Humanism, technology and learning

By Murray Bourne, 02 Feb 2007

Prof. Shigeru Miyagawa from MIT gave a talk at National University of Singapore last week.

Miyagawa is a mover and shaker behind MIT’s Open Courseware project, which has provided public access to all of MIT’s online materials. In fact, according to Miyagawa, they were providing materials on the Internet before the Web was even created (in the early 1990s).

After giving an overview of the OCW, Miyagawa gave a few examples of the work he is doing.

One project that I found especially interesting was Visualizing Cultures. Clearly, Miyagawa is a visual learner and he is enthusiastic about presenting history via the images of the times, rather than via text only.

One of the exhibits is about the arrival in Japan by Commodore Perry in his Black Ships. This momentous event in 1853 forced Japan to open up to the rest of the world after 250 years of isolation. It is very interesting to see how observers on both sides of the event - Japanese woodblock artists and American painters - depicted what happened.

Perry
Perry as depicted by the Japanese (left) and the Americans (right). [Source].

The Americans were there (in part) to "bring Jesus to the heathens", while the Japanese saw the event as "the arrival of the foreign devils".

Devils
How the Japanese saw the Americans. [Source.]

There were all sorts of cultural misunderstandings.

...the manner in which the Americans pointed to mixed bathing as evidence of Japanese lewdness and wantonness was strikingly similar to John Manjiro’s response, only a few years earlier, to the shocking spectacle of American men and women kissing in public.

Visualizing Cultures is definitely worth a look. There is some very interesting material in there.

Technology and Humanism

I liked what Miyagawa had to say about the neglect of humanity in the race to implement technology.

Natural Language Search

Miyagawa is also interested in natural language search and machine translation. Unfortunately, I cannot find the example that he showed us (see also footnote below). It was similar to Ask.com. Maybe his was not ready for prime time yet.

Practice Mandarin

He showed an interesting video of a Mandarin conversation software. The student would talk to the computer and if the computer could understand it, the computer would reply. If the student could not be understood, they would have to try again. Such a system would have significant cost benefits, but I wonder how reliable and flexible it is.

It was an interesting talk and I’m looking forward to further investigation into what he showed.

Footnote: I don’t want to rain on his parade, but there are several usability issues with Visualizing Cultures. It was not very search-friendly, and there are links which look very much like ordinary text and I nearly missed them. The use of images containing text and image maps did not make for the best navigation scheme (so 1990s). With the obvious value of this project and the huge amount of work that has gone into it, some good Web design would have nailed it.

See the 3 Comments below.

3 Comments on “Humanism, technology and learning”

  1. Murray says:

    At the beginning of his talk, he quoted:

    We made a big mistake three hundred years ago when we separated technology and humanism. It's time to put the two back together.
    —Michael Dertouzos, former director of the Laboratory for Computer Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

    His main thrust was that it is now much easier for people to publish their stories and their photos, and in the process to create their own personal media. They don't need to be dictated to by the (evil?) mass media.

    From Miyagawa himself, writing in TECHNOS, Personal Media and the Human Community:

    In personal media, you are always inside the media, by virtue of being able to control the point of view. In contrast, in mass media [...], you are never inside the media, and you have no control over the point of view, which means that you have no way to manipulate the media to conform to your own point of view.

    He is therefore very excited about Web 2.0, with all it implies for user-generated content and the impact this will have on education. I share his excitement.

    Footnote: I followed the link to "Star Festival" that he talks about in the TECHNOS article. Seems the link is broken (more usability issues). The promised demo on his own MIT site does not appear to exist. C'mon Shigeru - media should work as designed!

    I did find this:

    In 1994 I put the entire MIT Japanese language program on the Internet as an experiment to explore the power of this new technology. Called JPNET, it was the first time that an entire academic program was placed on the Internet, even before web browsers such as Netscape came into being.

  2. Peter says:

    Thanks, Zac for this interesting post.

    So what did he say about humanism and technology?

  3. jacky says:

    >>He is therefore very excited about Web 2.0, with all it implies for user-generated content and the impact this will have on education. I share his excitement.

    Looks like we are going to have revolution in education. 🙂 I share the excitement too.

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