Interview with Liza Loop: Q and A*
Jon Cappetta: What do you think sparked your interest in computers?
Liza: For starters, computers aren’t the focus of my interest – people are. Computers are a technology that people have to adjust to. It was clear to me that the personal computer was a really powerful technology, and it was going to change the way we did things. I was excited to be in at the beginning of the popularization of computers so I could see how people changed.
That’s what was going on in the early ‘70s when I started working on this, but I would have to admit that my family was into computers a lot earlier than that. I grew up in a science and technology household. My father was an audiophile and had done some research on coding, worked with scientists at MIT. It was both questions of language and questions of coding and questions of the use of technology for all kinds of things that were dinner table conversation for us. Computing isn’t a big leap for me.
‘Technology’ doesn’t mean electronics; it means know how. ‘Technique’ is how you do things and -ology is the study of things. I think you’re asking when did I see the potential of electronic computers for education not [just as] technology? Everything has a technology whether it is a pencil or a digging stick. It is all technology.
Educational technology, when I was in school, was books, what we call ditto sheets or spirit masters, mimeographs, blackboards. There is a wonderful description [from the early 1900’s] of a blackboard as a fantastic new educational technology. But kids were using slates in the 1600’s; so, a big slate in the front of the classroom was a new technology compared with the small slates kids had at their desks through the 1800’s. [When I was in elementary school in the late ‘50s,] we were using what were called programmed learning books. These were little workbooks, small paper bound books, 8 1/2 by 11 inches, with questions or exercises on one side arranged so you folded a paper over the answer. Then you can slid the paper down to get the answer. You would look on the left hand side of the page — left because we are working in English, because I’m American — and the question or the exercise would be on the left hand side and you had the answer page closed. You wrote your answer down; then you slid the cover sheet down so you could see the answer. Then you could correct your own work.
My first introduction to computing in educating was automating that process [multiple choice drill and practice]. When we first started using computers they were large computers being time shared, so there were lots of people using the same computer. It was a no-brainer to go from that to communicating between those people. There was no Internet but you could send a message to somebody else. So the idea of creating simulated classrooms both synchronous (meaning everyone is communicating at the same time), or asynchronous (meaning one person puts in their ideas comments, responses and another person can see those later and interact in time segmented ways, asynchronously) arose quite easily.
Those were radical ideas for ordinary classroom teachers but for those of us who were trying to imagine what the future could be like, they were pretty obvious. That was a formal education aspect of educational computing but the non-formal education aspect of it was there, too. Here were these new instruments that we wanted to learn how to use – how were we going to learn how to use them when nobody else knew either? I think even more important than the effort to automate existing teaching techniques was the growth of peer interaction. You go study, or experiment however you can, then you come together in a group and you share what you discovered with everybody else and you hope they discovered something different so each one can teach each other. [The contemporary term for this, coined by Howard Rhinegold, is ‘peerogogy’.]
Two social technologies combine to create today’s educational technology landscape: studying by yourself and then coming together in a group to peer teach and the growth of what were originally printed newsletters or how-to-do-it manuals into what has now become the internet and all the how to do it YouTube videos — that was a pretty smooth transition. But back before today’s technologies were available we could imagine using these instruments to create that world.
Jon: You, Dean Brown, Stuart Cooney, started LO*OP Center, what were the main objectives?
Liza: Well, I was here at Sonoma State University at the time. My fellow students, and the professors as well, had access to the state college computer system — the actual computer system was at Cal State Northridge. We were sitting in Stevenson Hall in a little room with what were called glass teletypes. They were terminals with keyboards and screens and we were timesharing with Cal State system’s computer. There were what we would now call applications. In other words, if you wanted to crunch some numbers you could get a program to do that. There were games and lessons and programming languages available. There were about 6 or 7 seats in that little timeshare room and everybody was hunched over their keyboard. When somebody had a question, if they didn’t know how to do something, you turned to the person next to you and asked.
