SIGCSE, Keynote #2, Hal Abelson, “The midwife doesn’t get to keep the baby.”

Well, another fantastic keynote and, for the record, that’s not the real title. The title of the talk was From Computational Thinking to Computational Values. For those who don’t know who Hal Abelson is, he’s a Professor of EE/CS at MIT who has made staggering contributions to pedagogy and the teaching of Computer Science over the years. He’s been involved with the first implementations of Logo, changed the way we think about using computer languages, has been a cornerstone of the Free Software Movement (including the Foundation), led the charge of the OpenCourseWare (OCW) at MIT, published many things that other people would have been scared to publish and, basically, has spent a long time trying to make the world a better place.

It went without saying that, today, we were in for some inspiration and, no doubt, some sort of call to arms. We weren’t disappointed. What follows is as accurate a record as I could make, typing furiously. I took a vast quantity of notes over what was a really interesting talk and I’ll try to get the main points down here. Any mistakes are mine and I have tried to represent the talk without editorialising, although I have adjusted some of the phrasing slightly in places, so the words are, pretty much, Professor Abelsons’s.

Professor Abelson started from a basic introduction of Computational Thinking (CT) but quickly moved on to how he thought that we’d not quite captured it properly in modern practice: it’s how we look in this digital world and see it as a source of empowerment for everybody, as a life changing view. Not just CT, but computational values.

What do we mean? We’re not only talking about cool ideas but that these ideas should be empowering and people should be able to exercise great things and have an impact on the world.

He then went on to talk about Google’s Ngram viewer, which allows you to search all of the books that Google has scanned in and find patterns. You can use this to see how certain terms, ideas and names come and go over time. What’s interesting here is that (1) ascent to and descent from fame appears to be getting faster and (2) you can visualise all of this and get an idea of the half-life of fame (which was nearly the title of this post).

Abelson describes this as a generative platformone which can be used for things that were not thought of it when it was built, one we can build upon ourselves and change over time. Generating new things for an unseen future. (Paper reference here was Nature, with a covering article from another magazine entitled “Researchers Aim to chart intellectual trends in Arxiv”)

Then the talk took a turn. Professor Abelson took us back, 8 years ago, when Duke’s “Give everyone an iPod” project had every student (eventually) with a free iPod and encouraged them to record, share and mix-up what they were working with.

Enter the Intellectual Property Lawyer. Do the students have permission to share the lecturer-created creative elements of the lectures?

Professor Abelson’s point is that we are booming more concerned with locking up our content into proprietary Content Management Systems (CMS) and this risks turning the academy into a marketplace for packaged ideas and content, rather than a place of open enquiry and academic freedom. This was the main theme of the talk and we’ve got a lot of ground left to cover here! This talk was for those who loved computational values, rather than property creation.

We visited the early, ham-fisted attempts to grant limited licences for simple activities like recording lectures and the immediately farcical notion that I could take notes of a lecture and be in breach of copyright if I then discussed it with a classmate who didn’t attend. Ngrams shows what happens when you have a system where you can do what you like with the data – what if the person holding that data for you, which you created, starts telling you what to do? Where does this leave our Universities?

Are we producing education or property? Professor Abelson sees this as a battle for the soul of the Universities. We should be generative.

We can take computational actions, actions that we will take to reinforce the sense that we have that people ought to be able to relish the power that they get from our computational thinking and computational ideas. This includes providing open courseware (like MIT’s OCW and Stanford’s AI) and open access to research, especially (but not only) when funded by the public purse.

As a teaser, at this point, Abelson introduced MITx, an online intensive learning system that opens up on MONDAY. No other real details – put it in your calendar to check out on Monday! MIT want their material and their content engines to be open source and generative – that word again! Put it into your own context or framework and do great things!

The companion visions to all of this are this:

  1. Great learning institutions provide universal access to course content. (OpenCourseWare)
  2. Great research institutions provide universal access to their collective intellectual resources.(DSpace)

What are the two reasons that we should all support these open initiatives? Why should we fill in the moat and open the drawbridge?

  1. Without initiatives to maintain them, we risk marginalising our academic values and stressing our university communities.
  2. To keep a seat at the table in decisions about the disposition of knowledge in the information age.

Abelson introduced an interesting report, “Who Owns Academic Work? Battling for Control of Intellectual Property”, which discusses the conflation of property and academic rights.

Basically, scientific literature has become property. We, academia, produce it and then give away our rights to journal publishers, who give us limited rights in exchange on a personal level and then hold onto it forever. Neither our institution nor the public has any right to this material anymore. We looked at some examples of rights. Sign up to certain publishers and, from that point on, you can use only up to 250 words of any of the transferred publications in a new work. The number of publishers is shrinking and the cost of subscription is rising.

Professor Abelson asked how it is that, in this sphere alone, the midwife gets to keep the baby? We all have to publish if we act individually, as promotions and tenure depend upon publication in prominent journals – but that there was hope (and here he referred to the Mathematical boycott of the Elsevier publishing group). HR 3699 (the Research Works Act) could have challenged any federal law that mandated open access on federally funded research. Lobbied for by the journal publishing group, it lost support, firstly from Elsevier, and then from the two members of Congress who proposed it

Even those institutions that have instituted an open access policy are finding it hard – some publishers have made specific amendments to the clause that allows pre-print drafts to be display locally to say “except where someone has an institutionally mandated open access policy”.

BUT. HR3699 has gone away for now. Abelson’s message is that there is hope!

We have allowed a lot of walled gardens to spring up. Places where data is curated and applications made available, but only under the permission of the gardener. Despite our libraries paying up to hundreds of thousands of dollars for access to the on-line journal stores, we are severely limited in what we can do with them. Your library cannot search it, index it, scrape it, or many other things. You can, of course, buy a service that provides some of these possibilities from the publisher. A walled garden is not a generative environment.

Jonathan Zittrain, 2008, listed two important generative technologies: the internet and the PC, because you didn’t need anyone’s permission to link or to run software. In Technology Review, now, Zittrain thinks that the PC is dead because of the number of walled gardens that have sprung up.

In Professor Abelson’s words:

Network Effects
lead to
Monopoly Positions
lead to 
Concentration of Channels
lead to
Decline of Generativity.
 What about tomorrow? Will our students have the same tinkering possibilities that we had? Will any of our old open software still run?  Will mobile computing be tinkerable? Open source allows for small tinkering steps, and reduces our reliance on monolithic, approved, releases.
The talk then concluded with some more of Professor Abelson’s words, which I reproduce here because they are far better than mine.
We have the spark of inspiration about how one should relate to their information environment and the belief that that kind of inspiration, power and generativity should be available to everybody.

These beliefs are powerful and have powerful enemies. Draw on your own inspiration and power to make sure that what inspired us is going to be available to our students.