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Sunday, May 16, 2010

A New Law of Physics: The Conservation of Stupidity

My ten year old is a "Scratch" junkie. Scratch is a graphical programming tool that was developed at M.I.T. for kids. (http://www.scratch.mit.edu/) It's a great toy on its own, but the real beauty of it is that kids can upload their projects and let other kids play the games that they develop. You can see the code, figure out how the other guy did it, and learn by taking apart.

The potential for this kind of learning is incredible. The concept is very simple but it enshrines the informal way that people have always learned through the eons when formal schooling was absent or irrelevant. Even today, when programmers want to solve a problem, they look online for scraps of code, or they look through their own old files to try to remember how they fixed a bug the last time it came up. There are no rules in this kind of learning, only precedents and examples.

Over a million projects written by kids for kids have been posted to the Scratch site. Impressive, no? No. I suggest you go to the site and try playing some of these games, animations and presentations. There are a lot of very clever programs, but boy are there a lot of stupid ones. Now in kid world, stupid is not necessarily bad. Kids love stupid stuff. They love to giggle. Babies are endlessly amused by someone who looks away and then looks back at them. Sometimes that still passes for entertainment with a five year old. If I tried that with my seventeen year old he'd just shake his head.

So read this new law and see if you think it is valid:

Proposed Law of the Conservation of Stupidity: that for every bit of brilliant creativity in the universe there exists a degree of stupidity that is directly proportional to it by a constant K and that the value of K is indeterminate.
On a hot, dry Athenian afternoon in the 5th Century B.C.E., Socrates pulled aside an uneducated slave boy and led him through a simple geometric proof by scratching a diagram in the dust and asking a series of questions. He argued that the boy could not have answered his questions without existing knowledge; that since the boy was uneducated, he must have been born with the knowledge; and that the only way to be born with knowledge is to have an eternal soul that travels from life to death and back to life carrying that knowledge.

Plato recorded the event in the Socratic Dialog known as the Meno, a cultural monument to creativity, simple, elegant, and created with no budget, no technology, no studies or committees, no M.I.T and no Web 2.0. Meanwhile, K*(Meno) amount of stupid stuff was also happening.

In his book, The Dumbest Generation, Mark Bauerlein writes passionately about the billion empty words found on facebook walls, tweets, text messages, teen blogs and YouTube posts that aren't worth the cost of a single electron in the Internet. He is writing in the alarmist school of futurism, where everything is always coming to an end. I write from a classicist's point of view, where everything has already ended, the end of everything wasn't as bad as everyone thought it was going to be, and life seems to have gone in spite of the loss of everything.

Similarly, Jaron Lanier (You Are Not a Gadget) warns of a reduction to "grey goo" of all the activity on the Internet, where anything that was ever original and creative just gets copied, pasted, mashed up, remashed, tweeted and retweeted until everything means nothing.

To Lanier and Bauerlein, I propose what I see as the bright side of The Conservation of Stupidity: The Conservation of Creativity. No matter how stupid we get, there will still be an amount of creative brilliance equal to 1/K * (amount of stupidity).

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