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Intellectual technology for the new generation

Ubiquity, Volume 2001 Issue May, May 1 - May 31, 2001 | BY John Gage 

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Intellectual Technology for the New Generation


NetDay creator John Gage on the technological tools and foundational metaphors that will shape our future.

John Gage is the Chief Researcher and Director of the Science Office for Sun Microsystems, Inc. He is responsible for Sun's relationships with world scientific and technical organizations, for international public policy and governmental relations in the areas of scientific and technical policy, and for alliances with the world's leading research institutions. Gage attended the University of California, Berkeley, the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and the Harvard Graduate School of Business. He did doctoral work in mathematics and economics at the University of California, Berkeley. In 1995, Gage created NetDay, a volunteer project to bring the resources of world high-technology companies to all schools and libraries to connect them to the Internet. Gage is a frequent host on Sun's "Digital Journey," an ongoing series of Web-based multimedia programs. He has also served on a variety of advisory panels in the United States and abroad.



UBIQUITY: Let¹s start by talking about NetDay, which you created and which has been a big success.

GAGE: Yes, we just celebrated its fifth anniversary. The first NetDay was on March 9, 1996. To me, it stands out as a day that demonstrated the power of -- you could say of the Web -- but I prefer to think of it as the power of distributed self-organization. The Web is a tool that people use to do something human. They wanted to organize themselves around their schools and the Web provided a free organizing tool and people just took to it. There's no need to explain. People found their schools' Web pages, found other people who had volunteered and were inspired by them and volunteered themselves. So, it was a self-organizing tool.

UBIQUITY: Do you think that the job is substantially done? Is infrastructure still the problem that it used to be?

GAGE: There were two goals of NetDay. One was to organize people, or allow them to organize themselves, around their schools and to provide technical aid and financial support. The second goal was to do something that contributed to putting the school on the Internet and finding the easiest one-day project to do that. You couldn't do something that would take three weekends in a month. No one would do it. It had to be a one-day project that everyone could agree on and then all the barriers against participation would drop away. So, cost? Well, $400 for wire. Not much. Time? One Saturday that you'd otherwise spend taking your kid to a soccer game. So it fit all those criteria.

UBIQUITY: What did you learn in the process of organizing NetDay?

GAGE: In the process of making the initial event happen, some systemic facts arose and suddenly were made visible. First, most of the school authorities didn't know about all the other schools in their area. They might know the public schools but not the private ones, or the other way around. None of them knew about the Chinese language schools, Hebrew language schools, Korean language schools, church schools and all those other schools that are a big part of it. By calling any place where 10 kids and teachers came together a school and then attempting to measure whether or not that place had access to the Internet some startling facts emerged. Namely, most places didn't have access and had no plans to do it. There was no systemic way to provide this resource that would be of immense importance in their lives, and in the lives of the economies of their countries. By simply making this set of facts visible, it allowed people to organize in very different ways in different places according to local conditions, and to organize to do something effective to change that.

UBIQUITY: What percentage of schools today have Internet access?

GAGE: In the United States probably 98 percent do if we qualify one telephone line with a PC and a modem as Internet access. But to have effective use of the world digital library other measures spring to mind -- measures of effectiveness, or bytes per second per student, as an example. It's no use having a T1 line with 150,000 bytes a second if you have 150 students all trying to share it at the same time, getting 1,000 bytes per student. The goal is to try to provide effective and diverse access to everybody, including parents, because in many areas one of the problems that parent-teacher groups try to address is the problem of communication between teachers and parents about students.

UBIQUITY: What do you say to critics who suggest that placing computers in schools is a diversion -- that it's not what schools really ought to be doing?

GAGE: They confuse the tool with the goal. The goal is to allow students to learn to think, to judge, to read, to write and to evaluate. The Internet is a giant library that only furthers that end. They're confusing the messenger with the message.

UBIQUITY: On the topic of it's being a giant library, there are, even as we speak, a lot of disputes about filtering of that library.

GAGE: That's a much deeper question because the role of the teacher historically is the role of one who conveys knowledge and also one who guides students in learning to acquire knowledge by themselves. After all, the students all leave school eventually. One primary point of school is to allow children to learn to think for themselves -- to judge what is good and what is not good. Many people have different standards for that. Applying those standards to restrict access deprives some people from reaching some knowledge. Only those that are quite certain they are in possession of a true way should attempt to impose upon others.

