NETFUTURE Technology and Human Responsibility -------------------------------------------------------------------------- Issue #46 Copyright 1997 Bridge Communications April 18, 1997 -------------------------------------------------------------------------- Editor: Stephen L. Talbott (email@example.com) On the Web: http://netfuture.org You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes. CONTENTS: *** Quotes and Provocations Sue the Bastards Censorship, Kids, and the ACLU How Computers Can Help You Win Over Your Senator More on Technological Aimlessness *** Child, Teacher, World: Three Elements of Education (Stephen L. Talbott) How to meet a snake *** About this newsletter
The companies are right, of course. Liability might kill off much of the software business. But, then, that's a rather interesting fact that needs reckoning with. In what other businesses do we say, "It's impossible to build this product or provide this service reliably, so let's relieve the vendor of responsibility"?
There probably are some useful comparisons with other businesses. But my point at the moment is simply that this disclaimer suggests an obvious conclusion: society's dependencies upon the software industry ought to be cautiously entered into. That is, you'd think we would accept such dependencies at first only in an experimental sort of way, with our eyes wide open. But, instead, billions of dollars are thrown at the nation's schools so they can get wired, companies continue buying computer equipment at manic rates (see "Still Looking for the Productive Computer" in NF #45), and a public bracing for the year 2000 problem has to wonder rather helplessly what further surprises the computer industry has up its sleeves.
Actually, the simplest way to drive some sanity into the high-tech industry would probably be for government to say (in appropriate legal terms), "Sure, go ahead and sue the bastards." That's not about to happen -- not, at least, in any full sense. But a word of warning to software companies: remember the tobacco industry. There's a long road ahead, and a lot of opportunity for mindsets to change. Like, maybe around the year 2000.
Meanwhile, boys in Ohio were caught looking at Internet pornography at the local library. Subsequently, the state's 700 public libraries decided to place software filters between children and "obscene" Internet sites. And, yes, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) objects. According to the ACLU, "there is no software on the market that can target pornography and leave legitimate material alone." (Stories from Wall Street Journal and Associated Press, via Edupage.)
My dear ACLU folks: Please repeat those words loudly and clearly -- "there is no software on the market that can target pornography and leave legitimate material alone" -- and then remember them when finally some sensible parents sue the local school board over the fact that their kid is being forcibly exposed to a diverse, entire-world-without-discrimination, all-doors-open, back-alley, everything-goes environment over which there is no possibility of adequate supervision.
I only wish the debate didn't usually focus on porn and pedophiles. Such matters may be of concern, but in the larger picture are not nearly as significant as the general problem of providing proper, child-like environments for children, where their imaginations can run natural and free in guided interaction with teachers, and where they are truly allowed to be children. Anyone who has seen grade school environments become magical kingdoms for children knows how much work and wisdom goes into making those environments what they are. It's exactly the kind of work that cannot reliably be sustained on the Net.
When are we going to wake up and realize that all the fuss over censorship -- which is likely to continue growing in severity -- points us to a more fundamental quesion, which is this: Why are we insisting on shifting our culture -- and particularly our educational system -- over to a medium that, by its nature, allows none of the distinctions, none of the rootedness, none of the stability and predictability, none of the security, and not even any of the diversity that can so readily be fostered in places? There is, after all, no true diversity (as opposed to chaos) when there are no stable and distinct places in which different cultures can take slow and deliberate root.
Henry J. Perkinson, in his book, No Safety in Numbers: How the Computer Quantified Everything and Made People Risk-Aversive (Cresskill, NY: Hampton, 1996), sketches one part of the picture. In a discussion of the various ways computers have changed the nature of congressional work as well as lobbying, he writes:
The computer has made possible one other way for lobbyists to influence Congress. They buy or create grassroots movements. They plant, maintain, and orchestrate coalitions of voters to exert pressure on elected officials. By using computers, lobbyists can target demographic groups based on such characteristics as the kinds of home, cars, clothes, magazines, tapes, discs, and gadgets people buy. Each group has political reactions that are fairly predictable, so the right message can be sent to the right people through telephone, mail, or mailgram. To facilitate targeted mailings, commercial firms sell computer tapes matching members of Congress (with their sub-committees and issue specializations) with lists of voters collated by interest and district. Some trade associations collect advance proxies from their members and have their names on computers, ready for generating instant mass mailings. The life insurance lobby has developed kits that include pretyped letters addressed to Congressmen that have varied texts, personalized letterheads, on different colors of stationery -- to avoid the appearance of mass production.The computer provides a channel for deep communication between individuals, if they are willing to work at it. Clearly, though, where the computer excels with least effort is at mass production. Unblinking, it executes large-scale, coordinated manipulations without regard for the niceties of individual responsibility and freedom of thought.
