#EL30 Week 8: The invisible

This week is about experience, and the synopsis argues for ‘practice’ rather than ‘indirect methods’. Critics might object that the ‘indirectness’ is nobler than jumping at stuff that is immediately palpable, the abstract is more ‘noble’ than the concrete, theory more than practice, and ‘Bildung’ (Humboldt’s ideal) more than ‘Ausbildung’ (training), because these detours foster the capability known as transfer of learning from one problem to another one that may arise in an unknown future.

Rather than dismissing these criticisms altogether, I was musing as follows. What is so valuable in the indirect and abstract? It can’t be just that it seems more difficult? Why is it more difficult? Often the indirect and abstract is powerful but difficult to understand because it involves something invisible.

In IT, for example, the power of indirection is obvious: instead of writing a program for directly adding 2 + 3, I write a program for the variables x + y and then fill in whatever values I want. However, my values become invisible. Difficult in a similar way, is also the concept of the Clipboard on a desktop computer, or the cookies, or ‘modes’ such as Overtype or Insert. In programming, it is particularly difficult to imagine all the abstract data structures hidden somewhere down there. One needs some imagination to cope with the invisible.

The clipboard icon as it appears on the button for 'paste', and next to it the icons for 'cut' (scissors) and 'copy' (two sheets).

It becomes much easier if some part of the program is already running with real data (e.g. in a Jupyter notebook), or when we seem to manipulate palpable objects, when have come to grips with them. It resonated very much with me when Stephen, after taming the badge API, wrote “now we have the mechanism and the vocabulary”. Similarly, it is easier to watch pictures about a culture that is geographically or temporally very distant, than to imagine it via historical or travel reports.

Is it too easy for developing our imaginative skills? The trick is when “the creation of the content becomes a part of the content itself” (from the synopsis).

Because, before the creation, things were invisible, too, and had to be imagined.

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