UBIQUITY: So, your position is that software filtering should not be done in public libraries or public schools?

GAGE: A teacher has a role in guiding the student to those things a student needs at the time a student needs them in order to grow. So, if there is a software filter that aids a teacher in doing that, I don't have any problem with it. As long as the overall access outside school is open, then in school there certainly has to be some direction. The point of a classroom is to have the teachers guide students productively to learn what they need to. I'm trying to avoid the problem where every school district has its own idea of whether they ought to teach evolution or not. That's a different playing field. What we're trying to with the access to the library is to allow the guides to choose which isles of the library are most productive for their students.

UBIQUITY: You developed a course at Kennedy School on technology, media and government. What is the essence of the problem in the relationship between technology, media and government? What needs to be solved in working out some sensible way of thinking about those three things together?

GAGE: I think several different things are happening at the same time and they confuse each other. The deepest thing that's happening is that the forms of intellectual technology we use are shifting. Over the last 60,000 or 70,000 years of human life, we've watched overlapping technologies arise. Oral technology: I speak, you listen. The tribal poems of Somalia are an example. The leader composes in a poetic form a powerful statement of what the world is and everyone shares that common vision. It's an oral tradition. People in those cultures have far better memory use for things said than you or I have. Well, when writing appeared 6,000 years ago or so suddenly they had a memory aid and it changed our humanity in a sense that there were permanent records. There was a way for science. You had repeated experimentation. As that technology turned into libraries and books and sanctity of a mark made on paper or stone to indicate ownership and so on, all human institutions changed. You can see waves of this when the ability to mass-produce printed documents occurred with Gutenberg. Life changed again. We had the ability to make voice travel a distance. It again changed, certainly for business. Then you had a new problem. If I'm speaking to you, where's the signature that you would use to authenticate that it's really me if I were to make an analog from the old intellectual technology to the new to allow the societal forms to continue to work? So, each time we add something new it doesn't destroy the old. It just shifts how much it's used and shifts the patterns of thought. Now we're in a domain where symbols have power. Written symbols become machines. Take programming languages as an example. This is something new. The old intellectual patterns don't fit this new world in which symbols are machines. You could think of the software in my cell phone as a machine. It's making this conversation function. It's doing something to waveforms. All of the old societal patterns then, the legal intellectual property regimes, based on a certain technology and a certain level of cost to that technology become increasingly meaningless with the new forms of intellectual technology. We're trapped in this. One of the telltale signs is the language about it is so ugly. The personal digital assistant. What the hell is that?

UBIQUITY: An ugly phrase indeed.

GAGE: I think the most important thing happening that is fundamental for the kids is that they now have tools of a new kind of intellectual technology that was just not available, even to their elders. I'm talking about the 15 year olds or the 20 year olds, those senior citizens, that did not have the capability to take music from anywhere, combine it with other music, generate imagery, put it an evocative environment. This is something completely new. And now those capabilities have to fit into the older world of rights and property and boundaries and ownership. All these other ideas are based on different technologies and different cost structures. One of the most important artistic steps -- you can even call it an ethical or moral step -- is to immerse children in these new capabilities so they will invent new forms that don't fit any of our existing structures. That invention is the essence of human creativity. That will give the creators the tools.

UBIQUITY: Simple tools? Complex tools?

GAGE: When someone tells me that all that they want is a phone line because they can read text, they miss completely the idea that text in its forms that we've been so accustomed to for a long time just underwent an enormous transformation. Text in its interlinked form, hyperlinks, is a different kind of reading, just as there's a different reading for a scientific text or a different reading for a mathematical text or a different reading for poetry. These are different intellectual skills often exercised by different groups of people. People think that the notion of linking one text to the other is a new idea. This is what the monks did when they annotated text in monasteries. The notion of commentary, exegesis, interwoven, is like musical quotations. A serious musical person listens to music and then says, "Hear this? That's a little joke about Stravinsky," as you think, "What? I didn't hear a thing." Then the person says, "Well, you hear that? That rhythm is a Vivaldi direct. Isn't that funny?" You missed it all. You were not in the conversation. We're building a world so the kids can be in this conversation.

UBIQUITY: You've been trained in mathematics and economics and business. You're giving a course on technology and media. Do you think of yourself as a technologist or an economist or as a mathematician?

