Informatics: the third “power” revolution and its consequences (Part 1)

Everyone agrees on the importance of Digital Education for all citizens. But too often action plans to implement it fail to approach the issue appropriately and put an excessive emphasis on technological side of it.

The main problem, in my view, behind these difficulties is conceptual. People consider information technology as just another technology, while Informatics has brought about in the world the third “power” revolution [1], empowering human capabilities to a degree never conceivable before.

The invention of the printing press has been the first “power” revolution, since by making it possible to very easily reproduce texts allowed to bring knowledge everywhere and gave everyone the possibility to access it. It was no more needed to be in certain place at a certain time to learn something from the voice of the master. His knowledge could be reproduced by a book, far away and at a later time, whenever needed. Knowledge is still power, but now this power can be distributed and replicated: the seeds of modern society had been planted. Books, produced by hundreds of millions, changed societies and spread science and technology all over Europe.

The second “power” revolution is the industrial revolution: machines can do the physical work of people and allows mankind to overcome its own intrinsic physical limits. Machines can produce objects days and nights without becoming tired, and machines can produce other machines boosting the physical capabilities of human beings. A single person can move huge earth piles with a bulldozer, quickly transfer with a car, speak at long distance with a telephone, and so on. Mankind is no more powerless in front of the nature and starts dominating earth, sea and air, even if many times forgets our planet still remains very powerful.

Then, in the second half of the last century, after the building of hundreds of billions of machines, the third “power” revolution, the informatics revolution,  slowly starts. In the beginning it appears like just another embodiment of the industrial revolution, but after the turn of millennium it becomes apparent it is much more than that. What is replicated now is not the passive and static knowledge of books, what is empowered here is not the physical strength of people, now we have the amplification of the cognitive capabilities of humankind. Digital artifacts, that is software programs, represent and store “knowledge in action” [1, 2] or “actionable knowledge” (“actionable”: ready to be put in action).

There are two critical elements distinguishing the actionable knowledge in digital artifacts from the one of human beings: learning and adaptability. People are intrinsically able to learn what is unknown to them (while digital machines can only learn what they have been designed for) and have learned over million years of evolution to adapt to unforeseen changes in the environment (while digital machines – once again – can adapt only to the foreseen changes).

Therefore while certainly people can take advantage from the always improving actionable knowledge stored in digital artifacts (the very recent progresses of Artificial Intelligence clearly show this) it is of the utmost importance that everybody is appropriately educated in the science making this digital artifacts possible: Informatics.

That is why Informatics Europe, the association of European departments and research centers in Informatics I am the president of, together with the ACM Europe Council, has presented last March in Brussels to the European Commission the report “Informatics for All” advocating Informatics is taught to all students in school, starting in the primary school.

We suggested a two-tier approach: both (1) to introduce teaching of informatics as specialized subject, starting in primary and all the way up to secondary, and (2) to teach informatics (integrated in other subjects) as a method and a language capable to offer an additional and specific way to describe and explain phenomena.

The former is required to prepare citizens able to actively participate in the digital society in an informed way and to more safely and critically navigate and contribute to a fast expanding info-sphere consisting more and more of algorithms that may be biased or information that may be flawed or incomplete. The latter provides new and additional viewpoints in many scientific fields, by building and manipulating visible representations of physical laws and/or natural/social phenomena. Interactive simulations  (i.e., modeling a situation and exploring its possible evolution) made possible by informatics offer a very powerful tool to improve understanding  and informatics is unique in its capability of making concrete the abstract models defined by a simulation.

To this purpose, we have argued in our report, it is needed to work in three areas. Curriculum, to develop both school curricula for all levels and effective learning materials. Teachers, to appropriately educate them and provide them supporting tools and content to be effective in their action. Research, to understand what to teach, when to teach, how to teach (mathematics and other sciences had centuries to discover these, we need to know very soon).

This a grand educational challenge like one could have if Mathematics existed only at the university and – having understood the importance of the capability of exactly defining quantities and their relations – one had to plan to introduce it into all school levels.

We are facing this situation now in Europe for Informatics: digital society is here and we are not adequately preparing our students.

We need to act now!

REFERENCES

[1] E. Nardelli, Senza la cultura informatica non bastano le tecnologie, April 2014, https://www.ilfattoquotidiano.it/2014/02/01/senza-la-cultura-informatica-non-bastano-le-tecnologie

[2] E. Nardelli, La RAI che vorrei: diffondere la “conoscenza in azione” per far crescere l’Italia, https://www.key4biz.it/la-rai-che-vorrei-e-nardelli-contribuisca-allalfabetizzazione-digitale/156540/

Read the second part

Author: Enrico Nardelli – University of Rome ‘Tor Vergata’

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