Going Nowhere on the Information Superhighway

More than 50% of people die within 30 miles of where they were born. Even though America has a well-maintained highway system that spans the continent, most people don’t randomly pack up from their home town and go on a road trip to the opposite side of the country. And so it is with the virtual world. Before the Internet, information was highly segregated geographically. The farther you were from a source of information, the longer it took to reach you, and the more you had to go out of your way to consume it. This was the result of both the technology and the media networks that existed.

The Internet was supposed to revolutionize the way information moved. The so-called information super-highway would advance digital transit in the same way the Interstate Highway System did in the 1950’s. But just like the real highway system, the Internet hasn’t caused a mass exodus of ordinary bitizens. In this analogy, the reason is painfully obvious. It takes a huge amount of effort to leave your Internet communities and travel to another place where the dialect or even language is different. And to what gain?

These barriers to information cross-pollination result in an Internet that experiences de facto segregation along cultural boundaries. This division is no less real than the geographic segregation experienced by human populations in the real world. A TED talk by Ethan Zuckerman explores the vast sections of Twitter you may not even be aware existed; huge parts of Twitter are occupied by Brazilians and by African Americans, but if you are a caucasian American, you’ve probably never interacted with that side of Twitter. Even in the information age, we still consume the media closest to us. Yet this is even more dangerous, because the ease of information transfer lulls us into thinking that we are getting a cosmopolitan viewpoint, when in fact we are stuck in the middle of an echo chamber.

This is why it is so hard for people to branch out and become informed about subjects they don’t believe they are interested in. Be it international politics, scientific advances, or social justice debates, people often sit back and consume their news from whatever source is most familiar and convenient. The result is that I am woefully uninformed about the geopolitical situation in Africa, and the general public is woefully uninformed about anything related to space exploration. Then again, you don’t see me going out and reading up on African conflicts, so I don’t blame anyone for having a spotty knowledge base.

Using Games to Educate

In the last few years we’ve seen the Internet playing a larger and larger role in education. Everyone seems to expect a revolution in education within 20 years. It’s possible, although I don’t think it will come from the direction that everyone thinks it will (see my post on online education). I want to give my two cents about an ancillary approach: videogames. Games don’t have to teach the students anything. In fact, I think they are much more useful as vehicles for the education. Games provide a background, a context, for new knowledge. For example, playing Deus Ex: Human Revolution (play chapters of a game as homework instead of reading chapters of a book?) could help spark discussion about the current situation of computers, implants, artificial intelligence, politics, etc. The experiences within the game outside of the lesson help students stay interested and apply the knowledge, even if subconsciously, beyond the classroom.

I’m going to focus on two games: Kerbal Space Program and Minecraft. Prmrytchr has a whole blog on using Minecraft (as well as other games) in the classroom, so I’m going to focus on the technical aspects.

the KSP splash

Kerbal Space Program (KSP) is an indie game currently under development with an open alpha available for purchase. In the game, you run the space agency of a particularly derpy alien race in their Sol-like system. In sandbox mode, you can throw together rockets, probes, rovers, space stations, planes, and planetary bases from a wide assortment of parts. Then you launch your constructions and control them to the best of your abilities.

KSP Screenshot KSP Screenshot 2

While hard to grasp at first, the game is incredibly fun. You do need a rudimentary understanding of kinematics to play well. This is the first step in its ability to act as an educational tool. While you can strap an engine onto a fuel tank and try to fly it, you quickly realize that doing anything impressive — such as putting an object in orbit — requires a bit of education. While you could watch tutorials, you could also get a lesson about basic kinematics and orbital mechanics from a present teacher. There’s an opportunity for lessons on engineering, as well.

As students become more proficient, more complex opportunities open up to them. Orbital rendezvous and gravitational slingshots get more involved physically. Spacecraft design, between mass conservation, fuel-mass ratio, reaction thruster placement, and properties of engines, is a great opportunity for springboarding into other physics. Other elements of spacecraft design that aren’t simulated in KSP, such as heat management, enter the realm of thermodynamics. Ancillary topics that arise when discussing space exploration can involve relativity and electromagnetic waves.

minecraft splashMinecraft, on the other hand, is about as physically unrealistic as you can get. However, it provides an awesome way to teach logic and economics. Even vanilla Minecraft has a growing arsenal of parts which allow rudimentary (or not so rudimentary) automation. Redstone is a powerful tool for doing any sort of logical manipulation — or teaching it. Watching your toolbox of gates and mechanisms grow out of a few basic ground rules is amazing. Creative minds are pushed to imagining new ways of using redstone, pistons, minecarts, and all the other machines being added in. While I’m not a fan, mods like Technic or Tekkit expand the array of basic parts at your disposal.

