NETFUTURE Technology and Human Responsibility for the Future -------------------------------------------------------------------------- Issue #19 Copyright 1996 O'Reilly & Associates May 16, 1996 -------------------------------------------------------------------------- Editor: Stephen L. Talbott (firstname.lastname@example.org) On the Web: http://netfuture.org You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes. CONTENTS: *** Editor's note *** High-tech and productivity Are we seeing renewed productivity or a last gasp? *** Masculine transcendentalism When the physical world melts away *** Computers at school: the web and the plow (Lowell Monke) Reckoning with the costs of technology *** About this newsletter
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In a letter to the New York Review of Books (May 23) Thomas Landauer, author of The Trouble with Computers: Usefulness, Usability, and Productivity, asks whether it is true, as some think, that "the long inability of information technology to raise productivity is a thing of the past." In particular, he wonders whether the "epidemic of corporate downsizing and rising stock prices" is evidence of a new trend. Here is his answer, in part:
Unfortunately, these developments are better explained by a very different interpretation: The failure of huge investments in information technology (about five trillion invested, about zero net return) has driven US businesses into a desperate gamble to avert ruin. They are trying to keep profits up by delivering poorer service (voice-menu receptionists, delayed installations) and lower quality (airline food and seat-room) using fewer underpaid and overworked people. More than one Fortune 500 company has been driven to extreme downsizing by huge expenditures--hundreds of millions--on computer-based "reengineering" efforts that were either abandoned or ineffective. I have heard of no case of demonstrated corporate-wide efficiency gains that come close to justifying the magnitude of the downsizings at IBM, AT&T, NYNEX, Huges, Kodak, BellSouth... Meanwhile, highly productive firms like 3M eschew information technology excesses and layoffs.Landauer, who works out of the University of Colorado's Institute of Cognitive Science, sees "frightened top management of efficiency-stagnant industries making devil's bargains with wall Street, mortgaging the future real effectiveness of their businesses and the morale of all America for short-term gains in profit and stock prices."
A similar note is struck by economics Nobel Prize laureate Robert M. Solow: "The hype about productivity has been much greater than the performance." [New York Times, 12 May 96, via Edupage] SLT
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[As a follow-up to some earlier discussion about mysticism on the Net, I thought many of our readers might like to see this one-paragraph summary of some of David Noble's thought. The summary comes from Phil Agre's Network Observer, volume 3, number 4. SLT]
I take this marvelous phrase, masculine transcendentalism, from the historian of technology David Noble. We can see masculine transcendentalism at work in Wired magazine, or in all of the hype around artificial intelligence or virtual reality. The story is this: someday soon, the physical world is going to wither away. Everything is going to become digital. All of our minds will be downloaded onto machines. All of our books and paintings will move into digital media. We will no longer have bodies, and most amazingly of all, we will work in the paperless office. Noble's brilliant insight is that this is a religious worldview, and his historical research demonstrates compellingly that it developed out of a religious worldview without any particular discontinuity along the way. It is a millenarian worldview in that it posits a perfect future in which everything will be transformed. It is a transcendental worldview in that it calls for the whole world to be raised up and dissolved into incorporeal realm that leaves the body and all the messy stuff in the social world behind. It sounds funny and hyperbolic when you frame it this way, but it is an enormously influential way of speaking in industry and elsewhere.
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[Lowell Monke, keeper of a NETFUTURE-affiliated web resource center, "Confronting Technology," has been a teacher of mathematics and computer technology for the past nineteen years, including two stints at international schools in Ecuador and Germany. He currently teaches Advanced Computer Technology, along with Talented and Gifted math, at Central Campus, Des Moines Public Schools. He is also working on a doctorate in Historical, Philosophical and Comparative Studies in Education at Iowa State University.
