(2020-02-20) Matuschak On Primer

Andy Matuschak various notes excerpts on the Young Lady's Illustrated Primer.

Key words

  • Enabling environment: significantly expands its participants’ capacity to do things (Bad-Ass) they find meaningful and important... a Work where personal development occurs through chasing a mission with full agency. The Apollo program (space program) was an incredibly powerful Enabling environment... Likewise, when Pixar created its revolutionary animation tools, many teams had been working on computer graphics for years, but Pixar’s systems emerged from a zealous pursuit of a storytelling dream: Pixar’s movies and technology development act as coupled flywheels... Cathedrals! University research labs! Mathematica! They all follow this pattern.
  • Enacted experience: an experience which participants feel they’ve brought about—but which, in reality, is the largely-specified expression of an author’s intentions. This is a powerful mechanism because Enacted experiences can create intense personal connection to authored targets... Apprenticeships and other social institutions (e.g. YC) do this today, but those aren’t mass media forms (Enacted experiences are hard to distribute). Video games are a media form of this type, but they’re used almost exclusively to convey aesthetic experiences. I see this as one of the core ideas of The Primer++.
  • Authored environment: In good games, players will feel they’ve enacted the authored experience even when they had no real agency.

The Primer++

The Primer++ isn’t one particular book, like Stephenson’s Primer. It’s a new form of environments for thinking and communicating, instantiated in a variety of ways across fields, topics, and contexts.

Tools for thought (Thinking Tools) should be evaluated in the context of intrinsically meaningful purposes

We don’t evaluate Mathematica by asking how many students use it... Its utility function is, roughly: how many powerful insights does it enable on the margin?

Relatedly, it’s tempting to evaluate the mnemonic medium by asking how much people remember after reading a text. But its real purpose is to enable people to do more of whatever they find most meaningful, to help them become more themselves (Bad-Ass). We’ll need to find some way to evaluate that metric.

In this sense, “tools for thought” is a somewhat distorting term. It pushes us to think about “thought” as the end-goal. We’re really trying to construct “contexts for meaning.” Note too that a “context” could be a plain old-fashioned essay!

Authored environments are significantly colored by authors’ motivations

When authors’, participants’, and activities’ objectives are aligned, authors can create powerful environments; when they’re misaligned, the environments won’t cohere.

Haskell claims to be a production-ready, enterprise-strength programming language... But the language’s developers are primarily motivated by its theoretical properties, and that purpose shows through subtly in all the seams. Despite efforts to the contrary, Haskell is primarily an Enabling environment for researchers to think more effectively about that branch of programming language theory; it’s not an especially effective enabling environment for people to build software. Smalltalk is a similar story.

Spore markets itself as an action/adventure game in which you can create your own lifeforms then conquer the galaxy. But as far as I can tell, its creators were primarily motivated by mechanisms of simulation and procedural generation. Those pieces of the game are fleshed out and are fascinating, but the “main” gameplay feels like an afterthought.

Educational objectives often subvert themselves

A fixation on learning outcomes is a fixation on what would normally be the effect of a deeper cause: an intrinsically meaningful purpose involving that material. By attempting to produce the effect without the cause, the teacher makes the students into dependents. He’s the source not only of expertise but also of purpose.

Internally-modulated learning is self-actualizing; externally-modulated learning is self-abnegating. Students sense the abnegation and often respond either by disengaging or by shrinking their sense of intellectual responsibility

Enabling environment

An enabling environment significantly expands its participants’ capacity to do things they find meaningful and important.

Enabling environments require activities with intrinsically meaningful purpose

When designing an Enabling environment, it’s tempting to fixate on the skills or understandings being developed or amplified. This approach generally subverts its own aims. The most successful enabling environments comprise activities which are primarily about those skills or understandings are for.

Authored activities must have intrinsically meaningful purpose for both author and participant.

Email with Michael Nielsen, 2019/08/23.

  • Of course, in some sense I’m quite enamoured of goals like “enabling people” … But I’m also very suspicious of such goals. I think > 99.9% of the time they end up patronizing. The only thing I know of which consistently gets away from that failure pattern is to make the primary goal something else, something that’s intrinsically important.
  • E.g., if you run the Apollo program (space program) you’ll certainly be enabling people. But it’ll be secondary to getting to the moon. If you create Mathematica you’ll certainly be enabling people. But it’ll be secondary to doing kick-ass mathematics / theoretical physics. …

Deep understanding requires (and is a result of) intense personal connection. Without an intrinsically meaningful purpose, that connection is unlikely.