GAGE: That's a really tough question. I have a role in the company, which evolved over time. I visualized it like a coffeehouse, although the setting is usually the cafeteria or sometimes an office. It's a conversation among people with very different intellectual interests. Because we're in a company that focuses one portion of what we do on making products, there's an engineering component, a reality to it. It's not just faculty club talk, as valuable as that may be. It has a time and cost component to it about could we do that, when could we do that, how much would it cost to do that? My rule on this is to talk to every different group to understand as best I can what they're doing and to synthesize it. The role I play is one of an explorer, asking questions. As people answer they answer not only my questions but also questions of the other people around the table. Since we began Sun what I've been trying to do is think about the applications of these technologies to the problems people and organizations have and to see where at a given moment those technologies might be useful. If I can think about it a few years ahead, then that helps shape the direction of everybody's efforts to build these things.

UBIQUITY: As you look ahead and see some of the needs of Sun and other organizations, looking at the content of education rather than the delivery, what would you like to see kids and then students and then college students trained in? Is there any kind of core curriculum that appeals to you?

GAGE: There are two books that I've been reading for a while that has shaped some direction here. One of them is George Lakoff's, "The Meaning of Mathematics," and his other work over the last 20 years or so on the metaphorical foundations of language and thought. As you examine languages, everyone has a way to say put this there, the cup is on the table, things like that. If you pull apart words like here, inside, outside, and there, increasingly you're struck by how they relate to your body and how your body, from birth growing up in gravity, just assumes things are certain ways. The brain is highly evolved and very specialized to make sense of the particular spectrum we see and the things we hear and the sensory input from all these different organs we have. Language reflects the structures that are evolved between this organism and the world around it. There's metaphorical understanding based in a bodily experience that lets you understand abstract ideas. It's not in the curriculum. That's one set of ideas I think will have an extremely powerful impact on allowing people to think more clearly about things as we begin to tease apart the underlying metaphors.

UBIQUITY: You said two books have influenced you lately. What is the other one?

GAGE: The second book that had a big impact was Howard Gardner's book "Intelligence Reframed." There are many kinds of intelligence. We all know someone who musically has a capability we simply don't have. There's also kinesthetic intelligence. There's abstract analytic mathematical intelligence and verbal intelligence. One of the new intelligences he adds in his newest book is what he'd call naturalistic or environmental intelligence because he's a bookish guy. He breaks things down into nine different forms of intelligence. We all have some degree of capability in these. It's a multi-dimensional way of imagining how people understand things. Our goal is to use everything we can to elaborate foundational metaphors to understand, to tease apart the complicated ideas that drive us.

UBIQUITY: What¹s the appeal of Lakoff¹s ideas?

GAGE: One of the things that convinced me that this way of thinking that Lakoff is beginning to explore has a lot of power was during the Republican and Democrat battles. Lakoff wrote a book about five or six years ago called, "Moral Politics." He observed that the conservatives and the liberals really didn't think each other were moral. He says they've come to this odd juncture in American politics because they each work from an opposing set of metaphors that do not allow them to understand what the other people are talking about. The conservatives have a completely coherent set of positions. They're against abortion. They're for capital punishment. You don't kill them young, kill them old. They're against gun control. They have a series of positions. They share them. For a conservative, these all make perfect sense. To a liberal, they make no sense at all. They can't understand how you could be for capital punishment and against abortion. Isn't it all killing? The liberals have views that are exactly opposite. They're for abortion. They're for gun control. The two just talk past each other. Lakoff said he began to think that it came from each of them using a foundation metaphor to understand the world that was so different that the two couldn't agree. His theory is that the liberals view government as a family. There's a parent, the president, and it's a supportive family that allows the children to grow to be all they can be. Nurture them, feed them, and give them everything that will allow them to develop whatever capabilities they have. The conservatives see the government as a family but with a strict and demanding father with rules. The most common statement in that kind of family is that there are consequences if you violate the rules. George Bush used the word "consequences" in his debates with Gore about six or eight times, as in "There are consequences."

UBIQUITY: So the choice of metaphors determines the style of thinking?

GAGE: That¹s right. With respect to politics, I've never been able to figure out why each of the various groups sees the other as so incomprehensible, but Lakoff¹s approach helps make the problem clear. In education, the idea is to get a curriculum that allows each combination of talents and intelligences, each combination of metaphors and linguistic power in each child to be expanded in as broad a way as possible.

UBIQUITY: On the notion of multiple intelligences is there, in your view, anything that should be constructed that could be called a core curriculum?