It was a real privilege to be able to use those. There were also, by the way, outside of the timeshare room, 3 or 4 punch machines so you could make your own deck of cards and submit your own deck to be batch processed which was more common at that time. In the early 70s, batch was the more normal way that people did computing – you didn’t do it in real time [on a keyboard and screen]. Unless you were a student at a university or working for a company that used computers, nobody had access to them. Nobody else could get to them. They couldn’t learn about them. They couldn’t access them. They couldn’t use them for their own purposes.
I thought that these things would infiltrate society, as they did. There were going to be two kinds of people in the world in the future: the kind of people who knew about computers and computing and how to control them, and the people who were controlled by them. To me that was a real anti-utopia. [LO*OP Center] was a way for ordinary people, those who were neither university students or people working for companies that had computers, to get access to them, learn about them, use them either for their work, for their play or for their education.
Jon: What are some opportunities LO*OP Center allowed the people?
Liza: We were right on the bus line between Petaluma and Santa Rosa [California] because we were in downtown Cotati.
There were almost no computers in schools so kids could come after school to LO*OP Center and do whatever they wanted with ours. We taught programming. We taught applications as they came up. We had games that required logical thinking. We had simulations.
We had the only publicly accessible copy machine as well. At that time, there were no copy centers; so, if you wanted to make a copy of something — I’m trying to think of where one would go aside from the LO*OP Center. Xerox machines (and there were only Xerox machines, that was what you could get) were just not publicly available. Big companies had them; otherwise, if you wanted a copy of something, you retyped it. When you knew you were going to want copies, you used carbon paper when you typed it. That was just a sideline but it actually brought us enough money to keep the doors open. People would come in and pay 15 or 20 cents a page.
There was one man who had a stock investment scheme who was working out his process on our computer, which was a PDP-8, a Digital Equipment Corporation machine. He came in often. Computer time was $10 an hour [on a walk-in basis]. If you wanted to rent time on one of our computers you could choose one of the 3 or 4 we had. You could rent private time on the computer for $10 hour, but for $10 a month you could become a member of LO*OP Center. The members could use the computers anytime [there was no walk-in traffic]. Kids came and played games. Schools brought field trips. After the first or second year we started taking the computers over to schools because people became more interested. [LO*OP Center] was also a place where people could just meet and greet. We had a lounge, and people could come, sit, and talk about their interests.
Jon: Can you further explain the story of the LO*OP Center being a milestone 1976 in the development of the internet and its significance for education?
Liza: That’s what happens when people who were not there try and rewrite history. I don’t think we were instrumental in the internet. All we did was show people that you could use a computer in a remote place over the telephone.
When we first opened in December 1975 we were on East Cotati Ave. in a second floor office. You had to get a special phone line to send data over the phone line. For starters, you couldn’t send it through the air [wi-fi didn’t exist]. We used what was called an acoustic coupler. You had your data conditioned line and an old fashioned telephone handset which had two round circles in it: one for the microphone, one for the speaker. You dialed up the computer line to someplace where there was a computer that had a modem at the other end. When it started buzzing and clicking, then you took your handset and you pushed it into two rubber cups on the modem. Modem, which stands for modulator-demodulator, took those audio clicks and buzzes and turned them into audio signals, which was the modulation. At the other end, the other modem demodulated, sent it as an electronic signal into the computer. Of course, if there was any noise or static on the line you got an error in the computer signal and would have to resend it.
We had an account with an organization named Call Computer in Mountain View California, which just sold time on their HP computer. We also had an account with Lawrence Hall of Science. That is how we opened. We did not have our own computer when we first opened. There was no Internet. There was the phone company, only one-phone company, which was AT&T. There were no alternate competing phone companies at the time. We had a teletype which is what they used to send telegrams through. It was all uppercase. The modems and the phone line went directly to the computer time that we rented on somebody else’s computer.
Just popularizing and letting people know that they can get access to a computer over the phone lines was, I think, creating the social context for the internet; so, maybe that’s what the person who wrote [about us contributing to the development of the internet] was talking about. Arpanet, the precursor to the Internet, existed at the time; but it was only [accessible] through universities and government agencies. It was started as a military communication device and there was connection at Moffett field in Mountain View with another connection at Stanford Research institute. There was no connection up here so if I wanted to get on Arpanet, I had to make a long distance phone call. There was a connection at UC Berkeley. it was probably a connection at Stanford University. Each of the connections was called a tip.