Enabling environments focus on creating opportunities for growth and action, not on skill-building

A great research lab (R-and-D) isn’t fixated on instilling heaps of specific knowledge and skills in its graduate students. It enables by creating great opportunities for personal growth, and by highlighting bridges to opportunities for action based on that growth. This is generally true of an effective Enabling environment.

Powerful enabling environments usually arise as a byproduct of projects pursuing their own intrinsically meaningful purposes.

What would it mean to design “books” which are primarily about creating growth opportunities for people, and bridges to opportunities for action based on that growth?

Powerful enabling environments usually arise as a byproduct of projects pursuing their own intrinsically meaningful purposes

The Apollo program was an incredibly powerful Enabling environment

Likewise, when Pixar created its revolutionary animation tools, many teams had been working on computer graphics for years, but Pixar’s systems emerged from a zealous pursuit of a storytelling dream: Pixar’s movies and technology development act as coupled flywheels.

Cathedrals! University research labs! Mathematica! They all follow this pattern.

Practically speaking, such contexts provide deeply meaningful feedback

these projects also provide the intense personal connection which makes great work possible.

Is it possible to make the tail wag the dog? To initiate a project pursuing some intrinsically meaningful purpose in order to reap the enabling environments which emerge in that context? It’s not clear. The most likely failure mode is that the resulting project wouldn’t really create the intense personal connection required. But this is what we’re trying for Ladder Media.

Enacted experience

An enacted experience is an experience which participants feel they’ve brought about—but which, in reality, is the largely-specified expression of an author’s intentions. This is a powerful mechanism because Enacted experiences can create intense personal connection to authored targets.

Many elements of a Y Combinator batch are enacted experiences: carefully-arranged dinners, timelines, pressures, etc. combine to produce intended experiences

Computer Games are structured so that at any given moment, players feel as though their cumulative actions have created their present state. And they feel their ongoing actions enact future game states—they’ll bring those states into being. This sense will occur in any Participatory environment, but in games, designers can exert strong authorial control over which experiences players will enact.

In good games, players will feel they’ve enacted the authored experience even when they had no real agency.

This is an unusual property for a media form.

Definitionally, any environment which produces an enacted experience must be a Participatory environment. Enacted experiences require participant-situated cause and effect. Enacted experiences require blocking on participant action. Enacted experiences require tight action–feedback loops

Challenges: Enacted experiences are hard to author. Enacted experiences are hard to distribute

Enacted experiences have incredible potential as a mass medium

Apprenticeships and other social institutions (e.g. YC) do this today, but those aren’t mass media forms (Enacted experiences are hard to distribute). Video games are a media form of this type, but they’re used almost exclusively to convey aesthetic experiences. I see this as one of the core ideas of The Primer++.

I believe it’s possible to create an Enacted experience with the primary purpose of communicating ideas, values, and practices—akin to doing the “job” of a book

§Enabling environments, games, and the Primer

Powerful enabling environments usually arise as a byproduct of projects pursuing their own intrinsically meaningful purposes

YC’s enacted lessons are carefully authored

Unfortunately, Enacted experiences are hard to author and Enacted experiences are hard to distribute. But there’s hope: Enacted experiences have incredible potential as a mass medium

Video game design is the best prior art we have for this

games demonstrate how dynamic media can do things that books can’t do: Games help players evaluate their developing skills and Games help players make and adapt plans

this is the core mistake that educational games make

Educational games try to teach through enacted experiences Educational games are a doomed approach to creating enabling environments

introducing The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer

The Primer seems like a much better example than educational games: The Primer’s goal is to produce creative, subversive youth; it’s not about checking a bunch of learning objective boxes. Like games, The Primer is an enormous enacted experience, and The Primer is scalable

Unfortunately, the specific mechanics described in The Diamond Age wouldn’t work: see The Primer isn’t a viable enabling environment

it’s hard to imagine modifying educational games to become anything good, but the Primer is closer enough to the mark to be worth criticizing, and, possibly, to learn from

So how do we make this new media form?

Tools for thought should be evaluated in the context of intrinsically meaningful purposes

Designing new enabling environments can be framed as designing a University

Better media forms

The mnemonic medium can be used to author an experience which unfolds over time

Executable books

connectivism

Dynamic mediums usually lack an authored time dimension

Doing thinking/doing better

TODO: denigrate MOOCs; compare YC, edu games and the Primer to a MOOC; integrate Minecraft vs. the Primer

*Rather than focusing on the Primer, I’m finding a more powerful framing to be in centering the essay around scaling high-growth environments.

