Peeking Behind the Curtain

wizard of oz

Click on photo to go to youtube clip

Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!  Most of us have seen the movie “The Wizard of Oz.”  The mighty Oz is a fearful sight until Toto pulls back the curtain to reveal an ordinary man pulling levers and talking into a microphone.

The lesson is that sometimes the awesome and magical turn out to be an illusion.  Look behind the curtain to see what is really going on.

I am actually more interested in something else that this scene reveals.  Someone had to have invented and built that machine.  A lost balloonist may have been conning people into believing he was the great and powerful Oz, but how exactly was he able to pull it off?  That guy must have been a technical genius.  He projected a holographic image, amplified and changed his voice, and shot out real flames at will.  Imagine the equipment that required, all built by him I assume.

Playing with an application is like interacting with the illusory wizard.  Gaining an understanding as to how the application actually works is like peeking behind the curtain.

My own modest “behind the curtain” experience with technology occurred when I took a position for one year as a coordinator at the county’s regional technology center.  Through a quick change in permissions I was suddenly able to see the back end of the financial application.  I am not talking about programming, which is of course another whole level of understanding.  In my area we set up rules, established user permissions, maintained tables, imported and exported data, wrote specifications, and tested upgrades.

I learned that software systems are messy, buggy, sub-optimal, and fragile. I learned how to write great specifications and to pay as much attention to data output as input.  I learned that some errors go unnoticed or unreported for years. I learned that just because a result is displayed in a beautifully formatted report that does not make it correct.  I learned that security and productivity are sometimes in conflict.

How much peeking behind the curtain should be part of a primary or secondary student’s curriculum?  Since we have everything from smart cars to smart refrigerators, I would say the answer is “a lot”.  How hands-on should this curriculum be?  Very.  Should every student build circuits or learn to code? Yes, to some basic level at least.

I used to be one of those people who said “I don’t need to know how a copier works in order to use one.”  But it turns out copiers are networked, they store data and they have been the source of serious data breaches.  Recently a refrigerator was used to send out spam.  The smarter our appliances become, the less we can leave all this “techy” stuff up to someone else.

I encourage schools to consider requiring a class in data science and data ethics in high school.  It really is a brave new world out there.  Are we paying attention?

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