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  •                                 NETFUTURE
                       Technology and Human Responsibility
    Issue #54       Copyright 1997 Bridge Communications         July 30, 1997
                Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)
                         On the Web: http://netfuture.org
         You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes.
    *** Editor's Note
    *** Quotes and Provocations
          Accelerated Life, Computers, and the Environment
          Are Our Brains Changing?
          The Vacuity of Information
          Education and the Net -- Read and Weep
          Spreadsheet Errors
    *** Helping Students Understand Computers (Stephen L. Talbott)
          John Morris's Innovations at a Waldorf School
    *** Announcements and Resources
          Background on Waldorf Education
    *** About this newsletter

    *** Editor's Note

    I've aimed (and will aim) a lot of criticism at the educational establishment's sophomoric love affair with technology. But there remains the question, How should we teach students about technology? Lowell Monke, as we have seen, is struggling with this question. So is John Morris, and I hope you won't miss the description of his wonderfully contrarian classroom approach in this issue's feature article.

    This is the last issue of NETFUTURE until after Labor Day. Look for coverage of some of the "bigger" topics in the fall. For example,

    But now, a month's retreat from the online world. Have an enjoyable summer!


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    *** Quotes and Provocations

    Accelerated Life, Computers, and the Environment

    "For the modern mind ... space and time are the basic forms of hindrance. Anything that is away is too far-away .... And anything that lasts, lasts simply too long .... Acceleration is therefore the imperative which rules technological innovation as well as the little gestures of everyday life."

    Wolfgang Sachs made those remarks at the "Doors of Perception 4" conference in the Netherlands, November, 1996. Sachs is the director of the Institute for Climate, Change, and Energy, in Wuppertal, Germany. The fascinating transcripts of many conference talks -- all dealing in one way or another with the speeding up of life and the possible responses by designers -- are available at http://www.design-inst.nl/doors/doors4/.

    Sachs goes on to correlate the accelerating pace of modern life with environmental costs, and then asks whether electronic communication offers us a way to achieve "simultaneity and ubiquity without any cost to nature." Not very likely, he answers.

    Preliminary results of a study undertaken by the Wuppertal Institute on the resource use of desktop computers show that electronic equipment is environmentally much more expensive than usually assumed .... Numerous components require the use of an array of high-grade minerals which can only be obtained through major mining operations and energy-intensive transformation processes. As it turns out, no less than 15 - 19 tons of energy and materials -- calculated over the entire life-cycle -- are consumed by the fabrication of one computer .... An average car ... requires about 25 tons.
    Sachs also points out that, "as the history of the telephone demonstrates, technical communication on the one hand substitutes for traffic, but on the other hand stimulates new traffic resulting from the extended network of contacts." Moreover, the latter effect will predominate in the case of the computer "as long as [the virtue of] speed remains an unquestioned dogma." In fact, he expects an "explosion in physical traffic" as the world effectively shrinks.

    His point, I think, is not that we should refuse to employ the earth's resources, but that the difficulty of doing so responsibly increases as we allow technology to drive the pace of our lives ever faster. This is not to mention the toll of accelerated living upon our psyches.

    Are Our Brains Changing?

    "Our sensitivity to stimuli is decreasing at a rate of about one percent per year. Delicate sensations are simply being filtered out of our consciousness."

    This is one of the conclusions reported in "Research into Changes in Brain Formation," by Michael Kneissle (Waldorf Education Research Institute Bulletin, June, 1997). The report deals with the research at a couple of German institutions: Gesellschaft fuer Rationelle Psychologie in Munich, and the Institute of Medical Psychology at the University of Tuebingen. The report is not footnoted and is rather poorly and informally presented, so I don't quite know what to make of it -- read on at your own risk.

