Musings around Tools as Distributed Knowledge

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I'm reading the forward to the very academic book The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning, edited by Katie Salen as part of The John D. and Catherine T. Macarthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning. I've nothing to report on the book itself yet, but a synopsis from the Introduction brought two ideas together and set me thinking.

(Continued beyond the jump)
The first idea is of tools as distributed and embodied knowledge.  (This isn't in the book - I am recalling it from conversations several years ago.)  To grossly paraphrase this concept, there is the idea that our tools are embodiments of knowledge, understanding, and potential to influence the world around us.  They store up and hold solutions to problems, the long work of figuring out how to do something.  I don't have to figure out how to raise myself expeditiously from the ground to the 20th floor of my office building, nor to even expend the calories myself to climb that distance.  Someone has figured out how to create an elevator to do that work, and has stored that knowledge and capacity in the elevator. I don't even have to know how to do it myself (by knowing how the elevator works), the knowledge doesn't have to reside within me, I have that knowledge distributed among my tools.

There's a corollary to that which is the bane of every enthusiast of a new technology, be it video games, automobiles, computers, books, writing itself: that by offloading this work into tools, we lose the capacity to do that work as individuals.  By having writing, I never develop my capacity to remember as much information as my illiterate predecessors had to.  The response from progressives is that when those tools are readily available, the older capacities are no longer valuable and they don't distinguish an individual.  Being able to memorize and recite an epic poem is no longer likely to make me succeed in the modern world except as a curiosity, but fluid or efficient writing, that will get me somewhere.  

Part of how technology changes the world, then, is through a sort of inflation in the economy of capacity.  Once, being able to make paper was a very valuable skill.  Once we have excellent paper mills, then being able to make paper is nothing special, and if you want to get ahead you'd better be good at doing something with the paper.

The second idea, raised in the introduction to the book, is that technology's 'capacity inflation' has specifically brought us to a world where what is required to get ahead is not skill in remembering information, but in finding and using it.  We are hitting a point where production of goods (and hence stored knowledge of how to address many physical needs) is generally easy enough that in societies with access to that technology, competition and success now depends on skill at drawing upon and using that knowledge efficiently.  Many people in educational reform call this "21st century skills."

Refusing to Distribute Knowledge

The idea of knowledge distributed among our tools, and of tools as embodiments of a set of knowledge, exposes on a challenge at the heart of designing games with education in mind.  

There's a variant on 'give a man a fish' in education-- tell a student about something and they will be able to describe the facts of it; have a student do something, and they'll understand how it works and how to do it themselves.  This is part of the appeal for game-based learning - that games can offer a player a chance to do, over and over with the help of the computer's store of knowledge on making that thing happen, so that the player comes to understand how it works.

However, if we think about the software, and the game itself, as a tool, as stored knowledge, then a pitfall arises.  When we make a game about something, we make an abstraction of that thing and how it works.  Digital games offload some of the knowledge to the computer's processing power so that the abstraction can be more sensible to the player.  A player of SimCity learns about tax bases and zoning because the computer takes all the nitty gritty of the calculations and lets the player look at just the high-level interactions between zones and constituents.  Because of that offloading, though, we have to be careful about what the player must grapple with to succeed in the game and what the game itself stores (and therefore does not ask of the player).  SimCity is a good tool for teaching some aspects of urban planning such as zoning, geography, and tax bases; and a bad tool for other aspects, such as motivations for population migration, cultural influences, or how to estimate revenue sources.  That information is stored within the tool itself, and is not asked of the player.

I call that a 'pitfall', but I don't want to overstate the risk as it's not a flaw in the medium or the concept of using games for learning.  It's a design constraint.  In Gamestar Mechanic, where we are teaching game design through the game, the software does not have the ability to judge whether the changes a player makes to a game they are designing has made their game more fun.  It can tell how many game elements a player has put in their game, and can draw some very tentative conclusions about whether the game is the right sort of game based on the gameplay those elements foster.  But it can't judge or quantify the fun.  We have to rely on someone else, a person who plays the player's game, to make that conclusion.