You can read a book about starting a startup, or you can join Y Combinator. Which do you choose? This is the power of an Enabling environment.*

The book’s abstract, but YC’s not: every lesson is in the context of the idea you care deeply about (i.e. intrinsically meaningful purpose; c.f. Enabling environments require activities with intrinsically meaningful purpose)

How might we adapt existing texts to the mnemonic medium, without participation of the author

It would be very powerful if we could “hoist” existing media into the medium without sacrificing its power.

None of these approaches below are actually good, but perhaps iterations on them could be?

“Companion reader” app

You tell the app that you’re reading page 312. The screen displays a stack of questions and a big header that says: “answer these at the section break on page 314.”

Custom PDF / EPUB reader

Doing this for EPUBs isn’t really viable while DRM remains pervasive.

AR glasses

Minecraft vs- the Primer

Minecraft is an Enabling environment: lots of people can make enormous 3D structures in it, and they wouldn’t be able to do that otherwise. Most games aren’t enabling environments, so it’s instructive to compare Minecraft to The Diamond Age’s Primer, which also aspires to enable through a game-like environment. Can we learn anything from one which could improve the other?

Minecraft’s activities have intrinsically meaningful purpose for lots of people: creative expression, aesthetic experience, etc. Meanwhile, The Primer’s activities are only intrinsically meaningful to Nell because her life is impoverished.

The Primer isn’t a viable enabling environment

Powerful enabling environments focus on expert practice, but The Primer doesn’t make experts better at anything.

Many people are excited about implementing The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer in real life. Unfortunately, the The Primer is fundamentally an educational game, so it’s not a viable enabling environment for the same reasons that Educational games are a doomed approach to creating enabling environments—plus a few more.

Good enabling environments involve actually doing what’s enabled. The capacity for original thought is the most important thing the Primer tries to enable, but Nell doesn’t do any original thinking inside the Primer, and in fact, Nell doesn’t know or share the Primer’s goals.

enabling environments focus on creating opportunities for growth and action, not on skill-building. The Primer is indeed mostly focused on personal growth, rather than specific skills, though it fares less well at creating bridges to action

The Primer’s explicit learning quests teach Nell to delegate her curiosity and interest

She doesn’t view it as her job to decide what is interesting or worth investigating; she learns that the Primer has a plan for her and that her role is to follow along.

When its explicit learning quests end, a real-life Nell would likely be left with underdeveloped intellectual instincts and a weak sense of agency.

By contrast: Enacted experiences of intellectual...?

The Primer is one big “onboarding” experience for the rest of Nell’s life

Almost all the meaningful activity in Nell’s youth takes place inside the Primer’s fantasy world, strictly separated from real-world purpose and action. Nell doesn’t do any original thinking inside the Primer, and she’s not supposed to: that’s for after “onboarding.”

I don’t think this kind of strict separation is viable; see Nell doesn’t know or share the Primer’s goals. One of Nell’s real-life mentors, the Constable, suggests as much in the book: “In your Primer you have a resource that will make you highly educated, but it will never make you intelligent. That comes from life.”

Because The Primer doesn’t make experts better at anything, it’s not meaningfully extending the frontier: it’s about expanding access.

Nell doesn’t do any original thinking inside the Primer

The Primer is meant to make Nell subversive, and it includes activities which push her to do that—but all in ways which its designer expects. She doesn’t always perceive that control, so it may not be sapping her sense of agency, but is it really possible to prepare someone to think subversively through a series of subversiveness-training activities with known outcomes? Often the control is quite explicit, and in these cases The Primer’s explicit learning quests teach Nell to delegate her curiosity and interest.

Must authored environments be all-or-nothing like this? It strikes me as possible to create scaffolded environments for subversion—i.e. ones which make it easier to think subversive thoughts or perform subversive actions—but without dictating what those thoughts will be. Arguably, that’s 4chan, for better or for worse.

The Primer++ is embedded in a field, bootstrapping participation through enacted experience

The Primer isn’t a viable enabling environment—but it does suggests a promising direction. One challenge with creating enabling environments (like, say, a scientific field) is that Good enabling environments involve actually doing what’s enabled, but that’s often impossible for novice participants, so they end up mired in abstract introductory materials. One promising approach: Enacted experiences can bootstrap active participation in enabling environments. Unfortunately, Enacted experiences are hard to author and Enacted experiences are hard to distribute

The Primer is one big “onboarding” experience for the rest of Nell’s life.

By contrast, The Primer++ would be part of the field it enables, and its participants would share the goals of its creators.


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