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    "What's Not True?"

    Proposal for a new kind of media program for children

    (c) Text and Title Copyright 1993, 1994 Paul Pangaro. All Rights Reserved. This is draft of 20 March 94.
    Concept: Children's programming for television or radio seems inevitably to be oriented around a specific topic or academic discipline: science, art, games, history, cartoons, news, current affairs. Inevitable too is the obsession to "candy coat" the supposedly-boring "school stuff": the facts and figures that children are tested on and therefore, in many cases, they learn to abhor.

    In contrast, "What's Not True?" is a program about language: what it can and can not, does and does not, do do doody-yoo-do. The theme of the show is not a particular, conventional discipline, but how we experience each other through language.

    The program explores (not explains) how language is ambiguous, personal, funny and above all severely limited in doing just what it is trying to do: connect us to one another. The program will invite (not instruct) a view of daily discourse that provides an explicit framework in which children can interpret their relationships:
    • with parents and peers
    • with television news programs, "docudramas," commercials, "infomercials" and "tabloid TV"
    • with what they learn in school from books and teachers.

    Children's Programming in the "Information Age": There is no declared school subject to help children handle what every individual comes into contact with every day: differing perspectives, alternative approaches to the same problem, direct resistance to one's own worldview. These subliminal engagements are at the core of how we interact with our social world, and therefore at the heart of how we view ourselves.

    The daily media barrage simply complicates this. We are in an "information age" not because computers and telephones and electronic networks are nearly everywhere, but rather because technology produces so many sources of data coming from everywhere. The individual becomes a nexus for all this input, and is challenged to interpret it in an appropriate context and to convert it into meaningful information. The fall of the Soviet Union and the impending transformation of China, as well as other political transformations the world over, are arguably due to the influx of alternative world-views to cultures that were previously closed to information and therefore resistant to transformation. Now that these societies are informationally open, the pressure of transformation is very great.

    The daily data stream from information technologies is herterogenious, unfiltered and inconsistent. Interpreting it is a skill is critical to modern living that is not handled explicitly in the modern curriculum. Resolving all the attendant contradictions and complexities in consonance with individual (as well as community and national) values is not a simple matter. In every prediction about life in the 21st century, the information technology is only expanding without bound. Every individual will need awareness, and also tools, for handling that complexity.

    From a complementary perspective, another way to describe the concept of "What's Not True?" is to say that the program is about becoming conscious of the limitations of language so that these limitations can be part of the discourse. These limitations circumscribe notions of subjectivity, point-of-view, ethical values, debate, agreement, and consensus. To make these aspects of everyday discourse more explicit is to initiate an understanding of the nature of misunderstanding and conflict, and ultimately to provide the means for mitigating the problems they create.

    Title: The running title of the program is "What's Not True?" The title will be the first topic of the first show, and many of its interpretations will be explored:
    • Taken at face value, the title seems to be about what is literally not true, i.e., the show is about what is false. However this is not the complete story, as implied by the question mark. The show is about something else that is much broader. Immediately we demonstrate the pitfalls of language, and of thinking that we really understand the speaker's intention when we only project our own.
    • Because all experience is subjective and relative to personal bias and values, what is and isn't true is difficult to ascertain. The most important "truth" within a group of individuals is what they agree to be true. If this contradicts others' views, a conflict occurs that can be resolved through language or through action, and the latter usually means violence.
    • If action to resolve conflict means violence, and language is an alternative means to resolving conflict, children can learn to use language to avoid violence --- but not to avoid conflict.
    • We do not advocate avoidance of conflict; quite the reverse. Through language, individuality (self) as well as similarity (community) is manifest. Language can be presented as a tool for sharing values while maintaining identity.
    • The language is full of traps. For example, everyday expressions lead is to forget the subjective nature of experience. In fact (whoops, there's an example right there --- what follows is an assertion and not a fact) even the precedence of nouns above verbs in society is a potential distortion that takes us away from the fundamental, that is, that objects mean what we do with them, not what we call them (a box can be a house, a hammer can be a paperweight, a sentence can be a weapon).
    To emphasize the subjective and fluid nature of language, the title itself will be fluid and not constant as in other shows. Possible alternative titles include "What's Not Right?" or "What's An Answer?" or "Not The Answer" or "Not The Right Answer" or "What Kind of An Answer Is That?"

    A New Perspective in Children's Programming: Although children's educational programming may be "modern" in form (fast paced, short clips, lots of "entertainment values"), it suffers from old-fashioned approaches to knowledge and science. The philosophy of "What's Not True?" could be capsulized in the statement: We want to bring science and educational programming out of the worldview of the 19th century and into the 21st.

    By this we mean that the view of science as absolute, objective and a definitive route to "reality" was removed in the 20th century with the rise of relativism in so many fields: physics, mathematics, sociology, anthropology, systems, biology (e.g., Einstein, Heisenberg, Gödel, Bateson, Mead, Wiener, Maturana). The ultimate expression of this 20th century view is "constructivism", from Piaget through Papert. This concept replaces an explanation of teaching as pouring the knowledge into the student with new notions of learning as the active engagement of the learner in a construction of a world consistent with his or her individual experience.