This was a time when there were a lot of counterculture people out there, some of whom were actually in the military and were in big corporations. A friend gave me the access codes for the Arpanet tips. Some of us got on the Arpanet and used it to send messages, precursors to email, to our friends across the country or the world. I think the person that picked up that we were doing Internet kind of stuff was just looking at us using telnet, which was an intermediate service you needed in addition to the phone company. I’m trying to think of what the relationship was between them — you had to have both an AT&T account and a telnet account. The telnet number called the computer number and both the sending terminal and the receiving computer had to have telnet accounts.
I want to do HCLE [The History of Computing in Learning and Education Project] so people have a concept of how complicated it was to do what we take for granted today. I have lots of manuals showing, telling, how to use this stuff and what exactly the process is. Of course because we had a public access computer center I had to write instructions for how to do this for people who came in off the street and wanted to use computers to play computer games [that were only available remotely].
Jon: How did HCLE come about?
Liza: Well actually there were two triggers. One was that I had to close the storefront several years earlier. HCLE started in 2003 as a dream, not as a reality. The LO*OP Center had been closed as a storefront computer center for over 10 years. The public access dream was not happening at that time but I [had collected everything I could find about using computers in education and] never threw anything out. I had it in storage and had to move all that stuff. I said to myself, “Well, I have to get rid of most of this. Either I can throw it out, or I can assume somebody might be interested in it and make a museum out of it.” As I was trying to figure out what to do one of my board members for LO*OP Center, Jackie Hood, said she would really like to do the museum project. She started working on it but we ended up deciding to take it in different directions. Since I was the founder the project took my direction but Jackie was instrumental in getting me going.
Jon: What are your thoughts on the use of computers as an educational tool and where do you see the future of this technique?
Liza: Education comes from the Latin word -educare means lead out of. Education is always a way of leading someone out of the way that they are into some new place. I always contrast education with learning. Learning goes on all the time. Everything and every situation is an opportunity for learning. If a person has changed, they learned something. They may learn to be afraid of thunder, or they may learn to calculate differential equations. Those are both learning experiences. Learning to use a new tool is just as much learning as being able to recite the Gettysburg address; even though one may be on some formal curriculum and the other one isn’t.
Learning to use a computer has become a part of formal education. It’s both a school subject and a tool to teach other things.
Another aspect of education is that, in general, we only teach proactively those things that people don’t learn spontaneously. This is becoming a problem because, in a world surrounded by books and writing and computers, little kids often learn these things without any formal teaching. There are lots of kids who get curious and teach themselves to read. Most of us don’t learn to use a modern computer in school. We learn it from our friends at home. There is a tension between the process we see at school where somehow the learner is supposed to wait for the teacher to present information to them and then acquire it through that presentation process vs. the absorbing that we do when learning from our environment.
It is important to think about those issues and the relationship between computing and school because the modern computer does two things. First of all it has become ubiquitous. 2 or 3 year olds are learning how to use computers the way they are learning how to use crayons, which doesn’t necessarily happen in school. In a home, one which wouldn’t be considered a ‘culturally deprived’ home, every kid learns how to use a computer and probably learns how to hold a pencil. Today, lots of kids are learning how to use computers without needing to be formally taught. The fact that the computer is part of the home environment and you learn to use it from your older brothers and sisters means it is not a school subject. Once you know how to read and use a computer there is a huge world of information that is open to you which didn’t used to be open to people.
We used to be pretty much limited to the knowledge that was available in our family, in our neighborhood, through our teachers, through our school. Once you have a computer and its related connections to the rest of the world it becomes a window on a world that is much bigger than the funnel through which any single teacher could feed you of information. I had that particular concept in the early 70’s and was really excited about empowering people to be self-directed learners. In a sense, that’s a very disruptive function for the machine. It disrupts the function of the school.