Lowell was worried that the first part of this essay might be "old hat" to NETFUTURE readers. On my part, I found it refreshingly untypical and a valuable commentary from beginning to end. If only the educational establishment could occasionally hear such a voice....Some of you can no doubt help to make that happen by forwarding this issue of NETFUTURE to relevant educational forums in which you participate. SLT]
COMPUTERS AT SCHOOL: THE WEB AND THE PLOWMy father grew up on an Iowa farm at a time when the field work was still done with horses. He has often told me how much he enjoyed working with the teams his father owned. But his biggest chuckle always comes when he recalls how his younger brother, Virgil, struggled to develop the strength and determination to bend the will of those powerful animals to the needs of the farm. The horses were none too kind to him, apparently, especially when they "smelled the barn" at the end of a hot day in the fields. Dad tells of watching them flying across the field for home at full gallop, equipment careening along behind, with little Virgil clutching the reigns, trying to stay on the seat, hoping only to somehow steer clear of total disaster.
The image of my uncle, hurtling along behind headstrong charges, often comes to mind when I work with computers. Even though I teach computer technology, I often sense that rather than being the master of it I am merely holding on as it rampages along out of any real human control. This seems especially true of computer telecommunication. The educational community has been heavily bombarded with hype about "the information superhighway." But in practice, the connections are often unreliable, the interfaces unintuitive, the documentation unintelligible, the information unfindable. And when we do get the systems working, the technology itself changes so fast that we never feel fully confident about what we are doing. We often sense that we are just clutching the reigns, trying to stay on a wagon being swept along by technological forces that have "smelled the barn" and are racing us through the field toward a destination not really of our own making.
Sure, the computer promises to provide my students with an endless supply of information, but what good will that do if they can't make sense of any of it? It promises to help my students express their ideas better, but what good will that do if they don't have any ideas to express? It promises to help them develop marketable skills for a technological society, but how valuable is that if they have never developed the good judgment needed to live a fulfilling life?
The key question for me was, How is computer technology going to help my students develop those inner qualities, such as insight, creativity and good judgment, which education at its best has always sought to inspire? To put it another way, Is there a way to harness the power of computer technology to serve my students' search for meaning in their learning and in their lives?
This question is scarcely asked these days, much less answered. (It certainly doesn't go over big at educational computing conferences.) Let me make it more concrete by telling about one of my computer students, whom I'll call Peter.
Peter took part in a project called The Media Matters in which students studied the ways various media treat news. He was part of a team that investigated how TV reported the Mark Fuhrman controversy during the O.J. Simpson trial. One of the questions we wanted the students to consider was whether the source seemed to have a liberal or conservative bias. On the second day of his research Peter came up to me and asked, "What do liberal and conservative mean?" This is a good question (try answering it), except that I could see from the vacancy signs flashing in his eyes that this was not a matter of clarification but total ignorance. The meanings of these words weren't vague; they didn't exist. Here was an eighteen year old boy -- man, really -- qualified, at least physically and legally, to vote in elections, and he had, I soon discovered, not the slightest inkling of the meaning of those two terms. What sense does this young man make of the political discourse going on around him? This is, after all, Iowa, where presidential candidates know hog farmers, and some hogs, by their first names.
I suppose we could say that he is merely lacking information. But it's more than that, I think. He admitted to having encountered the terms many times. What he was missing was something more fundamental. He was lacking comprehension of the great (and not so great) ideas that give meaning to the information that passed through his eyes and ears. Somehow he never got initiated into the conversations that define our culture.
Ironically, by the standards of many high-tech educational reformers, Peter was well-educated. He was a good math student. He had adequate English skills. He was already technologically proficient -- he was taking the most advanced computer class the school district offered. Name your destination on the information superhighway and he could take you there; just don't ask him to explain what he found when he arrived. When he graduated that spring he was ready for work. But was he ready to be part of his community?
When Gutenberg announced that he could manufacture books...he did not imagine that his invention would undermine the authority of the Catholic Church. And yet, less than eighty years later, Martin Luther was, in effect, claiming that with the word of God available in every home, Christians did not require the papacy to interpret it for them. [1988, pg. 151]Whether this was a benefit to society or a detriment I have no intention of getting into. But certainly it was a side-effect that Gutenberg, a devout Catholic, did not anticipate.
