Paul May

Baffling Black Boxes

16 July 2010

The Reith Lectures are an annual series of lectures given by a significant contemporary figure and broadcast by the BBC. This year's lectures, given by Professor Martin Rees, focused on the challenges faced by humans in the 21st century, and how science might help to overcome these challenges.

A photograph of Professor Martin Rees

The lectures are available as podcasts, and transcripts.

A portion of his final lecture, The Runaway World, really struck me:

The young, here and everywhere, have a natural interest in science - whether focused on space, dinosaurs or tadpoles. The challenge for educators around the world is to sustain this interest beyond the primary school stage. What’s crucial is hands-on involvement - showing not just telling. I want to suggest that the sophistication of modern science is, ironically, and impediment to engaging young people with it.

Newton, when young, made model windmills and clocks; the high-tech artefact of his time. Darwin collected fossils and beetles. Einstein was fascinated by the electric motors and dynamos in his father’s factory. 50 years ago, inquisitive children could take apart a radio set or a motorbike, figure out how it works, and put it together again.

But it’s different today. The artefacts that now pervade you people’s lives; mobile phones and suchlike are baffling black boxes - pure magic to most people. Even if you take them apart you’ll find few clues to their arcane, miniaturised mechanisms, and you certainly can’t put them together again.

There’s now, for the first time, a huge gulf between the artefacts of our everyday life and what even a single expert, let alone the average child, can comprehend.

I think that I agree and disagree with what he’s saying here - so I wanted to unpack my own thoughts a bit.

50 years ago, it was certainly more straightforward for children to break down the things around them into building blocks, and to understand how those building blocks function and interact, but similar opportunities still exist - either by taking apart the same basic objects (which while outnumbered by more complex objects, still exist) or through creative play (through drawing, model-making, chemistry sets, musical instruments and toys like Lego).

Perhaps the number of different types of objects, and their varying complexity is a barrier by virtue of overwhelming choice [and where to begin] - but I don’t think this needs to be a problem. It’s now possible for children to apply their creativity and curiosity to the type of traditional exploration Rees describes (children still build kites and take things apart), but also to new forms of exploration - through robotics, software, digital art; virtual toys with huge scope for tinkering and fun.

There’s no doubt that more complex devices represent complex ideas, and the work of many people - and that this presents a barrier to a child getting to grips with how these seemingly unknowable devices work. I think that** the complexity of these devices asks us to rethink way we think about explorative play**; from a traditional view of a lone child grappling to understand everything about a simple device, to more collaborative play where a device is examined from a number of different perspectives by a number of different children. I think that what children can understand about complex devices probably far outweighs what is beyond them.

So, I don’t think that the complexity of the devices around us presents a fundamental problem that can’t be addressed. I think the real challenge is maintaining a sense of curiosity and possibility when so much of the world represents ideas we struggle to understand on our own as individuals. Frequently, marketing encourages us to be passive in the presence of complex devices; to be in awe and to consume rather than to think about how these devices work, how we might make them better and what effect they have on our lives - but I think children are well placed to apply a natural sense of curiosity to meeting these challenges.

I’m optimistic about the future; it just won’t look like the past.

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  • Paul May is a researcher, interaction designer, and technologist from Dublin, Ireland. He is currently working with Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center on smart health applications.