Congress is now buried in an avalanche of computer generated mail organized by lobbies. In 1972, the House of Representatives received 14.6 million pieces of mail. By 1985, it had increased to more than 225 million pieces -- an average of more than half a million pieces a year per member. Sometimes lobby groups target a particular day and truck in computerized mail all at once to a key member of Congress, like the House Speaker. On several occasions, House Speaker Tip O'Neill received 5 million pieces of mail in a single day .... The record was set in Summer 1985 when three tractor-trailer trucks delivered 15 to 18 million pieces.
Even though the pressure from the grassroots looks contrived, elected officials cannot ignore it. Mass mail reveals organizational force, and that can threaten a politician's reelection.
There is no such thing as an absolutely "right" vote upon any issue, let alone a right vote engineered by the means just described. The only right vote is the one cast by someone whose mind has been educated to think healthily about the topic at hand, and whose thinking therefore will play into all the interactions of his life. In the long run, the official effects of one's vote will likely prove insignificant beside all those other interactions. This is true of both private citizen and senator. Influencing someone's vote -- as opposed to helping the person gain his own insight -- is destructive of democracy, because it is destructive of the self-possessed, responsible mind upon which democracy depends. Truckloads of mail -- or gigabytes of email -- may be good for influencing, but are next to worthless for insight.
It is often argued that the American eagerness to serve up technology (unlike wine) before its time is a virtue. We get ahead of the curve. Our determination to "play around" with the stuff even before we have a clear purpose in mind enables us to sift the workable from the unworkable more quickly than our competitors.
There is certainly truth to that. In general, I think the American penchant for playing around -- exploring the limits of the possible -- can be a valuable asset. But it still needs recognizing that this line of argument deals only with one side of the necessary balance about which I wrote. Technical means cannot represent a virtue in the absence of considered ends that are in fact virtuous. It is simply not true that racing madly ahead with development of ever more sophisticated technical means will automatically bring us greater good. Quite the opposite. In the end, such a madcap race without purpose is bound to prove a far worse disaster than sitting resolutely, purposely, still.
It's amazing how thoroughly we have been gripped by the notion that being richly possessed of technical capabilities ("improved means to an unimproved end," in Thoreau's words) is itself a good. But everything depends upon what we make of what we have. The more sophisticated our tools, the greater the reach of our evils as well as of our goods -- and the greater the difficulty of mastering, instead of being mastered by, our tools.
The one thing that guarantees our failure is preoccupation with the struggle for technical achievement to the exclusion of the struggle for worthwhile human and social ends. That one-sided preoccupation is what, as I pointed out, the news clips and the entire high-tech culture are shouting at us.
Goto table of contents
From Stephen L. Talbott (firstname.lastname@example.org)
(The following article consists of the introductory sections to a paper published in the March, 1997 Research Bulletin of the Waldorf Education Research Institute. Further information is given at the end of the article. I begin in this piece with an anecdote lifted from my book, The Future Does Not Compute; the rest of the essay is new.)
How To Meet a Snake
A video or CD-ROM brings to the classroom almost promiscuously rich vignettes from nature -- images and sounds that would otherwise remain unavailable to students. If the curriculum calls for nature studies, it seems just niggling and petty to suggest that anything is missing from the remarkable video footage available today. What more intimate and revelatory window onto nature could there possibly be?
But now listen to a true story:
Yesterday my eleven-year old son and I were hiking in a remote wood. He was leading. He spotted [a] four-foot rattlesnake in the trail about six feet in front of us. We watched it for quite some time before going around it. When we were on the way home, he commented that this was the best day of his life. He was justifiably proud of the fact that he had been paying attention and had thus averted an accident, and that he had been able to observe this powerful, beautiful, and sinister snake.Barry Angell, the father, then asked exactly the right question: "I wonder how many armchair nature-watchers have seen these dangerous snakes on the tube and said `this is the best day of my life.'" And he concluded: "Better one rattlesnake in the trail than a whole menagerie of gorillas, lions, and elephants on the screen" (Talbott, 1995: 160).
Virtually everyone, upon hearing this story, recognizes intuitively the dramatic difference for the child between the snake on the trail and a snake on the screen. It is a difference quite obviously containing profound implications for learning. Getting a clean hold on the difference, however, is not easy.
I would like to offer a few simple reflections upon the story.
Angell's son, in navigating the CD-ROM, would not be at risk of spraining a toe against the exposed roots in the trail. He would not find the tree trunks rough and creviced; but rather smooth as glass. The musty smell of moss and pregnant decay would not greet him. That fullness of being which led the ancients to an experience of nature ensouled -- of dryads and naiads, gnomes and elves -- and against which our Renaissance forbears shielded themselves by beginning to purge their sense experience, their language, and their images of all interior qualities -- this fullness would not be there for the little boy. The slithery snake consciousness that looked out through those baleful, unblinking eyes on the trail do not look out through the illuminated pixels on his screen.