Postman has concluded that technologies are ecological; that is, their introduction sends out ripples that rearrange relationships throughout the system. Regardless of the technologies' intended uses, they also work at a deeper, personal level, influencing the way we act, the way we think, the way we view the world. If I drive a car to school in the morning, rather than, say, riding a bike, the use of the car influences not only the speed and comfort with which I get there (my main purposes for using it) but it also insulates me from contact with nature and people and gives me no exercise. Riding a bike exposes me to the possibility of skidding across the pavement on my nose at 15 mph, but it stimulates my circulation and makes few demands on energy resources (other than my own). It also gives me a chance to hear the birds sing and at least exchange greetings with fellow riders and pedestrians. Each time I choose a tool to use, certain values get amplified while others get reduced [Bowers, 1988]. These values, in turn, tend to both reflect and influence my entire world view.
The computer is one of the most powerful world-view-influencers. While we are working on it, it works on us, chipping here, smoothing there, molding our expansive minds to fit its powerful but much narrower capabilities. Because its operation is based solely on the highly abstract thinking process called logic, it amplifies this one aspect of our cognition. But it does this at the expense of other ways of thinking and knowing, such as intuition, physical contact, and the entire gamut of emotional and spiritual experience. As social critic Theodore Roszak says, "We do not bring the full resources of self to the computer" [1986, pg. 71].
Certainly a primary purpose of education is to develop "the full resources of self." Thus, it seems to me that we need to be very careful about employing devices that limit the exercise of all those resources. Looked at in this way, telecomputing - indeed, the computer itself - can be seen as an inappropriate tool for some ages and educational endeavors. I say this not to condemn all uses of telecomputing in the classroom, but to point out what I believe is a major responsibility that goes with it.
While I was growing up my dad rented a farm that bordered one owned by an old fellow named Louis Prien. Louie was a relic. He was probably the last holdout in our area against the shift from horsepower to tractor power. My dad liked to say Louie was as stubborn as the mules he drove through his fields. Louie wouldn't, or couldn't, adapt to changing times. He got left behind by progress.
But to those of us who knew him he also provided a reminder of what progress took away from farming. Mechanization, which sits us high above the soil and runs us across much more of it at a much faster speed, somehow also alters our psychological relationship to it. Land becomes a resource from which we extract as much profit as possible. Likewise, the hundreds or thousands of livestock we can run through our feedlots become viewed primarily as products. Our crops and our animials are essentially means to an end, which is profit.
We always got the feeling that for Louie the soil, the livestock, the work were the ends as well as the means. It was as impossible to separate him from his land as it would have been to separate his land from the creek that ran through it. He knew each animal he owned, probably by name. Working with all of it, bringing it to life year after year is what gave meaning to his life.
My dad understood this even though he never articulated it. He may also have understood in his bones that increased mechanization was prying loose his sense of belonging to the land. This (along with the normal irritation caused by a know-it-all teenager) was probably the thorn that was digging under his skin when he chastised me with uncharacteristic sharpness one day for making fun of how slowly Louie and his mules moved through the fields. My dad was a bridge between worlds, and though he accepted the benefits and demands of the new one he could still appreciate what the old world offered -- and wasn't at all pleased that his son could not.
What does all of this have to do with computers and education? There are at least a couple of important lessons to be learned, I think. The most important may be that in choosing the computer we are not simply making a choice based on one tool being better for a job than another. The computer, like the tractor, carries some pretty hefty psychological and cultural baggage along with it. Employing it without concern for the weight of that baggage may result in some important educational values being unintentionally left behind.
