Monday, September 08, 2008

Why do School Curricula Ignore the History of Computing and the Internet?

I was struck by this question at a recent visit to the Computer History Museum (CHM) in Mountain View, CA. Kitty-corner from the famed headquarters of Google in Mt. View, this museum currently proudly houses the Charles Babbage Difference Engine in addition to countless other artifacts that help the visitor trace the timeline of computer history and are a testimony to human ingenuity and inventiveness in the field of digital technologies through the last 6 or so decades.

The 2 hours my sons and I spent tracing the history of computers and computing (and the Internet to lesser extent) were mesmerizing - not just for me but my sons (aged 12 and 9) as well. There is obviously that thrill of watching the sizes (and prices) of computers go down as their computing power and storage capabilities shoot up exponentially; but the stories behind the early innovations are fascinating as well. (I think the kicks I got may have had a little to do with the fact that I have programmed the DEC VAX in my early days as a programmer and used the PDP-11 in my undergrad days at BITS, Pilani. The sight of punch cards brought back waves of long-forgotten memories - of their use as flashcards for memorizing GRE word lists :))

(Incidentally there are several awesome videos on the history of computers on CHM's channel on youtube).

I was reminded of my question once again yesterday when I chanced on a video of Ethan Zuckerman explaining the history of the Internet in about 5 mins - see below. (I think this one betters the earlier history of the Internet video I posted on this blog about half a year ago).

Agreed - the fact that I have always been fascinated by the history of Computers, Computing and the Internet may have a little to do with the fact that I have used computers for about 25 years now - I did my undergrad in Computer Science from BITS Pilani in the mid-eighties, and then was exposed to the Internet in the US in the BBS, usenet and gopher "pre-browser" days of the early 90s. (I remember following the 1992 Cricket World Cup sitting in my little apartment in the US - ball-by-ball on Why I was a member of rec.sports.gymn in 1991-92 I have no clue!).

That said, given how pervasive these machines are in our lives today, I think everyone, and kids especially, would be just as fascinated by the history of how computing, computers and the internet crept into our lives - starting with the code breakers used by governments during WWII; the work of research universities such as MIT; DARPA; the big mainframes; the pioneering work of organizations such as IBM; the birth of personal computers; Microsoft, Apple; supercomputers (the slideshow above has some pictures of the Cray as well); and finally CERN, hypertext, the World Wide Web and Google; iPods; video games; and seemingly limitless data storage capabilities...

Children are taught about many important discoveries, inventions and innovations in the course of their regular curriculum in Science and Social Studies. The rationale being that history teaches us about what man has done and thus what man is; and also helps kids understand change and societal development. Computers, Computing, the Internet and the World Wide Web rarely ever get the billing they deserve in school curricula today, despite that fact that these kids' lives are so hugely influenced by the use of computers and the Internet. I am convinced that our kids who are so familiar with names like Microsoft, Apple, Intel, Google, Yahoo, Sun (to a lesser extent), Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Page and Sergei Brin; so familiar with the idea of computers and with the use of computers deserve to know and be aware about innovations in computers, the evolution of these technologies, and the people and organizations that laid the foundation for the work of Gates, Jobs, Page and Brin.

And while they're at it, I think they should also learn the basics of boolean logic, binary number systems and why silicon valley is christened thus :)

Anyway, here's Ethan Zuckerman's entertaining video on the History of the Internet...Enjoy!

1 comment:

anar said...

Great post.. I think it's very important for students and us as adults to be aware of the history of these tools that we use like 60% of our working time..
The video is indeed very interesting and helps one realise the 'correct' reasons of why computers and internet was established.
I think this is a very good way of creating an interest in subjects like history.. Children would love knowing more about computers and other gadgets but might hate reading about emperors and kingdoms. But this might help them make a connection in some way and understand why is it important to understand history in the first place...