Heresy, learning, rebellion, and Texas Instruments

2013-09-02

Recently I read an article by Phil Nichols about his youth spent programming and hacking TI graphing calculators.

His take resonated with me for its striking resemblance to my own youth. I too spent hours and days wearing out the keys of a (still functioning) TI-83+ graphing calculator spent with nearly $100 of my parents' hard-earned greenbacks.

This article...I got emotional. The feelings came back, memories of late nights and class periods spent boundlessly more fruitful than they otherwise would have been had I been bothering with schoolwork. I can't find many of the remaining programs, though what I can still find (a few are still online!) reveals scripts dedicated to replicating functions I saw in the games I played (usually top-down movement of some kind), a scheduler/assignment tracker, and methods to greatly speed the completion of math homework (who has time for all of that slope-int and quadratic formula bullshit in 7th grade?).

I can remember the sheer joy of getting things working on that tiny little screen, and finally laying back with a smile on my face, satisfied, as if I had just built a pyramid with my bare hands.

More than sentimentalism, Nichols' article is more of a treatise on general purpose computing. The kind where you can mess things up, break things, do things you weren't supposed to do, because there isn't something you're supposed to use a general purpose computer for. That's the idea of it being "general purpose".

After digesting his thoughts on the need for kids today to explore and break things, I took to Twitter and had a conversation with a fellow technologist about our own techno-youth.

After no small amount of recollection and storytelling of our own young times spent alternately destroying and rebuilding the computers we were supposed to use to do homework, something I had read earlier popped into my brain: the dedication of Saul Alinsky's book "Rules for Radicals" reads, "Lest we forget at least an over-the-shoulder acknowledgment to the very first radical: from all our legends, mythology, and history... the first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that he at least won his own kingdom — Lucifer."

I'm not sure why this quote came to me when it did. I am not a follower of Alinsky's, nor have I read his work. But he was on to something. Nichols, too, is on to something. Really, though, the real credit goes to Lucifer. I'm not a believer in any gods or in Lucifer, but I am a believer in the story. I am a believer in the fruit from the tree of knowledge.

This is the battle we have fought for as long as we have been a discrete species, and likely before: the battle between orthodoxy and rebellion. It's why myths like Lucifer's fall and the talking snake exist. Consider human history. For the largest part of our existence, knowledge has been the property of a moneyed and powerful few. The vast manjority of humans who have ever lived were not even literate. Still today there remains a large degree of illiteracy and de-facto illiteracy in many parts of the world. This extends into many realms: the many lack knowledge in how to effectively trade stocks, or start a company, or of how to understand the body of law under which you are being charged with a crime.

The battle to possess a religious text in one's native language is one of the greatest successful rebellions aginst this type of knowledge hoarding in recorded history. So is the printing press, so is the internet. But these are nothing more than physical manifestations of a type of attitude. An alignment, really, which maintains that it is better to independently explore and know than it is to have one's knowledge dictated by an authority figure through coercion or supposed benevolence.

This is our event-horizon, as I (and evidently Alinsky as well) saw it: heresy. All progress and all knowledge gained is heresy of a kind. It is a dive over a lip about which the authority has said "but no one has ever done it like that before!"

What happens when children don't learn how to take an esablished order and smash it to bits, as in Nichols' article? We end up with an entire generation of kids who don't realize that they can write their own software, or invent their own imaginary language (like Elvish) with which to talk to their friends, or make music that they want to hear as opposed to something beamed to them via the iTunes Store or Disney Channel.

This is is somewhat advantageous to an established orthodoxy, because it gives you all of the practical benefits of The Matrix without having to physically enslave and conquer the host populace. You just keep them well fed and well entertained and they'll do as you like. I'm not cynical to believe that this is the case in an active, clandestine sense, but I think the facts are quite clear that this type of pacification is at least tacitly endorsed by most large-money group interests: governments, corporations, and the like. Don't tell people that they can reverse-engineer your product, fix it, or make improvements on their own, and they'll keep on swiping their credit card.

I'm not a radical, and I'm not trying to make the case that I'm anything of the sort. I'm just a guy relating how the experience of tinkering, with absolutely no top-down direction was an absolutely invaluable experience in my life. I hope that more and more people can discover the value in such an enterprise without having their lives destroyed under the CFAA (Aaron Swartz) or sent to the dean's office (my hacking peers and I). Almost as bad is never getting the opportunity at all.

And really, hacking, after all, is just learning of a kind. And that's what we're talking about when we discuss the differences between TI calculators and iPads: hacking. The playful rearrangement of reality in a way that suits the hacker, and for no other reason than to satiate the hacker's curiosity. Education should be, if nothing else, an environment in which kids learn to cultivate this playfulness in themselves such that it can never be quenched. We have quite a bit too much seriousness and rigidness in this world already; wouldn't it be great if a new generation could emerge onto the digital highlands with some metaphorical calluses instead of Stockholm syndrome?