    It is certainly provocative, however. For example:

    The scientists at the Rational Psychology Association explain the changes to the brain as a result of being overwhelmed by stimuli. They call it the horn-of-plenty effect. The brain is faced with an ever more diverse spectrum of sensations. It experiences the phenomenon of enjoyment maximization: it's always looking for the biggest thrill. The most exotic sense-teasers, the shrillest colors, the loudest noises. This causes the whole coordinate system for the ordering of sense impressions to shift. Not too long ago, the pain threshold for hearing was at about one hundred decibels. Today, every disco exceeds this level for power play. The result: the brain begins to accept the loud sounds and ignores the softer ones.
    Apparently there has been a serious and consistent research effort going on for twenty or more years, designed to measure stimulus processing and brain organization. Here are some of the results:

    One of the researchers cited in the article refers to the "new indifference" -- the ability to cope with contradictory, non-unifiable stimuli without being disturbed. This is said to be essential for survival in the new millennium.

    (You can obtain the Bulletin from the Waldorf Education Research Institute, Sunbridge College, Hungry Hollow Road, Spring Valley, New York 10977. Cost is $5.)

    The Vacuity of Information

    According to David Shenk, author of Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut,
    For many businesses, the irony is that the cheaper information becomes, the more expensive it is to deal with.
    Yes, although I'm not so sure about the irony. If "information" is precisely articulable, if it is measurable as so many bits stored in a database, if it is easily transmissible -- in other words, if it fits the criteria for information according to the prevalent rhetoric -- then it follows in a straightforward way that any preoccupation with information will penalize our pursuit of whatever is important.

    Why? Because the precision, the measurability, and the transmissibility all stand in a kind of opposition to depth of meaning and significance. This trade-off is clearly demonstrable through an examination of the basic act of communication (see, for example, my discussion in http://netfuture.org/fdnc/ch23.html), yet it remains the great, ignored truth at the heart of the Information Age. We have, of course, almost made a cliche of the slogan, "information is not wisdom." But until we vividly recognize the actual opposition between the two terms -- and learn to live creatively within this opposition -- the effort to reconceive society in terms of information and its flows will prove extremely corrosive of everything that matters.

    To put it baldly: the one-sided attempt to define and manage an organization as a set of information flows is an attempt to destroy the organization. That, at least, is the claim I will try to flesh out from many different angles beginning with the fall issues of NETFUTURE.

    Education and the Net -- Read and Weep

    Writing in Business Week (July 28), a fourth-grade teacher describes her truly heroic efforts to get her students on the Net in the interest of bringing science alive for them. Her selfless energy and devotion is matched only by the pitiful insignificance of the treasure the educational establishment has inspired her to seek. Here is one of her anecdotes:
    Fourth-graders solicited questions from students and submitted them to researchers at Georgia Tech. My students retrieved the answers and aired them over the school's closed-circuit TV system.
    And a second one:
    At a planetarium, Megan, one of my girls, interrupted the talk on downloading images to ask: "Is that ProComm Plus you are using?" When the surprised speaker answered "yes," Megan said, "I use that at school." He invited her to demonstrate, and Megan easily downloaded an image from a remote observatory. I was so proud.
    Almost makes you forget that there's a real world out there for healthy young children to explore.

    Actually, the teacher does mention in passing a couple of direct learning activities her students engaged in. But these turn out to have nothing to do with the computer.

    Business Week subtitled the article, "A Georgia teacher tells how she got her students on the Web -- and wild about science." Nothing in the article verifies the "wild about science" part, but presumably the children had as much fun playing with their new toys as many grown-ups do.

    Spreadsheet Errors

    A few years ago Fidelity, the investment firm, announced its forecast of a $4.32 per share capital gains distribution for participants in the huge Magellan fund. A month later the forecast was changed to a loss. The reason? A spreadsheet entry had been given the wrong sign, making a $0.1 billion loss look like a $2.3 billion gain.

    According to one report, experts claim that about one-third of all spreadsheets have errors. Coopers and Lybrand in London cited research showing that over ninety percent of all spreadsheets with more than 150 rows contained at least one significant formula mistake.

