A Short Story from a Book about Technology

The book is called User-Centered Technology: A Rhetorical Theory for Computers and Other Mundane Artifacts, but don’t let the title turn you off–it’s a pretty good book. But while theory books seldom have short stories in them, here is one of the ones in this book, written in first-person by the author, Robert R. Johnson:

“I don’t think that I could have been much more than ten or eleven years old, but the memory is nevertheless pungently clear. I was standing on the corner of Fifth and Broadway in Gary, Indiana (the town where I was ‘born and bred’ as they say), waiting for my father to come out of the building where he had an office. As I waited, I watched a man dressed in a doorman’s uniform step from the front door of the First National Bank with a large push broom in his hand. Once out on the sidewalk, he began sweeping and continue to do so until he had whisked a significant amount of white-gray, dusty material out to the curb. He then pushed the dusty residue down the length of the sidewalk, off the curb, into the street, and finally into a storm-sewer grate where it fell quickly out of sight. The doorman returned to the main entrance of the bank, and with the broom still in his hand, held the door for a customer who stepped out onto the temporarily clean sidewalk.

“Not long after the workman was done sweeping, my father appeared and we began walking to our car. On the way, I asked my father, ‘Why was that old man sweeping the sidewalk in front of the bank?’ ‘He does it to keep people from tracking the dirt into the bank,’ my father replied. ‘It helps to keep the carpets in the bank from getting dirty so fast.’ Still not completely satisfied with the answer, I continued, ‘Why does the bank sidewalk get dirty so fast?’ To answer this question, my father stopped, turned, and pointed his finger toward the north–directly at the main ‘Works’ of U.S. Steel that lay a scant five blocks away. ‘You see the smoke coming from the “Works?” [sic] There’s a lot of dust and dirt in that smoke, and it falls like rain on the downtown sidewalks every day and night. It’s especially thick when water is dumped on the hot steel after it comes out of the blast furnaces. The man at the bank is kept pretty busy keeping that dust out of the bank lobby.’

“Just then, I saw a large white-gray cloud appear over the ‘Works,’ and it was followed by a muffled roar. ‘There . . . there it is now. They’re pouring the water on the hot steel–thousands of gallons of it. There will be plenty more dust for him to sweep soon enough,’ he said as we turned back in the direction of the car. As we continued down the sidewalk, I noticed that the sky was changing color, to a sort of white-gray.”

An Imaginary Conversation with Someone from an Earlier Era and a Journey Through a Cave

“Suppose you were able to travel back in time and have a conversation with people who lived a thousand or even a hundred years ago. Imagine trying to describe to them some of the modern technologies that you and I take for granted today. For example, what might these people think of us if we told them stories of jumbo jets, microwave ovens, handheld devices that contain vast digital libraries, and videos of our grandchildren that we instantly share with millions of people around the world?

“Some might believe us. Most would ridicule, oppose, or perhaps even seek to silence or harm us. Some might attempt to apply logic, reason, and facts as they know them to show that we are misguided, foolish, or even dangerous. They might condemn us for attempting to mislead others.

“But of course, these people would be completely mistaken. They might be well-meaning and sincere. They might feel absolutely positive of their opinion. But they simply would not be able to see clearly because they had not yet received the more complete light of truth.”

From Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Receiving a Testimony of Light and Truth,” Ensign, November 2014, 20. See this link for a video clip of the entire address.

Whenever we teach someone to do something new, we assume a similar perspective–we assume that we see more than our students. Say we are teaching students how to write. We see something our students can do to improve, so we tell them about it. They may become frustrated and angry. It is never easy to be asked to change. But if we are going to help our students become better writers, then we must point out what they can do differently. In short, we assume that we see more than they do.

It is like this classic story that you’ve all heard or read at some time or another. Two people are discussing education, and one says to the other:

“Next, I said, compare the effect of education and of the lack of it on our nature to an experience like this: Imagine human beings living in an underground, cavelike dwelling, with an entrance a long way up, which is both open to the light and as wide as the cave itself. They’ve been there since childhood, fixed in the same place, with their necks and legs fettered, able to see only in front of them, because their bonds prevent them from turning their heads around. Light is provided by a fire burning far above and behind them. Also behind them, but on higher ground, there is a path stretching between them and the fire. Imagine that along this path a low wall has been built, like the screen in front of puppeteers above which they show their puppets.”

