Computers allow researchers to develop a ‘feel’ for systems

From Sherry Turkle’s influential paper titled Seeing Through Computers I like this section:

In the physics department, the debate about simulation was even sharper. Only a small subset of real-world physics problems can be solved by purely mathematical, analytical techniques. Most require experimentation in which one conducts trials, evaluates results, and fits a curve through the resulting data. Not only does the computer make such inductive solutions easier, but as a practical matter, it also makes many of them possible for the first time. As one faculty member put it:

A student can take thousands of curves and develop a feeling for the data. Before the computer, nobody did that because it was too much work. Now, you can ask a question and say, “Let’s try it.” The machine does not distance students from the real, it brings them closer to it.

Because it pitches computers as tools for visualising and experimenting with systems that need to be understood mathematically. Not just at the advanced theoretical level but all through education – the learning of mathematics through using a wide range of systems of representation.

What I think is missing from this article is reference to simulations as being tools for cognitive offloading and the system of representation having an optimal relationship with the problem space and the individual or group researching the problem. Graphical simulations are powerful where emergent dynamics, iterations through generations and parallel processes are important, and where morphology is preserved in the simulation this can help too.

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1 Comment »

  1. Ken Kahn said

    I agree this is an important paper. By the way the full title is “Seeing Through Computers:
    Education in a Culture of Simulation” states more clearly what the paper is about.

    A quote I like is:

    “Simulations, whether in a game like SimLife or in a physics laboratory or computer-aided-design application, do teach users how to think in an active way about complex phenomena as dynamic, evolving systems. And they also get people accustomed to manipulating a system whose core assumptions they may not understand and that may or may not be “true.” Simulations enable us to abdicate authority to the simulation; they give us permission to accept the opacity of the model that plays itself out on our screens. ”

    because it gives a strong motivation to the Modelling4All Project — to make modelling transparent and the process and skills more widely available.

    Sherry Turkle adds

    “Increasingly, understanding the assumptions that underlie simulation is a key element of political power. People who understand the distortions imposed by simulations are in a position to call for more direct economic and political feedback, new kinds of representation, more channels of information. They may demand greater transparency in their simulations; they may demand that the games we play (particularly the ones we use to make real-life decisions) make their underlying models more accessible. “

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