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Helping People Click

Helping People Click, by Robert Taylor
By Robert Taylor

When I was growing up, my father, a pioneering aviator, was asked to run a flight school in Georgia. Naturally, we flew down from Pittsburgh – in a light aircraft. It took us three days, stopping each night to stay over somewhere.

As an adult, I’ve often thought about my dad – and bout his father, an immigrant to the United States who died in the flu epidemic of 1918. They were both travelers whom technology enabled to cross distances and cultures.

I have traveled, too – first, as a physics and math teacher in TC’s Teachers for East Africa program and, later, to countries everywhere, preaching the potential of computers for everyday living and learning. It wasn’t always an easy sell: some governments feared such a powerful and mysterious knowledge tool, and many people saw computers as exotic things, of interest only to scientists, with no relevance to their own lives.

I understood their feelings. I’d learned programming in the basement of what’s now the Columbia Business School, on a machine with a memory bank 40 feet high, six feet long and three feet thick. It had the amount of memory one finds today on a two-inch memory stick, for under $30. But I was also a singer and an artist, and wherever I went, I sang at meeting or in local churches and cathedral and drew sketches of colleagues at conferences – and then I displayed and shared recordings and images digitally. Singing pieces by universally known composers such as Bach and Mozart, I believe, made me seem less a foreigner from another culture and the world of technology. And – I like to think – the demonstrations of computers’ more humanistic uses made the machines less scary, too.

I particularly recall a computer conference in South Africa during the apartheid era. One Sunday morning, I sang a Mozart aria at a black church in Pretoria. The applause at the end was more in appreciation of a white man crossing societal barriers than for the performance. Later, some of those I met elsewhere in South Africa traveled to New York to sing in Riverside Church.

Through these journeys I saw that both art and science, at their best, create mutual understanding and bridge the divide of our differences. Thirty years ago, when my dad tried to call me in Uganda, it took him three days to get through. Today, with a click, computers can make that transmission near-instantaneous – but the journey is no less profound.

Published Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013