“I’m imagining it.”

“Then also imagine that there are people along the wall, carrying all kinds of artifacts that project above it–statues of people and other animals, made out of stone, wood, and every material. And, as you’d expect, some of the carriers are talking, and some are silent.”

“It’s a strange image you’re describing, and strange prisoners.”

“They’re like us. Do you suppose, first of all, that these prisoners see anything of themselves and one another besides the shadows that the fire casts on the wall in front of them?”

“How could they, if they have to keep their heads motionless throughout life?”

“What about the things being carried along the wall? Isn’t the same true of them?”

“Of course.”

“And if they could talk to one another, don’t you think they’d suppose that the names they used applied to the things they see passing before them?”

“They’d have to.”

“And what if their prison also had an echo from the wall facing them? Don’t you think they’d believe that the shadows passing in front of them were talking whenever one of the carriers passing along the wall was doing so?”

“I certainly do.”

“Then the prisoners would in every way believe that the truth is nothing other than the shadows of those artifacts.”

“They must surely believe that.”

“Consider, then, what being released from their bonds and cured of their ignorance would naturally be like, if something like this came to pass. When one of them was freed and suddenly compelled to stand up, turn his head, walk, and look up toward the light, he’d be pained and dazzled and unable to see the things whose shadows he’d seen before. What do you think he’d say, if we told him that what he’d seen before was inconsequential, but that now–because he is a bit closer to the things that are and is turned towards things that are more–he sees more correctly? Or, to put it another way, if we pointed to each of the things passing by, asked him what each of them is, and compelled him to answer, don’t you think he’d be at a loss and that he’d believe that the things he saw earlier were truer than the ones he was now being shown?”

“Much truer.”

“And if someone compelled him to look at the light itself, wouldn’t his eyes hurt, and wouldn’t he turn around and flee towards the things he’s able to see, believing that they’re really clearer than the one’s he’s being shown?”

“He would.”

“And if someone dragged him away from there by force, up the rough, steep path, and didn’t let him go until he had dragged him into the sunlight, wouldn’t he be pained and irritated at being treated that way? And when he came into the light, with the sun filling his eyes, wouldn’t he be unable to see a single one of the things now said to be true?”

“He would be unable to see them, at least at first.”

“I suppose, then, that he’d need time to get adjusted before he could see things in the world above. At first, he’d see shadows most easily, then images of men and other things in water, then the things themselves. Of these, he’d be able to study the things in the sky and the sky itself more easily at night, looking at the light of the stars and the moon, than during the day, looking at the sun and the light of the sun.”

“Of course.”

“Finally, I suppose, he’d be able to see the sun, not images of it in water or some alien place, but the sun itself, in its own place, and be able to study it.”

“Necessarily so.”

“And at this point he would infer and conclude that the sun provides the seasons and the years, governs everything in the visible world, and is in some way the cause of all the things that he used to see.”

“It’s clear that would be his next step.”

“What about when he reminds himself of his first dwelling place, his fellow prisoners, and what passed for wisdom there? Don’t you think that he’d count himself happy for the change and pity the others?”

“Certainly.”

“And if there had been any honors, praises, or prizes among them for the one who was sharpest at identifying the shadows as they passed by and who best remembered which usually came earlier, which later, and which simultaneously, and who could thus best divine the future, do you think that our man would desire these rewards or envy those among the prisoners who were honored and held power? Instead, wouldn’t he feel, with Homer, that he’d much prefer to ‘work the earth as a serf to another, one without possessions,’ and go through any sufferings, rather than share their opinions and live as they do?”

“I suppose he would rather suffer anything than live like that.”

“Consider this too. If this man went down into the cave again and sat down in his same seat, wouldn’t his eyes–coming suddenly out of the sun like that–be filled with darkness?”

“They certainly would.”

“And before his eyes had recovered–and the adjustment would not be quick–while his vision was still dim, if he had to compete again with the perpetual prisoners in recognizing the shadows, wouldn’t he invite ridicule? Wouldn’t it be said of him that he’d returned from his upward journey with his eyesight ruined and that it isn’t worthwhile even to try to travel upward? . . . “

“They certainly would.”

That’s from C. D. C. Reeve’s revision of G. M. A. Grube’s translation of Book VII of Plato’s Republic, 514a-517a.