Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Stick shift is to automatic as...

The Boston Globe reports today on a new, simple-to-use programming language developed in the MIT Media Lab, called Scratch.

The goal: turn a daunting subject usually taught in college and considered the domain of geeks into an integral part of education for the grade-school set. MIT researchers hope the program will promote a broader cultural shift, giving a generation already comfortable using computers to consume content online a set of new, easy-to-use tools to change the online landscape itself.

The lab has also created a social networking site to provide Scratch users of all ages a community in which they can critique each others' projects. (snip)

Scratch -- a free download at scratch.mit.edu -- is easy enough for kindergarten-age children to use some of the functions (snip)

In place of programming jargon, Scratch offers users jigsaw-shaped programming pieces, which people can click and drag in order to create sequences of code that do things like make a character move or change costume or trigger a series of events -- like have a cop car chase a gangster
I definitely plan to explore Scratch. But this automated form of programming reminds me of the evolution of the Internet with the development of GUI (graphical user interface), and the changes in searching Lexis and Westlaw as they developed menus to overlay the former command language, the changes in word processing as we moved from the command-driven world of ASCII to WYSIG (What You See is What You Get).

Jim's comments about the casual assumption of youthful "digital natives" that "old folks" like us can't deal with computers here, springs to mind. I have had young students in my advanced legal research class comment with unconscious superiority that it's so cool somebody as old as I am can be so comfortable with technology. It is quite true that I would know far less had I not become a librarian. But it's kind of interesting to see that attitude from people to whom "natural language" searching seems like artificial intelligence, and to whom the search engines are mysterious black boxes.

I am not a programmer, but at least I was there through the development of technology from serious geek stage to current smooth surface with menus and GUI that relieve the user of having to know what happens inside. It's the same technological curve that automobiles went through from stick shift to automatic, or typewrites to word processing on PCs. Our hard-won, techy knowledge is partly obsolete, but I think it increases our understanding of what's going on "under the hood."

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