I have been reading and rereading James Gleick’s elegant book, The Information. It is the story of the development of information technologies as they have advanced over the course of history, from early alphabets through telegraph, telephone, radio and on up to the digital Information Age we live in now.
Until reading the book I was unaware of Claude Shannon, best know as “the father of information theory.” It takes a book the scope of Gleick’s to properly describe and credit Shannon: electrical engineer, mathematician, cryptographer, author of a master’s thesis Howard Gardener called “possibly the most important, and also the most famous, master’s thesis of the century.” The range and wealth of Shannon’s work is astounding.
One thing I find especially noteworthy about this brilliant man is his sense of play. He was a lifelong tinkerer. His interests were as varied as juggling, chess, and unicycling. He invented all sorts of devices for fun: a robot mouse that could learn to solve a maze, a motorized pogo stick, an early computer chess program, a device to solve Rubik’s cube.
An interesting YouTube video on Shannon can b found here:
Gleick writes about him: “A curious child in a country town in the 1920’s might naturally from an interest in the sending of messages along wires, as Claude Shannon did in Gaylord, Michigan. He saw wires every day, fencing the pastures – double strands of steel, twisted and barbed, stretched from post to post. He scrounged what parts he could and jerry-rigged his own bard-wire telegraph, tapping messages to another boy a half mile away. He used the code devised by Samuel F. B. Morse. That suited him. He liked the very idea of codes – not just secret codes but codes in the more general sense words or symbols standing in for other words or symbols. He was an inventive an playful spirit. The child stayed with the man. All his life, he played games and invented games. He was a gadgeteer. The grown-up Shannon juggled and devised theories about juggling. When researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or Bell Laboratories had to leap aside to let a unicycle pass, that was Shannon. He had more than his share of playfulness…”
“The child stayed with the man.” My concern is that in and out of school the child and the man get separated. We don’t give the child enough time to play, time to exercise the imagination. Nor do we encourage the practice of play in adults. We don’t reinforce the value of play. As Sir Ken Robinson says, “We don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it. We get educated out of it.” Claude Shannon was a special intellect, to be sure. But he grew up in conditions that fertilized that intellect with play. My concern is that conditions of the sort that nurtured Shannon are increasingly rare for today’s children. Where and how do our children get to exercise their imagination? Hands on experience with imagination. We must never forget the value of play.