I am a rebel and didn’t much like school, was always bored. I saw computing as a way for everybody to break out of the classroom, to break out of the lockstep of school, to be able to access the information you are interested in, follow your dreams, learn what you wanted to learn. In a sense, when you have that kind of access to the world of knowledge, a teacher becomes an accessory to your world of learning, the learner becomes the center of the activity, and the teacher becomes one of many different tools that you use to learn. It is a completely different way of thinking about growing up and continuing to grow, growing out. Once you’ve grown up you still keep growing out. It’s a different way of thinking about the teaching process than the teacher-centered classroom.
In a way, the computer is a Trojan horse that would break down the walls of the school. I was very excited about that possibility. I’m also really unhappy when I see schools try and lock down the computer — close it up. I think that is a defensive move to try to preserve the status quo of the teacher-centered classroom. I think it is doomed to failure. The sooner we reinvent the way we scaffold learning the better. The computer is now actually being the Trojan horse that I thought it would become.
Jon: What is some key knowledge you gained and some lessons or facts about computers you feel everyone should know or be aware of?
Liza: I think the key facts in learning are not about technology; they are about people. I think, since we are humans, we live in our own psychology and our own bodies. Knowing ourselves and what keeps us happy, active and interested are the most important things we can know. I know that I can not sit in front of a computer forever. It is really important for each person to experience computing but not to become enslaved to it. Because the computer is a window on the world it is very addicting to sit looking out that window. We have to understand the danger of that addiction and learn to cope with it. We must not lose sight of all of the other joys that are available to humans.
So that is number one. Number two is that the computer with its associated telecommunications breaks down both time and space between us as individuals. It gives us opportunities for social relationships that we have never had before. This society, whether we are talking about American or western or global, doesn’t yet know how to use our newfound ability, talent, opportunity. I think we are going to have to do a lot of — I like the term ‘social engineering’. I know a lot of people think the term is pejorative but I see it as building and inventing new ways of relating that enhance the common good.
The anti-utopia is the possibility that those folks who know about computers will use them to control everybody else. That is why I started LO*OP Center. I didn’t want that scenario to become reality. In a way it is becoming a reality. An awful number of modern jobs basically use the person, the worker, as a peripheral to a computer. When I call a helpdesk or customer service, I’m really not interested in having the person I talk to read to me what is on the screen — what I could read for myself. To me that is an example of being a peripheral to a computer. If I’m going to talk to a human I want him or her to be a thinking, feeling person. I don’t want the customer service person to give me an apology which is written on his or her screen, or to tell me “Thank you for my patience.” when I have given every indication that I was not patient at all.
This suggests another opportunity for reinventing our society — to make sure we stay honest and do not let ourselves become what I perceive as slaves to the machine. Really, the danger is not being slaves to the machine; it is being slaves to the person behind the machine. There is never a case when the computer will not let you do something because the computer never gives permission. The computer just does what the computer is programmed to do. If somebody tells me he or she can’t do something because the computer will not let him, I respond: “that’s a small matter of programming.” I have to get through the shield people have used the computer for, use it to protect themselves with. The key is to get to the person who is doing the instruction of the programmer. That person is telling the programmer what to have the computer tell the customer service representative what to tell the customer. The customer is the consumer, the user, the poor bloke who wants to get something done.
Why did I start LO*OP Center? – So that we, as individuals, would be inoculated against this tyranny of the machine — really the tyranny of the people behind the machine. A computer literate public just wouldn’t fall for that. I don’t think I have succeeded. This story needs to be told and told over and over again. It is a rallying cry.
Jon: What is the ideal future of HCLE?
Liza: There are three ideal futures. My intent is for LO*OP to be an ongoing institution.
One ideal future is that the virtual museum survives in some form. I really want to preserve the story of how computing got from being completely irrelevant to education to being considered a foundation stone of teaching and learning. That story is getting lost. People do not know anymore what we went through to get here and what we thought about how to create the future we are living in now. Having a sustainable format and keeping the history of computing and learning in education accessible is just one ideal.
Having HCLE be a force for keeping people from being terrorized by the machine, oppressed by the shield that the machine is used for, is another ideal for me.
