Review of Papert, The Children's Machine [Book Review]

In 1956, the mathematician John McCarthy coined the term "Artificial Intelligence" for a new discipline that was emerging from some of the more imaginative and playful explorations of the new mind-tool, the computer. A few years later he developed a radically new sort of programming language, Lisp, which became the lingua franca of AI. Unlike the sturdier, stodgier computer languages created by and for business and industry, Lisp was remarkably open-ended and freewheeling. Instead of concentrating on numbers, it was designed to take any symbols or symbol strings (lists) as its objects, and since its own machinery consisted of just such lists (and lists of lists . . . ), Lisp creations easily inhabited the very world they acted upon, and hence could reflect upon themselves and their own reflections indefinitely, revising and reinventing themselves, breaking down the artificial barrier between program and data. Seymour Papert was one of the most playful of the AI pioneers, and more than any of the others, his own reflections turned to the nature of that very playfulness and its role in learning and discovery. In 1980, he published Mindstorms, in which he presented his utopian vision of computers in the classroom, centering on Logo, a dialect of Lisp that he and others had developed specifically for very young children. The key design element was Turtle graphics, an inspired interface which made the children's interactions with Logo not just visible, but instantly comprehensible--feelable, you might say. The tales he told of those early encounters were compelling. They became an important ingredient in the barrage of persuasions that led teachers and schools all over America, and indeed all over the world, to invest huge sums in "computerizing the classroom." Thousands of teachers tried their hand at Logo in the classroom, with mixed results
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