Finding Language for Super-Communicating Supercomputers

According to political philosopher Hannah Arendt, human nature implicitly demands political activity. We live out our lives through vita activa–enmeshed in tangled relationships that incessantly carve out both our own identities and the identities of others.

Our lives, therefore, should combine both private, rational thinking with public discourse that seeks to engage current issues.

“Men, not man, live and inhabit the earth,” wrote Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition, her central work dedicated to investigating and arguing for the significance of a life devoted to politics.

By including technology in her theoretical stir Arendt proved that she was well attuned to the revolutionary discoveries occurring in both nanoscience and nanotechnology during the 1950s. Her theories served as an entry point into the healthy skepticism we still have today regarding exponentially advancing technology that fails to be understood by the general public.

She forewarns the day when language can no longer capture an understanding of such technologies for the laymen, ridding them of a lifeline to live vita activa.

Today, 96 percent of working Americans use some type of new technology as part of their daily life, and 62 percent of working Americans use the internet as an integral part of their jobs, according to The United States Department of Commerce.

Still, despite the pervasiveness of computers fueled by nanotechnology, 28 percent of Americans do not use the internet at all and one-third of households lack any broadband service, according to the Department of Commerce’s Digital Literacy fact sheet. It reports notable disparities in digital literacy from minorities and low income homes.

While an attempt to mend this literacy gap has been ushered by the flurry of free, online tutorials and career-promising coding courses, 32 percent of family households still believe that it is not needed or maintain it’s too expensive to have internet service in their home.

This leaves one-third of individuals who will inevitably be affected by a dynamic internet world without the necessary tools to comprehend it–let alone participate in it. How, then, can those without a computer science education, let alone a computer, possess the vernacular to absorb the true ramifications of our advancing technological world?

Alan Alda, founder of The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, poses these questions in regards to the political sphere, saying in a New York Times interview, “If they [scientists] can’t make clear what their work involves, the public will resist advances. They won’t fund science. How are scientists going to get money from policy makers, if our leaders and legislators can’t understand what they do?”

Alda’s center takes a unique, improvisational approach that encourages scientists to find creative language to better translate scientific phenomena. One challenge, called “The Flame Challenge”, asks scientists to articulate what fire is in terms that an 11-year-old could understand.

“It’s something from my childhood. When I was about 11, I got obsessed with what was happening in a flame…So I asked a teacher,” recounts Alda while explaining the inspiration behind this challenge. “‘It’s oxidation!’ she said. No elaboration. It shut me down.”

The point was to draw out the new words that were both easy to understand and accurate. This simple type of technical communication is testing itself across the education system as more schools make computer literacy a priority.

“It’s time Americans begin treating computer code the way we do the alphabet or arithmetic,” Douglas Rushkoff is quoted saying, author of Program or Be Programmed and evangelist for Codeacademy.

Rushoff is one of many inspirations that drove Bill Mitchell, director of education at British Computer Society, to form a new curriculum that requires kids as young as five to begin learning algorithms and computational thinking.

Mitchell lists New Zealand professor Tim Bell’s Computer Science Unplugged as another inspirational project that helps teachers computing with fun words and games, such as: “cards, string, crayons and lots of running around.”

“You can learn really important things about computing without going near a computer. The transferable skills are mostly about those things. And this is transformative: it could have a massive impact on society in general,” Mitchell explains in the article. “When generation after generation of children have these computational thinking skills, it will change how they view the world around them, and what they can do to change that world so it works for them.”

He explains that one of the greatest challenges however, is finding teachers that are confident and enthusiastic enough about teaching the technical subject.

Unfortunately, the generation of teachers and laborers that exist today likely observed the onset of revolutionary supercomputers and high-speed internet, but did not have the privilege to attend schools that could update their lesson plans to incorporate such advancements.

While children are being raised with greater fundamental understandings of computer science to make more informed decisions for the future, what about the scientifically illiterate that are making the decisions of today?

Reps. Bill Foster (D., Ill.) and Jerry McNerney (D., Calif.) are the only two remaining members of 535 seats in the 114th Congress that hold a doctoral degree in the natural or hard sciences, according to the Wall Street Journal’s report from the Congressional Research Service.

This gap of vital knowledge has been to blame for many ill-informed actions taken by Congress in areas of technology and especially climate change. According to the Wall Street Journal report, it could be the reason why funding was eliminated for The Office of Technology Assessment in 1995–-a federal agency that provided analysis of scientific issues to Congress.

Whether it’s through improvisational games that push scientists to develop more intelligible language, or through instituting better education of such language to the layperson, more work needs to be done in order to restore vital funding towards science and to preserve a well-informed democracy.

Otherwise, both science and the general public will fail to vita activa.

Featured photo courtesy of Dennis van Zuijlekom.