Multiplayer in Minecraft is an interesting case study of economic theory. Because the system varies so much from the real world, it provides an outside perspective on traditional economic theory. As you teach the basics of microeconomics, you can analyze why Minecraft’s multiplayer economy and identify how to restrict it. The ultimate goal of the class could be to establish a working economic system on a Minecraft server (perhaps through plugins/mods?).

Redstone Schematic Redstone Screenshot

Whether or not any of these are good ideas, it illuminates how games don’t have to be the primary vehicle of learning to be a useful educational tool. Games can merely be a springboard, a point of reference from which lessons emerge. The game keeps the students interested and grounded in the topic, while providing a useful outlet and vector of fortification for the knowledge they are getting in class.

A Forum for Original Thought

Nowadays, people hunger for original analyses and theses. Their pangs are reflected in the popularity of video series like The Idea Channel, Extra Credits, The Big Picture, and TED talks. Essentially, these are just spoken essays and presentations. They don’t really utilize the video medium, other than by coupling speech with a slideshow of images and (occasionally) video clips. Yet more and more these videos are supplementing written forms like blogs and columns. The intersection of unquenchable desire for consumable media (i.e. videos) and a veritable drought of mental stimulation makes spoken essays a desirable form of idea transmission.

Perhaps the number of quick-fact “educational” videos (e.g. Minute Physics, Smarter Every Day, CGPgrey, Vsauce, numberphile) stimulated the Internet’s interest in science. Indeed, there seems to be a vibe coursing through the tubes that “science is cool”, even if the way science is taught in schools isn’t. The realization that the scientific realm, learning, and, more generally, intelligent thought can be interesting has made people desire an influx of original analysis. It stimulates the brain, giving way to more thought in a way that other media has (mostly) failed to do.

In a world with an endless volume of consumable content, our brains may have become starved. Long periods of rumination can be painful and boring, so we flood it with cheap, throwaway media. Yet these times of inward reflection may serve an important purpose. Unfortunately, our over-stimulation by Internet videos, TV, movies, video games, and music has left us unable to focus on content-delivery platforms like text. We thirst for mental stimulation, yet cannot bear to gain it by taking a step backwards. This conundrum gave rise to the popularity of “spoken essays”. They inject creative, original thought quickly and painlessly. As we mull over this gem, we can further explore the subject in the video comments. Such discussion is evidenced by the considerable quality of comments on the aforementioned videos. Trolls, raging arguments over politics and religion, and insults have given way to (somewhat) thoughtful debates about the video’s analysis. Occasionally the next video in the series might make mention of some interesting points or surprising overall consensus concerning the previous video.

But is the classroom going extinct as a forum for intelligent discussion? Does it have a place in the furious online world? Perhaps. Although quick-fact videos give information, they very rarely delve into the depths of the subject and explain it in a way that lets the viewer solve entirely new problems on their own. They give the information top-soil, but hold back any sort of theoretical bedrock. A viewer might come out feeling smarter, but she will not have gained any tools in her arsenal of critical analysis and problem solving. This is partially due to the medium. Spending a longer amount of time to explore the subject drives off the initial appeal of the videos: quick learning.

However, some video series manage to seriously teach a subject while staying interesting. Crash Course has series on biology, literature, ecology, US history, and world history, served up by the eponymous vlogbrothers. They don’t necessarily go into the same depth that a yearlong course would, but that’s not really a problem here (it’s called “Crash Course” for a reason). The fact that dozens of videos are being spent exploring one subject is a start. Another faux-classroom video venue is Udacity. Udacity is a different beast; it is much more of an exploration into online courses than Crash Course. The physical classroom is woefully unfit to teach computer science. Udacity takes a stab at creating a classroom environment that takes advantage of its medium to deliver a more fitting CS education to a much greater volume of people, while still keeping a basic academic form.

