Cyc and Sensibility
I don't just read children's science fiction. That way madness lies. Lately my bed-time reading has been The Best American Science And Nature Writing, 2002 edited by Natalie Anger.
I am very impressed: twenty seven articles and only one weak one in the lot.
Last night, Clive Thompson's article "The Know-It-All-Machine" caught my eye. It's a report on Doug Lenat's Cyc project.
Doug Lenat, as many of you probably know, is trying to create an intelligent computer the hard way, teaching it as many bits of "information" about the world in order to create a network of "items" from which the computer will construct a "commonsense" in order to make decisions.
Doug Lenat is bringing up baby. It's a twenty year job--at least.
This article caught my attention because of what it requires: in order to know what a computer/baby needs to know, the "teacher" has to step outside their own world and attempt to describe it without any of the ingrained assumptions that thirty years of living here give us. Any teacher knows this problem: you give the class a set of instructions and half way through it becomes clear that there is something you didn't say, that is so horribly obvious that you thought it was common sense, but the absence of actually saying it means that you suddenly have a classroom of confused students.
I hit this conceptual issue a lot when I'm teaching writing. Getting students to question the conceptual "bible" with which they live is very difficult. Of the students I teach, the older black women tend to find it easiest. Often they find it liberating because many of them have learned how to function in a white, male workplace essentially as if it were a second language, so that they negotiate their way through "compound meanings" on a day to day basis, teasing them apart to work out what is being asked.
I'm interested in this because modern sf is constructed through the formulation of "compound meanings" in order to create consensus space in which there is a shared "commonsense". And at each stage of this--from the bald info-dumps, the complex constructions grounded in seventy years worth of legacy texts by the likes of Charlie Stross,--we the reader are engaged in a subliminal process of shifting through what we "know" of the sf world and what, in this world "commonsense" means.
Now: how do you do this for the child reader? Or is reading science fiction as a child just like becoming bi-lingual? Two sets of "commonsense", two conceptual bibles?