That credit is given to the visionary people who worked very hard to bring about the personal computing revolution is another ideal. They had foresight and now they are dying and being forgotten. If I’m forgotten that is not so important. But if all of us are forgotten, that is a bad thing, I think. It is a story of innovation. It is a story of change and it is a story of a great deal of creativity. I think it would be fun to have it told.
Jon: What is the best way for an individual to handle technology that they might feel is out of their control?
Liza: That is a wonderful question. There are a lot of different ways of controlling, different kinds of control.
When I was teaching at LO*OP Center, when it was open for 3 years as a public access computer center, the kids were often excited about robots. The best way to control a robot, the sure fire way to control a robot, is to remove its power supply. If it doesn’t have some source of electricity it is dead. Whether that meant unplugging it, or taking its batteries out, or turning it off – that is the number one way of controlling electronic technology.
Another aspect of control, at least with respect to computer and internet technology, is privacy concerns. This includes maintaining and protecting one’s identity on the web and whatever other information one wants to keep out of public knowledge. I think the best way to do that is not to put it on the internet in the first place. If it is on the airwaves, on the net, in a computer that is connected to anything else, you might as well kiss it goodbye. It is public. Sooner or later our whole banking system is going to get hacked and we are in for an amazing surprise. That’s my personal belief. If you’re trying to control your privacy then don’t put the information on a computer. Another way to control secrets is not to have any. If you do put it on the computer be prepared for the public to know, for the world to know. I like the no secrets approach myself, but in those few cases where I don’t want the public to know I just do not put it on the computer.
One additional form of dealing with a technology is to learn a lot about it. Again technology is not only computers, not only electronics. Technology is know-how and, in a sense, without know-how there is no electronic technology. You don’t want the other guy to be the only one who has got the know-how. If you want control, you have to have to know and understand what you are dealing with.
Learning the basic principle of ‘garbage-in, garbage-out’ is incredibly important. There was a management textbook that I read when I took a management course here at Sonoma State. It cited a study of whether people had more trust in content that was handwritten, typewritten, or presented as computer printout. Those were the days you could tell the difference between a computer printout and a typewritten page. At the time the study was done in 1965 people believed the computer printout first, the typewritten second, and the handwritten third. That’s backwards. Anyone can make a computer print out anything they want. The fact that it is on a computer is totally irrelevant to its accuracy. That is what the ‘garbage-in, garbage-out’ principle means. You’re more likely to get something honest if somebody wrote you a handwritten note than you are if you are to find it on Wikipedia. Another way of taking control is learning what messages to trust and what messages are suspect and learning how to verify. How do you triangulate? How do you figure out whether something that somebody is telling you, I won’t say ‘is real because I don’t know what reality is, but has a high probability of being reliable in this small piece of the universe that we live in?
About Jon Cappetta: HCLE Intern
One of my favorite things about being a Communications Major at Sonoma State University would have to be the elective credit classes that they offer. One of my all time favorite classes I have ever taken would have to be Coms 365, which is Sonoma States radio class. I took Coms 365 first semester of my senior year and loved the freedom of playing my own music on air live and loved the opportunity to bring in my friends and talk about anything that we to. Even though I’m no longer taking that class, i still find myself in the KSUN studio every once in a while as a celebrity guest on my roommates show. My roommate’s partner this week happened to be out of town for the weekend so I stepped in as a co-host replacement. I thought it would be a cool opportunity to tell Sam and his viewers about my internship at History of Computing in Learning and Education and what I have learned so far. It was fun yet different being asked questions about HCLE, because in my newspaper class I was always was so use to being the interviewer. It was fun because I felt prepared with the questions Sam had for me because I had recently interviewed Liza and many of Sam’s questions were questions that I had for Liza in our interview. Speaking of the interview with Liza, I found myself to be very appreciative of that interview for it bettered my knowledge on HCLE to where I now feel as though I can fully explain the history and objectives behind HCLE. I had a blast on Sam’s radio show this week and glad he gave me the opportunity to talk about HCLE. Every week I feel as though I’m learning something new about HCLE. That being said hopefully Sam will need me on his show again, so we can talk more about some of the new discoveries I learn from HCLE.
* Interview paraphrased for clarity.