    Language is the core of culture. As one prominent, modern biologist puts it, "Language is living together." Attention to the nature and limitations of language brings us closer together because it shows us what we cannot rely on it to do: to communicate perfectly, to always be accurate, to precisely capture what we mean and who we are. It can only approximate all of these things, even in science. Awareness of that alone is critical. Changing our actions based on its understanding is powerful.

    Comparison to existing Children's Programming: A primary energy of this project is a response to past and current "science shows for children":

    * Mr Wizard:

    Based on a paternalistic, "father knows best" view of knowledge

    Purveys the view that science simply discovers the waiting world, versus the view that values of the scientist affect what questions are asked and hence what answers are constructed

    Because the view is held that science possesses absolute objectivity, science therefore holds the absolute right to truth, and all else (politics, for example) is separable. This is in contrast to the fundamental of subjectivity, and the placing of science in the field of human values rather than above it.

    * Beekman's World

    A show whose content is shallow and inaccurate

    Resorts to costumes and characters that are superfluous, absurd and condescending

    Patronizes science by employing "geeky" stereotypes, and loses an opportunity to explore the world of scientists who often are genuine eccentrics

    * "Not Just News"

    Gives lip-service to educational content

    Too little distinction between facts and context

    Show topics: These topics are not exclusive of each other and a single "program" will likely combine, and certainly contain an overlap, more than one topic.
    • If someone says something, does that make it true? What if it is said by a teacher? A parent? If it is printed, say in a newspaper, does that make it more likely to be true?
    • What is the difference between a fact and an opinion? A report and an argument? Can we agree on this much?
    • What does "the whole story" mean?
    • If there is a range between black and white, what shade of gray is it?
    • What does it mean for something to be "true"?
    • It is said that naming something gives us a sense of control over it --- but does it give us the feeling of control, or actual control?
    • All words are metaphors: the word "cup" and a cup sitting on the table are never the same thing ("the map is not the territory").
    • The verb "to be": when I say "the grass is green" I mean that it has a specific color attribute; is that something I remember when I say "Joe is stupid", instead of saying "I think Joe's walking in the cold rain without a coat is stupid"?
    • History: not what happened but what is said to have happened
    • Measurement: "accuracy", statistics, purpose
    • Science: what is objective of science, anyway?
    • Consensus: what it is, and its powers and compromises
    • What can it mean to be "true to oneself"

    Author's Biography

    Paul Pangaro was graduated from MIT with a BSci in Computer Science and Humanities (Drama). He worked on the Research Staff of the MIT Research Lab of Electronics (on contracts with Jerry Lettvin, on computer simulations of neural models) and then the MIT Architecture Machine Group, the predecessor to the Media Lab (on contracts with Nicholas Negroponte, on color computer graphics and user interfaces for animation by simulation). He then collaborated with British cybernetician Gordon Pask, the celebrated developer of Conversation Theory: a theoretical framework that provides innovative approaches to hypertext, computer-aided learning, and adaptive conversational software. Their collaboration culminated in research projects funded by the US and UK government agencies, and Pangaro being awarded PhD in cybernetics from Brunel University (UK).

    Since 1981 Pangaro has directed his own consulting firm specializing in the application of cybernetics to complex, "real-world" problems, including formal approaches to, and software development of, systems for strategic planning, training, and organizational modeling. Clients have included the Admiralty Research Establishment (UK), the US Army and US Navy, Niagara Mohawk Power Corporation, NYNEX, Du Pont, Lotus Development and Xerox Corporation.

    Pangaro is active in the American Society for Cybernetics, contributing to conferences on a regular basis, and he is a past Associate Editor of one of their publications, _Cybernetic_. In 1988 he was Vice Chair for the Gordon Research Conference on Cybernetics. In addition to Pask, Pangaro has personal rapport with other major contributors to the field including Heinz von Foerster, Jerome Y Lettvin, Stafford Beer, and Humberto Maturana. Continually interested in the history of cybernetics, Pangaro maintains a sizable archive of papers and artifacts.

    Pangaro has given lecture/performances on his work frequently over the years, including at the MIT Media Lab, Washington Philosophical Society, Society for General Systems Research, the Harvard Graphics Conference, ACM SIGGRAPH, the National Educational Computing Conference, the Human Factors Society, Conference on Computers in Education (Wales) and Machine Intelligence in Defence (England). He wrote the entry on cybernetics for the Encyclopedia of Science published by Macmillan. His articles have appeared in Data Training and Creative Computing and his work has been reported in InfoWorld, Seybold Reports, IEEE and many other reviews of computer-aided instruction software. He contributed story ideas, computer animations and on-screen appearances to FASTFORWARD, produced by Toronto TV.

    Unwilling to lose the edge associated with live performance, Pangaro is an accomplished cabaret singer and appears in Boston and Washington, DC.

    © Copyright Paul Pangaro 1994 - 2000. All Rights Reserved.