It is, in short, the difference between Nature and a picture. After immersing ourselves so fully in a reality of pictures and training ourselves to see the world as we see a picture, it is not surprising that a particularly striking anecdote should be required to remind us of the difference between the two. But difference there is. On the trail the boy met something of his personal destiny -- a destiny that might have turned out very differently had he not seen the snake as soon as he did. If education is about anything at all, it is about helping us to meet, understand, embrace, and enlarge our destinies. This requires more than the visual and textual abstractions of an electronic global village; it requires a world.
But that, of course, is not what happened. The father clearly felt wonder at the snake's presence, admiration for its beauty, grace, and power, and a receptive curiosity about its nature. Without this context, the boy's experience could not have been what it was. What counted was not only that he met a snake on the trail, but that he found something of the snake's meaning in his father's responses. The boy learned about the snake by seeing its image, not upon a screen, but reflected in a living teacher.
To learn, a child must find an inner connection to the subject at hand. This is not the same thing as experiencing a "cool" sensation or a powerful emotional jolt. Screen images, as long as they are continually pushed toward the new and unexpected, readily produce such jolts. But the pleasure of mere unexpectedness is not the same thing as an inner connection. It is more like a drug that calls for a steadily increasing dose. On the other hand, a fellow human being with whom the child already shares an inner landscape can help the child spin the threads of meaningful connection to the surrounding world.
So there are two things in the educational picture we've been sketching, beside the boy himself: the world, and a teacher. Interestingly, there is a modest but growing body of research about the influences that make people choose careers as environmentalists, naturalists, ecologists, and so on -- careers suggesting a concern for the natural world. Louise Chawla of Kentucky State University, having recently reviewed this literature, reports a remarkable consistency regarding two of the dominant influences: wild places directly experienced (usually at a young age), and adult mentors (Chawla, forthcoming; see also Sobel, 1995).
That is hardly a counter-intuitive finding. Yet it does raise serious questions about today's powerful drive toward technology-mediated education. Are we proceeding with our eyes wide open?
It is backward to say that we must develop young minds so that they can master particular subject matters -- although nearly everyone who talks about developing human capacities yields to this utilitarian story in the end. Rather, we need particular subject matters so that we can learn yet further, from our teachers and from our own experiences, what it means to be human.
The informational content of our learning is almost never as important as the intensity and qualitative vividness with which we work over this content as we bring it to life within us, or as the degree to which we exercise and extend our capacities in doing so.
It is remarkable how forgetful of ourselves we have become. Messrs. Clinton and Gore -- supported by high-tech corporations and far too many educators -- drill into us that we must train children for twenty-first- century jobs. But that gets it backward. Our real task is to raise mature individuals who will be able to decide what sorts of jobs are worth creating and having in the twenty-first century.
But, as you will have recognized, there is no contradiction. The content mentioned here is essential -- precisely because it provides, first, an attraction and then the resistance against which the student can exercise his capacities. Nor is the attraction a mere matter of entertainment. What attracts us rightly to the world is the fact that we meet ourselves and we meet real destinies there. That meeting is the condition for our development, educational or otherwise.
Yes, I can meet something of my destiny in front of a video screen. Computers, too, are part of the world. But what they give us, beyond their own existence as objects, is a drastically reduced, abstract version of the rest of the world. If I develop repetitive stress injury (RSI) while trekking through the Sierras on CD-ROM, we should remember that I got the RSI, not from the rigors of a mountain path, and not from a snake bite, but from a mouse while sitting in front of a video screen. The two surrounds are as different as their consequences.
. . . . [Following is from the conclusion of the paper.]
In any case, it has been the point of this paper to suggest that we might profitably spend some time worrying about what becomes of a snake when it is "captured" and projected upon a screen.
The remainder of the paper (not presented here) considers the relation between quantitative and qualitative educational research. The full text is available online. You can order the Research Bulletin (which has several other articles and reviews relating to computers and education) by sending $4 to Waldorf Education Research Institute, Sunbridge College, 260 Hungry Hollow Rd, Spring Valley NY 10977, and asking for the March, 1977 issue.
Chawla, L. (forthcoming). "Significant Life Experiences Revisited: A Review of Research on Sources of Environmental Sensitivity." Journal of Environmental Education.
Sobel, D. (1995). "Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the Heart in Nature Education." Orion, vol. 14, no. 4 (autumn). Also see NF #33), which contains excerpts from Sobel's article.
Talbott, S. (1995). The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst. Sebastopol, Calif.: O'Reilly & Associates.
Goto table of contents
Copyright 1997 by The Nature Institute. You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes. You may also redistribute individual articles in their entirety, provided the NetFuture url and this paragraph are attached.
NetFuture is supported by freely given reader contributions, and could not survive without them. For details and special offers, see http://netfuture.org/support.html .
Current and past issues of NetFuture are available on the Web:
To subscribe or unsubscribe to NetFuture:
http://netfuture.org/subscribe.html.Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #46 :: April 18, 1997
Goto table of contents