[unrev-II] Mental Arthmetic, Calculators, and Armageddon

From: Eric Armstrong (eric.armstrong@eng.sun.com)
Date: Tue Feb 15 2000 - 14:11:49 PST

From: Eric Armstrong <eric.armstrong@eng.sun.com>

Henry van Eyken wrote:
> Further in this thread, especially on the subject of traditional
> arithmetic, i.e. without calculators, and the views of those who
> believe strongly in the teaching of "fundamentals," may I offer
> the opinion pieces I wrote way-back-when for the Journal of
> Chemical Education and the Journal of College Science
> Teaching:
> http://www.fleabyte.org/archives-computing_to_a_purpose-2.html#Schools
> and the new cognition
> followed by "A flea in the bonnet"
> and "Fleabyte fundamentals: Promoting more meaningful learning"
Interesting reading.
But I can't help but wonder where we wind up in the future.

We have a trade off between efficiency and understanding.
A pocket calculator is 1000 times more efficient, and
doesn't make dumb mistakes. And right now, given the large
number of people who understand the inner workings, it appears
as a given that we should use them to take a chemistry test,
or to do chemistry, rather than doing it all by hand.

Where will be a hundred or two hundred years in the future,
though? By then, the algorithms will be stored in an
electronic knowledge repository. As newer, better, smaller,
faster designs are created the algorithms will be automatically
replicated in the new devices, along with other algorithms
and information.

At this point, it well may be that no has even *looked* at
them in a century or so. When you need a calculation, you
speak into your collar: "What's 13.78 with California sales
tax?", and you hear the answer whispered from just behind
your ear, from a little speaker in your collar: "I'll get
back to on that."

No, seriously. You hear the answer. From an algorithm that
no one has seen in so long that it's not even taught in
the public schools.

By now, all of the world's knowledge is stored in electronic
form. Access mechanisms are so good that books haven't been
needed for a century and a half. It's an all-electronic
world that we interact with naturally, effortlessly...

Then the lights go out. A comet hits, or massive volcanic
eruptions take place. A major drought occurs, or some other
world-upsetting event takes place. The power we need to
drive those systems goes away. Our backup strategies were
good for 10 years. But how do we deal with a 20-year or
a 50-year power outage -- how do we access the information
we need to rebuild?

The tradeoff, in my mind, is between efficiency and safety.
What baseline of information do we need to preserve in
order to rebuild quickly, how do we store it, and how do
we preserve the understanding of how to access it in order
to make it useful?

I'm thinking that algebra and calculus textbooks, and the
ability to do them, along with metallurgy, mining, and
plastics, plus the metric system and communicating the
importance of *standardizing* measurements and financial
systems begin to make a reasonable starting point.

But if no can read the books, and no one can do the math,
that information will be useless. Right now, pocket
calculators and computers seem like a big gain in efficiency
with no real loss in safety. But I wonder whether that will
be true in a 100 years?

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