Tuesday, October 07, 2008

A Generous Mind

Alan Kay's comment on jazz and programming over on Mark Guzdial's blog is just full of wonderful:

And, there are the difficulties of learning jazz (even listening to it) that arise from its developed aspects -- to the point that most young people would not recognize e.g. the blues as being one of the foundations of jazz, but because of its simplicity and use in pop culture, generally think of it as pop music. Since two of the main elements of pop culture are identity and participation, the tendency is for extremely accessible forms that require little learning to be invented and used as tokens and symbols of membership. As jazz got more developed, it fell out of the pop culture because of the learning that most of its best art requires.

I think computing has quite a few points of similarity with this range of properties of music, but with only 50 or so years of development. Perhaps the most important for this discussion is the difficulty of moving from pop ideas to developed ideas as a *creator* of new developed ideas. The trade-off here is that we find creativity all the time in pop music, but there is little substance in most (but not all) of it (it is easy to have weak ideas), whereas getting fluent in a huge developed genre tends to kill creativity (in part because having a good idea in an already developed area is difficult). Another trade-off is between the acts of improvisation and composition which are similar in one sense and could not be more different in other aspects. These are rarely confused by jazz musicians, but I think are confused all the time in computing. [...]

Down deep, I think that it is a reasonable sense of *quality* that is lacking in computing, and there are many reasons for this. Not the least of which are available jobs for programmers who can just fog a mirror, and greedy universities (now businesses) that value retention and the fees thereof above the sacred duties they used to have to define and impart high levels of quality.

Richard Archambault also used to spin a different jazz/education analogy in Philosophy of Education classes at Brown. I was lucky to catch his last year of teaching.

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