GAGE: I think there is because this metaphorical approach takes each assumption we take for granted -- that there's gravity, that when you release an object it falls, the assumption that when you break something the pieces can all be put back together into the thing it originally it was, the foundation ideas of inside and outside. There's a nice example in the word "on". The cup is on the table. The painting is on the wall. The "on" idea has three metaphors beneath it. One idea is topological. It touches the table. The second idea is that the cup is above the table. And the third idea is an idea the table is holding up the cup; there's a force idea here. Three separate, quite different metaphors embedded in that word "on". The painting is on the wall only has two of those metaphors. The painting is supported by the wall. The painting is touching the wall. The painting is not above the wall. But English uses the same word for the two different ideas. German doesn't. German has a very separate word for "on the table" and "on the wall". So, there's a difference in thought.

The core curriculum would be one that would tease out the ideas inherent in any language in any set of metaphors and use what the kids have built into them to amplify their capability of taking apart abstract ideas. Much of the democratic debate about where does the money go and what should we do with it is based on the metaphor that we can provide a shield against missiles. That's a very powerful metaphor. When you use the word "shield," you bring into the picture a word that has as a metaphor an impermeable, continuous, and hard. If you say a bullet to hit a bullet, it's a very different idea and it loses that organizing power of thought.

The foundation tools or the foundation curriculum is one that enhances thought. I'm sort of convinced these days that losing music and art in the schools is a serious detriment to people's capability to think. I don't know many engineers that, when describing what they're doing, don't draw it. That linkage to the physical world is one of the reasons it's so important for Internet connectivity and high bandwidth connectivity because the capabilities for children to interact with the complexities of the world are rather limited inside a classroom. You can drop chalk on the floor trying to show what Galileo did. But the ability to immerse yourself in molecules, watching atoms form into molecules, all through the computer, this symbol manipulator. That extends your thought.

I think we have a curriculum that's evolving that will aid us in the way that Licklider talked about. It's not only that the machines are symbiotic. It's the combination of the machines enabling a simulation of the natural world to interact with your perceptions and changing the way you perceive these things. That alters the way people think. I think sometimes our brains are identical. My brain is essentially identical to my great grandfather's brain, but I'm wired quite differently these days. Every memory is a different wiring and every language I've learned and every mathematical idea I learned is embedded in wiring somewhere in my brain that's physiologically different from my great grandfather. We are different people and our children are different from us. To give them access to these new capabilities is fundamentally important because they're going to create the new languages and new metaphors that will shape the future.

UBIQUITY: One final question. What do you think your children want to be?

GAGE: I have a son and a daughter. My son is immersed in environmental science and public policy. I think that's because he's heard me say so often from a George Orwell observation that there is as much, if not more, intelligence expended in making the kitchen in a luxury hotel work properly as in running a country. When you're down there in the basement you've got to get the soup on at the right temperature at the right time. It's a madhouse. You have to choose where you apply your intelligence. If you can alter the lives of a billion people, then that will be a place to spend your time. You can choose to affect only your own family if you want. That's fine, too. But if you have the capability, you have a responsibility. My daughter is interested in the same thing, but she's quite a different personality. I am trying to convince her that the excitement at this moment is in the intellectual explosion in the field of biology and informational science. For the last 20 years we've had the metaphor of decoding, so the crypto crowd and the linguistic philosophers and everybody's been decoding. Well, that's now the old frontier. The new frontier lies in this almost mechanical frontier of protein synthesis -- proteomics. This is just beginning to be explored. When the tiny molecule that inches along the DNA strand hits a certain coding signal and starts reaching out into the soup and assembling proteins according to the sequence of instructions on this DNA strand, that little magic molecule that makes all life possible, how does that machine work? It's a machine and it interacts with other machines. Memory is a kinked protein and a synaptic link. How does the growth cone of the axon decide what to connect to? What interactions are there at this level? This territory is the new and unbelievably powerful territory. She's also very interested in theater and the emotional impact with words and this combination of words and people and lighting and sound have and how that works. I'm trying not to actually persuade her much until she has a chance to explore it. For this last year the rule in our family is that when you graduate from high school you do not continue into college. You go for a year to the poor all around the world. So, she was in the Philippines, in Thailand, in India, in Nepal, working in villages with Peace Corps volunteers just to get a sense of context. You're so out of context when you're in the United States.


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