Here is one example. Quiet contemplation was once held up to students as a key cognitive process needed to develop and understand ideas. Ideas, in turn, were widely regarded as the foundation of real knowledge. And ideas don't require much information [Roszak, 1986]. But the computer's role in learning is, more than anything else, one of information accessor and manipulator. As the computer lowers the floodgates to data, will ideas give way to information as the basis of knowledge? Will quiet contemplation give way to frenzied net-surfing as the most esteemed intellectual process?
This certainly seems to be the trend. Listen to those pushing computers at the schools and you will hear "information" spoken almost as a mantra. Look at the packaged telecommunications projects and you will see that the vast majority involve the collection and sharing of data. There is, of course, a place for this kind of activity. But in leaning heavily on computers for learning, we risk altering, without conscious intent, the very definition of what we mean by knowledge, and finding, to our surprise, that we have come to the same position as my dad, shaking our heads over students who can't even comprehend what has been lost.
A second lesson we could learn from Louie Prien is that the computer, like the tractor, tends to distance us from what we are learning. This may seem a strange statement, considering the ability of the computer to facilitate communication between students on opposite sides of the world. But the "distance" I am talking about has to do not with physical distance but rather the cognitive distance from first hand experience. Dramatist Max Frisch defined technology as "the knack of so arranging the world that we do not experience it [quoted in Postman, 1995, pg. 10]. Roszak applies this view to education by observing that placing a computer between the child and the subject "puts more distance between intention and result" [1986, pg xxxvi]. The more complex the technology is, the farther removed we find ourselves from the object of study.
The trade-off involved with this distancing may be of no concern when studying something as inaccessible as the surface of Mars. But what if the subject is trees? The best the computer can do is teach the student about trees, through images and text -- abstract symbols, decontextualized and cast on a two dimensional screen. Contrast this with the way small children normally come to know trees -- by peeling its bark, climbing among its branches, sitting under its shade, jumping into its piled-up leaves. Just as importantly, these first-hand experiences are enveloped by feelings and associations -- muscles being used, sun warming the skin, blossoms scenting the air -- none of which can be even approximated by a computer.
This is exactly what Roszak is talking about when he says we don't bring all the resources of self to the computer. It is what Frisch was talking about when he said technology keeps us from experiencing the world. It is the enormous qualitative difference between learning about something and learning from something. It is a sorry fact that our schools presently do very little to facilitate this kind of learning; perhaps if they did, the computer wouldn't look so attractive in comparison.
The computer can get us lots of information about lots of things. But in extracting, and abstracting, the essential information, it filters out the rich context that direct experience provides. One of the problems that is encountered in using telecommunications for education is that while it broadens the students' knowledge by bringing them the accounts of other people's experiences, it cannot deepen it the way first-hand experience can. Sitting high atop the computer, students may be able to survey thousands, millions of acres of knowledge, but only if those students forgo taking the time to sink their hands deep and long into the educational soil that lies right at their feet.
All of this is merely to emphasize that computers bring certain values to the educational table. These values will amplify certain kinds of learning while ignoring or even discouraging others. Among other things, the computer encourages an appreciation for efficiency, measurability, objectivity, rationality, progress and the accumulation and manipulation of data (lots of data). These are all traits noted by both computer advocates and their critics. But what promoters never talk about is what is not inherently encouraged by the computer, and is, therefore, less valued in using it than those cited above. Here is a short list:
These are precisely the qualities that I believe should be the fundamental goals of education -- and the computer itself does nothing to enhance them.
It seems to me that this is one new teaching role we have to accept. (Certainly it should be a major concern in any telecomputing activity.) Computer technology is rapidly becoming a major ingredient of education in this country. We can't turn education over to computers but we can't turn our backs on them either. History has a lesson for us here, if we accept Marshall McLuhan's interpretation of it:
If we persist in a conventional approach to these developments our traditional culture will be swept aside as scholasticism was in the 16th century. Had the Schoolmen with their complex oral culture understood the Gutenberg technology, they could have created a new synthesis of written and oral education, instead of bowing out of the picture and allowing the merely visual page to take over the educational enterprise. The oral Schoolmen did not meet the new visual challenge of print, and the resulting expansion or explosion of Gutenberg technology was in many respects an impoverishment of the culture...[1964, pg. 75]Somehow we have to find a way to create this new synthesis, in which all modes of learning are honored and given an appropriate place. But it should be clear by now that I do not think this is as easy as giving each child a computer and an Internet address. As McLuhan implies, embarking on such a course would, in all too many respects, lead to an impoverishment of our educational culture, and, no doubt, our culture in general.
