Running Local

This Train of Thought Makes All Stops

A New Priesthood

Posted by Bob Kohm on January 26, 2009

The story of my academic life in middle & high school was my distaste inability to “show all work”. Arriving at a correct answer was never a problem for me, whether it was in algebra or trig, biology or the rudimentary computer science we studied back in the dark ages of the mid-Eighties. Showing all work though– there was nothing more frustrating than getting back a math exam with an 80 on it when every damned answer was correct but I had neglected to adequately translate my thought process in reaching that answer into a discernible, codifiable process. Actually there were a couple of young ladies who were considerably more frustrating, but that’s life as a teen-aged boy.

It’s that inability to show work, though, that intrigues me right now. I employed all of the standard dodges– what does it matter as long as I’m right, who will ever need this crap anyway (a mantra I recalled a couple of years back while trying to lay a triangular pattern of tile in my entryway), blah blah blah. The good Franciscan Brothers were, if you’ll pardon the phrase, hell bent on getting us to show all work.

They were, however, not quite so interested in process and practice in the humanities. Yes, there were papers to do in some of the Social Studies classes and essay questions on some of the Lit tests, but there were a surprising number of multiple choice, fill in the blank, true/false types of questions, too. For some reason the approach and execution of the thinker are less important in those topics, at least to the minds of some. The answer was adequate.

I’ve learned to appreciate, if not always execute, the description of systems over the intervening years. Its inherent value becomes apparent as one progresses through life, as the need to apply flexible process to rigid situations exerts and unveils itself. It is curious, then, that as we proceed further into an age in which we are told that mathematics and science are the raisons d’etre for education that very knowledge of process in falling by the wayside.

As computers run our algorithims and processors compute our runs, one can actually make the case that the display of work is an anachronism.  I play a game at a free site that requires deducing by eye the end results of a gravitational field– the math behind it is mind-boggling to me, but simple enough that whoever created the game gave away the result for free. Perhaps the time has come then when not only do we not need to show work, but we, the general populace, can not.

Why, then, is the Navy still teaching navigation by sextant at Annapolis? It’s an arcane and extraordinarily complex process involving taking sightings on the sun and stars. It is a technology surpassed what, five times over before we even reach GPS… yet it is still relevant. You must have the technical knowledge to navigate your ship if your systems are down, and, int he world of Academy graduates, the basic knowledge of taking a sighting and computing your position off of it underlies so many other integral processes that you need it to formulate the next generations of technology.

Those Middies with their deep knowledge are still a pace behind the diminution of process, however. There’s is a complex but approachingly ancient technology, whereas mathematical knowledge now proceeds into areas that support technologies beyond the understanding of most. Anyone can explain the construction of the internal combustion engine, even if you can’t build one yourself. Explain to me, however, how the computer you are reading this on is engineered and is working, or how the signals generated by the buttons I’m pressing are translating into the blog you’re reading somewhere else in the world right now. Yes, of course we all know the basics– integrated circuits, binary code, etc.– but the workings, the actual workings? Show all work with your answer.

It is very current to talk about societal divides– the digital divide, the economic divide, racial divides, education divides. I think they’re all about to be superseded.  We face a knowledge divide, a mathematical divide that can really only be described in the language of mathematics that itself forms the divide, thus becoming an intractable problem for the majority of the planet. While we all enjoy the fruits of mathematics– your Wii, your car, your bank account or the box you’re reading this on– we can’t describe its workings and have reached a point where it is both too complicated to do so for the majority of the planet… but also not necessary to do so either.

There are those in the world who can still show all work. Are they ascending to a different societal plane, a new priesthood that directly communes with the divine technology? The Maya priests were the leaders of their society because they understood the comings and goings of the sun and concocted a societal construct around that knowledge. Are we not doing the same with our technology?


5 Responses to “A New Priesthood”

  1. lasloo said

    Job security baby!! Job security!!! 🙂 Of course, I took computer science in college rather than computer engineering… because, I really didn’t want to know everything there was to know about circuit boards and such… I just wanted to make the thing go… i.e. software development! I somewhat regret that decision now. But even what I do, software development, is a mystery for most, and thats just an abstract layer on top of the real mysteries of the hardware and the electronics that allows the software to work. Not to mention, in 10 years time or so, you may start seeing the real use of quantum computing… which literally only a few dozen people in the world have a full grasp on.

  2. lasloo said

    btw, you should read some Ray Kurzweil and other futurists concerning “technological singularity”. See this Wikipedia article on the concept:

    As you can see, it definitely touches on what you’re talking about, but the extrapolates a conclusion that can be somewhat shocking.

  3. Tracey P said

    There’s another piece of this which I think is equally interesting. Our education system is increasingly driven toward “getting the right answer” and not “showing your work” (using graphing calcuators, for example). The idea is that we are short on time, and who really needs to factor when you can just use your calculator to get the answer? The problem is that we are educating sheep! As we go forward, we need more people who understand (or can understand) how things work, not less; and further, we need people who can invent things. If we continue to be a society of people who don’t require full understanding of technology, we WILL have an overclass of those who do and worse than that, we WON’T be able to control the technology, it will control us.

  4. Bob Kohm said

    That’s where I’m going with this, Tracey. At what point do the HS excuses become a reality, and where does that intersect with complexity beyond average or even genius-level human comprehension? Then again, I wonder if we really do need to be overly concerned with that– weren’t our parents astounded with what we were learning as opposed to what they were taught from a complexity standpoint? Does that indicate a fungibility of comprehension with no real upper limit or at least one not yet discernible, or does it simply show an exchange of comprehension– you or I may be able to understand the workings of a rocket engine or have the ability to manipulate a complex database but do you know how to make butter or build a house? I sure as hell don’t, but I venture it would’ve been as commonplace a knowledge group to our great or great-great grandparents as programming the DVR is to us.

    I agree with everything you say about educating sheep, but, alternately, if and when we do reach the point that technology exceeds human cognition, what do we do? Stop? You have technical expertise that I don’t, as does Lasloo… in your estimation, where are we on that path today? I know that I have nothing more than the most ethereal understanding of the medium through which I ask that question…

  5. Bob Kohm said

    Quantum computing… admittedly my readings in quantum understanding is restricted to popular science sources, but from them my impression is that even those dozens you mention don’t have a firm grasp on anything but the potential manipulation of the topic– we can make the puppy bark, but god knows why it wanted to. Is that an accurate read?

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