Through a Die, Darkly- Gears of My Childhood
I was struck by Papert’s reflections on gears and thinking in my first encounter with Mindstorms. What a great example for the advantages of living lower down on the manufactured product food chain. It’s taken me well into adulthood to assemble a mental toybox with anything near that level of flexibility. I’d love to have some ur-nerdy totem to enshrine, but looking back I just see the looming influence stories and games, two cultural forces that shape the thinking of most young americans.
I was perhaps more desperate, or more susceptible to the power of stories than some other kids. I’m an only child, read early, and grew up with nearly unlimited access to books and an incredible amount of leisure time. Stories were just the wrapper, the delivery medium for endless skeletons and frameworks of human relationships. I mainlined these, curated and cataloged the different tropes and modes of interaction, and then walked out onto the first grade playground looking for people living out those structures. Every tenuous friendship, and the inevitable collapse of same, has a direct trail back to some stack of texts. I remember a fractured series of moments where I made the right move (an affected bit of nonchalance from cribbed Judy Bloom, or earnestness swiped from JD Fitzgerald), or the wrong one (because no one really talks like Edward Eager or Elizabeth Enright characters).
I recognize that in the modern context, this sounds like I’m describing behaviors on the Autism spectrum, but that’s not the core of it. It wasn’t so much that I was unable to read social cues, just that by the time I was in a particular kind of social interaction, I had already internalized dozens of models for what I felt was the analogous situation. I’ve commiserated with many other only kids who have similar stories of destroying a friendship because the other people refused to behave like their fictional counterpart.
The books I consumed are tied to a particular time and place, and my relative isolation led me to rely on that corpus to an exceptional degree, but this phenomena is not unique. All kids will model some behavior and relationships based on what they’ve discovered in narrative media. My sense is that that this lasts until each individual has enough (often painful) personal experience that other humans have probably not all consumed the same models, and will not follow the elegant script. It’s entirely possible that what I observed as a child as “popularity” was just several kids finding a mutually agreeable shared narrative frame.
The other set of gears that came to dominate my thinking was games. This meant both the abstract characteristics (advantage, momentum, the distinction between tactical and strategic) and the concrete specifics of particular games. Every adolescent who ever rolled polyhedral dice has probably written up character sheets for their friends, and then argued at length over the minutiae of those approximations.
Again, this is profoundly common. What I find notable is how well this set of gears has scaled over the years. An adolescent recognition of STR-based jocks and INT-based nerds shifted to the realization (via Deadlands) that there was a clear mechanical difference between raw intelligence and actually putting that attribute to use. Unlike the narrative gears, this set gained proved increasingly useful as I become more aware of it. Everything from workplace politics to actual programming became far easier to articulate once I stole the concept of limited action verbs from video game design.
What I didn’t appreciate until I left my nerd-heavy corner of California, is how many people have a similarly rich set of game-based gears that shape their understanding of the world, but limited to televised sports. Every time you’ve had serious work described in mixed slurry of football and baseball metaphors, you’ve witnessed the scrabbling friction of one set of game-gears grinding away against the world’s complexity. I’m sure that Olympic wrestling or baseball or rugby are all rich enough that they can serve as useful gears, but the culture’s dominant sports also serve an easy bridge between gear heads.
The problem with both of these is that they’re not classically Papert-ian gears, in that they don’t provide the individual better tools for expanding their intellectual base. Narrative logic and game literacy can help make sense of human systems, but approaching abstract ideas through those frames is often more limiting than enabling. I worry about this when I hear my daughter, also an only, describe ascending place values on an addition problem as Mamas and Sisters.
I didn’t write a simple iterative loop until I was in college, and that simple tool became a profound tool throughout the rest of my academic career. I’m a Scratch die-hard because I see it as the best way of slipping a few more of those abstract gears into a 4th graders’ rushing torrent of association, imitation and modeling.