Honestly, we would program that judgment in if we could, because it would let us distribute that knowledge, which many people lack and want a teacher for.  But thinking about it this way, from the perspective of what information is stored within the game-as-tool-for-learning, I think it's good that we can't code a 'fun assessment' in.  We have provided a tool that embodies the nitty-gritty of assembling a game but does not store knowledge of how to make a game fun or to design it well.  Because we stop there, a Gamestar Mechanic player has to develop their skill at designing well, at making elements of a system work in harmony to produce fun.    We don't give them the fish, we give them the rod, line, hook, and even let them watch as we catch a few fish; but we still step back and ask them to return with a fish of their own.

The Matrix or Star Trek?

Since I love science fiction with its "what if" extrapolation, uniting those ideas set me off on a little fantasy of a world with those two ideas taken to a logical conclusion.  What would a world look like where the ONLY differentiator between people was their skill at drawing upon the appropriate information and technology to get things done, because all of the rest --the storage of the data, and many of the means of making physical things happen-- was fully stored in our tools?  I picture a society something like a beehive, with each person able to do pretty much what the others do but with an information architecture, a task management system including needs analysis and work assignment, shared between people.  

I wake up in the morning and the primary work of my day is figuring out what work needs doing.  My tools are so good at making at work happen.  I can pull out my cell phone and get food redirected to me based on my need for that.  What is the best food to redirect?  Right now that's 'work', but we've already developed Yelp! as a tool to help store knowledge on getting that done.  So the work is really in deciding when and how the work of getting food needs doing, but not doing it.

Tools for getting 'work' done with my 'coworkers' are even advanced to the point where there's some interchangeability between people.  On our Agile software development team, we're encouraged to think of tasks as shared by the team, and then to assign out the right person at the right time.  That's generally going to be the programmer for the programming tasks because of her skill in programming, but as tools get better, she or I might prototype a feature - the work is in accessing and using the information on what feature to develop, not in developing it.

Eventually, we're a beehive -- many things to do, many of us capable of doing many of those tasks, and the strength of the group lies in getting people to the place to do the work, but not in who knows how to do it.  Identity isn't in what I can do or produce, but in how well I knew that something needed doing, and was able to gather the resources for it.  Society respects the people who came up with the cool idea and got together the people who could figure out how to make it happen ... but not the producers themselves, the makers of the goods.

Play this out: people are paid based on contributions to a central (but distributed) task list.  People who contribute needs (work requests) that are marked as popular are compensated very well for their analysis of the information available to all.  People are paid very little for contributing agreement or disagreement votes -- that's so cheap, and is such a necessary datum for the system, that upvoting and downvoting is viewed as a requirement for citizenship.  People are compensated for producing things (satisfying work requests), but far less than they are for identifying the need, since once a need has been found and verified by popularity, it is done at such scale that meeting the need is an extremely common action.  Meeting a need is also fairly easy, since it's about assigning the work to the right tools (machines or machine-manipulators) for the job.  Excellence in meeting a need is about finding the way to do the work with the fewest resources, a sort of game which corresponds to compensation within the system.

A lot of physical things are completely discretionary in this world, including travel, physically meeting, and gathering nutrition.  Those things still happen, but can happen when and where an individual desires, because the real lucrative work (figuring out what needs to be done and assigning the right tools to do it) can be done from anywhere.  Everyone telecommutes from their vacation spot.

What is compensation, when physical needs are met so readily?  Compensation is access and being heard -- priority in distributing your ideas, having your ideas voted on, greater voting frequency (with the positive feedback loop of more frequent minor compensation events).  Greater prominence for setting the topic of conversation, more rapid access to whatever is trending, since that is the real social currency.

I'm not sure whether that is a post-singularity Utopia where physical deprivation has disappeared and creativity/ideas are All or a Matrix-like Dystopia of sedentary individuals divorced from the physical world, or both.  Or whether it's already describes affluent post-industrial society.

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This page contains a single entry by Scott Price published on March 25, 2012 1:50 AM.

Games of Skill, Games of Chance ... Games of Labor was the previous entry in this blog.

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