guardians of the Galaxy. If you aren’t already intrigued, the show notes mention both Musk and Milton Friedman…
- Software Engineering Radio has some great interviews with insights applicable even to non-programmers. The following episodes mention strategies similar to those I use in my own teaching. In order of preference: The interview with Stanford’s John Ousterhout on his book, A Philosophy of Software Design; Tim Post on rubber duck debugging; Karl Wiegers on software engineering lessons.
I appreciate many would say that I should just not make the attempt to ‘listen to’ an industry that is not my own and a) just trail behind the general industry direction (though this is a culturally problematic idea that hearkens back to the problem of the “monarchy and clerisy”), b) let the adminstrators tell me how to think about this, c) not touch what I was not trained in from the beginning. To that I would reply that the domain is itself undergoing immense change, and that, from a cultural standpoint, we are to learn how to co-create with the emerging technologies so long as we have schools. Even if teachers are not industry experts, they should hopefully have years of experience in learning how to learn — which in today’s climate is a life skill.
While it is critical to retain methodological integrity, my particular subject, culture, is itself one that is lacking in methodological consensus. Courses can focus on cultural history, “Theory” and any of its wild children, a variety of “literacies”, criticism, trends, etc. , all with methodological legitimacy while being substantively disparate. Here, too, we see the need for a general outline.
Let’s end by reversing this scenario. What if you were to ask about how to gain insight into culture as a business person who is curious about similarities and differences and wants a general outline?
Here is my spontaneous answer to someone (from America) who asked a similar question:
I will begin with two books that are used in intercultural courses for American students:
She notably takes issue with Hofstede’s model.
- Piller, I. (2017). Intercultural communication: A Critical Introduction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
As an American expat who grew up abroad, I prefer this book:
Both raise the problem of stereotypes. But to that discussion, the problem of projected stereotypes also becomes relevant. Literature on this includes Edward Said’s work on Orientalism. Another example is:
- Meyer, E. (2014). The culture map. New York: Public Affairs.
Another counterpoint example – that challenges the stereotype through important nuance – would be how, despite the “othering” of the “barbarian” in ancient Greece, Herodotus depicted honorary barbarians as mirrors for the Greeks, e.g.:
- Todorova, M. (1997). Imagining the Balkans. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Cartledge, P. (2002). The Greeks: A portrait of self and others. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Note that I suggested texts that have a record for being contextually-understandable but then expanded on that with an indication of general areas where a comprehensive approach may be limited. I also expect to reach similar limitations to my general understanding of the foreign field of the cybernetic frontier. The general can only go so far.