What I have been trying to hammer home is that using computer technology in education is hard work; not in the sense of getting the machinery to work -- that's really the easy part. The hard work is finding ways to get it to support our efforts to nurture our students' attempts to reach their highest human potential. With the perplexing task of integrating computer technology with print and oral traditions before us, now is hardly the time for the teacher to step aside and become "the guide on the side" that the wide-eyed technophiles keep pushing. The responsibility we have for preserving what is dear to us from the old as well as discovering what is truly beneficial in the new is enormous, and not something to be left to chance encounters in cyberspace.
A new synthesis of education. This is really what is needed. It is the harnessing of a new powerhouse to the educational plow, not to replace the old familiar workhorses, but to enhance and extend their reach when it serves human purposes. Educational telecomputing is not just a matter of how to get these machines communicating with each other. It is not just a technical activity. It is, rather, an enterprise governed by the search for opportunities for student growth.
At times I have been surprised at the depth of human understanding that the computer has facilitated. At other times I have had to work very hard to keep the technology from choking it. But always, I have tried to keep as the goal expanding the capabilities of my young students' minds and hearts, rather than expanding the use of the computer for its own sake. I see this as one of the key responsibilities of classroom teachers - to protect the interests of the children in their care against the commercial/technological alliance which too often cares more about education as a market than as a servant of children's needs. If schools are going to be part of the revolution in education, the change has to emerge from the classroom, not the boardroom, not the houses of Congress, certainly not from cyberspace. It has to be led by teachers who care about the lives of each of their students, not policy-makers focusing on the economic competitiveness of the nation.
Whatever we think of them, computers will be a part of the educational landscape. Will the reflection of society that we observe in our classrooms of tomorrow be a cold, mechanical training ground focused on the ingestion of megabytes of information, or will it be an image filled with the rich textures and deep meanings that form the tapestry of a thoughtful life? Will our digital tools be synthesized into a larger, more wholistic learning environment, or will we simply capitulate to a new, but restricted form of education? Exploring the possibilities offers an incredible, mind-stretching opportunity not only for teachers but for our students as well.
It is our responsibility as educators to lead that exploration critically, always concerned about what we are giving up as well as what we might gain - searching for the synthesis that McLuhan advocated. Only if we approach telecomputing in this way will we be able to escape becoming the teaching equivalent of my poor uncle Virgil. With the welfare of our students at stake it is not enough for educators to merely ride along on the technological bandwagon. That course will inevitably turn us into technicians and education into mere training. If we want to truly enrich and ennoble the lives of our students, then we each have to grab the reigns and force these spirited new dynamos within our reach to work for us in ways that elevate the human purposes of education.
--It should be noted that this essay grew out of conversations and telecomputing projects designed and coordinated with R.W. Burniske during the past five years. R.W., who teaches English at the International School of Kuala Lumpur, deserves credit for generating and helping to shape many of the ideas expressed here.
McLuhan, M. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Signet Books, New York 1964.
Postman, N. The End of Education. Knopf, New York 1995.
Postman, N. The disappearance of childhood. In Conscientious Objections, A.A. Knopf Inc., New York 1988, pp. 147-161. This essay was condensed from a book: The Disappearance of Childhood. Delacorte Press, New York 1982.
Roszak, T. The Cult of Information - A Neo-Luddite Treatise on High-Tech, Artificial Intelligence, and the True Art of Thinking. University of California Press, Berkeley 1986.
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http://netfuture.org/subscribe.html.Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #19 :: May 16, 1996
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