Ultimately, I see a rise in the popularity of systems like Udacity, as well as series like Extra Credits and The Idea Channel. If educators want to truly grab the interest of new generations, they need to examine that which is already capturing attention. Rather than lamenting the advent of consumable, throwaway media, embrace it. There is a place for education in online videos and video games.

Why Richard Stallman is Wrong

I listened to an interview with Richard Stallman, and I truly believe he is wrong regarding the ethics of proprietary software and especially the fundamental beliefs behind computer and Internet usage.

Fundamentally, he assumes incorrect things. He says that people should be able to use computers for free. That doesn’t mean that having people pay to improve the experience is evil. I can decide to gnaw through a tree on my property for free, but I can obviously pay to have it cut down. Similarly, a user should be able to do anything they want for free, but should also be able to pay to either improve the experience, do it faster, or change the feel. The point at which you start getting involved with morality is when the development of proprietary software begins to interfere with the development of open-source software. However, I think that if proprietary software was somehow banned, the rate of development of open-source software would not increase by very much.

Stallman is fine with software developed for a single client, where the developer is paid for the development of free software, rather than the software itself. However, that is fundamentally the same as distributing proprietary software. The cost of the proprietary software represents the effort that went into making it, as well as upkeep for the company including other worker salaries and continued research and development. I do agree that such costs can get out of hand and that a ridiculous amount of money can end up going to those higher up on the corporate ladder. However, that is a necessary evil to keep high quality proprietary software pumping out at a rate faster that free software can be developed.

Although he demands that the functionality of ebooks mirror that of books, he doesn’t seem to make the same connection regarding proprietary software and its real world parallel: non-free services. Although you should be able to live in a house and use public transportation for minimal costs, you almost always buy furniture and hire services to make your life more comfortable. Similarly, proprietary software allows users to improve the aspects of their experience that they want to.

As I said before, Stallman discusses ebooks, and how you should be able to do the same with an ebook as you can with a regular book. However, as a completely different medium, you can’t just demand something like that. Suppose I demand that JPEGs be viewable in the same resolution as the paintings at a museum, for free. That doesn’t even make sense. Being a completely different medium, we need to approach ebooks in a completely different fashion. It would be nice to be able to easily share ebooks or sell them used. However, for an ebook to exist in an economic and material singularity similar to that of a paper book, proprietary software is absolutely necessary. Using Stallman’s logic, I can say that if you want a book to be freely available, write it yourself!

In some ways, open source philosophy (or at least Stallman’s) is like Communism. Everybody pools their resources and in return everybody gets the same, free software. However, as we see with many actual implementations of Communism, somebody who contributes resources may not need all the products. If I spend time coding, I want a video editor, not a database manipulator. The obvious solution is to have both developed and then have those who want the video editor to give their share of resources to that developer, and those who wanted the database software to the other.

Hog Derby: Duels

Back when I was part of the Halo: Custom Edition mapping community, I offered my help to a team called Hog Derby Productions. The team had produced a series of poorly made videos (called Hog Derby) which consisted of the infamous “hog duels”, in which two or more players are driving a warthog but lack a gunner. They run into each other and try to flip the opponent, thus allowing them to be crushed. I ended up befriending the guy behind the series (dariusofwest) but, although I offered my services, never did any work on the actual production. I had joined in at a slow time, when everything was coming apart at the seams after only a few episodes of the reboot, Hog Derby: Duels (which actually had story). After a while, I left the CE community. I kept in contact with the producer, though, who also composed all the music for the show.

Nonetheless, after many false starts involving terrible cameramen, voice actors, and production schedules, the series came back together after dariusofwest joined Machinima. Having just recently released Episode 4 after almost 2 years, HDP has more episodes in (speedy) production. The series has gone from terrible filming, story, and voice acting to an OK show with lots of potential. As I watched darius struggle through the months and the different changes that occured, I have to say that the show would not have survived if it wasn’t for his endless dedication. I must also say that the experience of seeing all the behind-the-scenes mechanics was extremely interesting, as was being able to hear and critique all of darius’s music before it went into the show.

Now it seems that I will soon be working as an editor of one of the episodes (actually a short, rather than a full fledged installment). After 2 years, I’m definitely ready. I’ve always liked video production, from script writing to filming to editing. I haven’t worked on a project in months, and I’m eager to get in the production loop again. To support Hog Derby: Duels, please check out the latest episode (or all of them) and give it a thumbs up!

Episode 4: Part 1

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