The Elephant in the room.

Like many of you, I watched the CEO of Facebook, Marl Zuckerberg, respond to questions from a series of politicians on Capitol Hill. I was embarrassed for my country on several levels. First, the grandstanding “big words” by the politicians towards Facebook and Zuckerberg was disgusting and laughable. The lack of technological intelligence and understanding displayed by our leaders was shocking and at times, even sad. These are the men and women elected that we are supposed to look up to, to look to for guidance, policy and leadership in politics, business, and economics. Most did not even know what questions to ask.

It is 2018. Technology is no longer this “new thing” that the older generation can’t figure out. It is no longer a trend that is going to “destroy society.” It is no longer something that is going to warp the minds of our youth. It Is no longer OK for us to talk about whether or not to incorporate it into our classrooms. It is as fundamental to our culture and society as electricity, transportation, and water.

What we saw on TV during the last couple days on Capitol Hill was a wakeup call.

Yes, there were some members of Congress who were informed and knowledgeable but most were not. There were times Mark had to water down his answers so the audience behind the microphones could understand his points. He had to explain what his answers meant several times. There was an elephant sitting right there. I am pretty sure Mark saw it, but most people wandered through the discussion with blinders on.

People. Stop. Just Stop it. Right Now! Stop!

Yes, Facebook was guilty of serious ethical and possible legal (?) violations. And while it was not Mark who signed off on the privacy right infringements, ultimately, it is his company and his fault (as he said). And I am glad that there is accountability and action and investigation so that this type of event might not happen again. Yes, FB screwed up. As others have and others will.

That is not my point.

My point is that we, as a country, must understand more about the devices that we have in our hands, on our desks, and in our offices. Technology in all of its various forms, and the Computer Science that drives that technology MUST start to become “common” vocabulary. Most of the people in that room, especially the ones with ‘tough” questions and ultimatums, had no idea what most of the terms meant were that were being used.
How about all of you? How technological “intelligent” are you? Did you understand the business and technological verbiage being used? Are you a user of technology who barely understands it? Do you just use whatever is popular and what icons come up first? When that technology breaks, do you look helplessly around the room hoping something there is someone there who “gets this new technology?” When the sound does not play on your laptop, do you just suffer without audio until a tech savvy friend comes to your rescue? When the projector in your room says “no input”, do you toss your hands up and tell students that you hate technology? When Wi-Fi goes out at your house, do you have to wait a week for Comcast or AT&T to come out to fix it? When you get that new printer, do you have to pay Uncle Joe or Aunt Cindy to install it? Is the only time when you read books when the TV screen is broken? Do you know what Cloud computing really is?

As a people—as a community—as a country— we have to do better. We have to take ownership of our technology. We need to better know what it is, what it is capable of, what is amazing about it and also of course why we should be careful. We need to understand how it works, what we can do with it, how we can maximize its benefit, but also know it’s limitations. We need to be able to modify, upgrade, program, downgrade, enhance, fix, reset, and yes—even turn on and off our technology. We need to be able to talk about our technology with others in the same ways we talk about verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs; in the same way we talk about the cell, an amoeba, and photosynthesis; in the same ways we talk about the Great Wall of China, Civil War, and Great Depression. In the same ways we talk about x = 3, Pythagorean theorem, and area of a circle; in the same ways we talk about deficit and surplus.

Some of you might say, “I don’t understand how my car works, and yet I get around just fine. Why is technology any different?” Yes, but if your car breaks down in the driveway, it just means to have to get a ride to work while Precision Tune fixes your car by lunchtime. Life will go on uneventfully. If our technology fails, or the technology company fails us, or our access to the technology is severed…our business come to a complete standstill. Airplanes don’t fly. Presentations do not happen. Votes are not counted. Transactions are not processed. Products are not made. Vital communication is not sent. Boxes are not delivered. Information is lost. Identities are stolen. It matters.

So where does it start?

In addition to students of today being users of technology, we need them to be creators who build things with technology, who use that technology to create new tools to identify problems that we were not even aware of and solve those problems in ways we could never imagine.

In our schools. Computer Science needs to be a core and integral part of education from the moment students walk into the school house. They are learning to operate and command their technology in the same ways they command a pencil to help them write sentences. They need to be writing as many software programs and apps as they are essays. As often as they are experimenting with test tubes in the chemistry lab and dissecting various critters in the biology lab, they need to be experimenting with robotic sensors and figuring out how to increase the storage capacity of their laptop. In addition to charting the data they collected in their physics lab, they need to figuring how to store and process the billions of bytes of data collected from their project.

We don’t need them to become Computer Scientists, in the same ways we don’t expect them to be become museum curators or poets, but yet we study poetry and history. But we can help them think like Computer Scientists. This wave of Computer Science is not some distant ripple out in the lagoon that may or may not make landfall. It is here. It is all around us. And we need not be afraid of this. We can embrace it. We can surf this wave for decades. But, first we need to understand what Computer Science it, so we can then figure out where and how it fits into education.

In the coming weeks, I have a book coming out called “Defining and Imagining Computer Science K-12” that might just be what we need to take those first steps to be a more intelligent audience, so that Mark Zuckerberg does not have to dumb down his answers so the general public can understand them.

In the meantime, enjoy Mark’s testimony on Capitol Hill.

About Doug Bergman

Head of Computer Science at Porter-Gaud School in Charleston, SC
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