    In another study, subjects were shown large and small, well-formatted and poorly formatted spreadsheets. Which combination inspired the most user confidence? You guessed it: large, well-formatted ones. Call it the Information Age Effect; with all that rigorous data so beautifully laid out under program control, how can anything possibly be wrong? In general (according to another study) subjects express strong belief that their spreadsheets are error-free. Only half use cell protection.

    I gleaned these nuggets from the Spreadsheet Research web site run by Prof. Raymond R. Panko, College of Business Administration, University of Hawaii. The URL is http://www.cba.hawaii.edu/panko/ssr. Panko terms the results of the research he has gathered "chilling": "Every study that has tried to measure spreadsheet error rates ... has found them at levels that are deeply disturbing" (RISKS DIGEST 19.24).

    In follow-up discussion on RISKS (19.25) one user's response to error problems was cited: "It's up to my manager to verify my spreadsheets."

    In all this we see vividly displayed the most fundamental risk of all computer applications, from email to scientific visualization systems: the risk that, in meshing ourselves with our software, we, too, will run on automatic -- we will sleepwalk.

    In our day we cannot avoid dealing with masses of data, nor can we avoid processing it mechanically. I do not think it is sufficiently realized how deep is the threat of our sinking to the level of this processing. Many, of course, already argue that we ourselves are merely sophisticated data processors. But the alertness required of the spreadsheet user, and the caring about accuracy, and the willingness to work at the kind of imaginative grasp of the world that steps outside the current spreadsheet model and enables us to see its limitations so as to transcend them -- these do not arise from the habits whereby we mesh quietly with our machines, content to let the whole "system" grind away.

    This also poses an educational question: How much technology education for children amounts to much more than "learning to get along with and successfully use (or be used by) the system"?


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    *** Helping Students Understand Computers
    From Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)

    Anyone who winces at today's unconsidered rush to wire every classroom risks being ridiculed as a technophobe. It would be far better, however, to brand as technophobic those educators who find themselves unable to confront the computer, and who therefore fail to give their students a deep understanding of the history and technology underlying it or the social issues raised by it.

    Encouraging students simply to consume the offerings of the computer and the Net (and of corporate sponsors) is the truly timid approach -- rather like turning the classroom over to television without first cultivating some critical viewing skills. The computer, after all, is not a less tendentious form of technology than television; by its very nature as a logic machine, it is capable of embodying more tendencies, biases, assumptions, cultural imperatives, and hidden agendas than any other technology ever developed.

    John Morris, a long-time engineer, manager, and high-tech consultant -- and also, incidentally, a friend of mine -- grew increasingly alarmed by the prevailing approach as he saw the pressing need for students to understand the computer. As his son, Luke, worked his way up through the elementary grades of the Lexington, Massachusetts Waldorf School, John's involvement as a parent convinced him that the Waldorf approach could be applied with great success to advanced technology.

    The Waldorf schools are noteworthy for their principled resistance to the classroom-wiring bandwagon, as well as for their commitment to imagination, the arts, and direct student participation in the matter of every subject. John supported this approach, and was eventually invited to teach an instructional block to the eighth grade. It was to be the beginning of a curriculum for understanding the computer.

    Waldorf teachers present each main subject in one or more "blocks" -- a block is typically a three-hour session near the beginning of the day, continuing every day for several weeks. John calls his block, which is targeted for eighth or ninth graders, "The Computer -- The Three-hundred-year Invention." He starts each day with a quotation, such as this one from Isaac Newton:

    I seem to have been like a child playing on the seashore, and diverting myself -- now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.
    His goal with the students, he says, is to look at some of those pebbles and shells, but also to "begin opening up to the great mystery of truth lying before us."

    He begins by exploring the fundamental ideas that made the computer's invention possible -- von Leibniz and his application of the binary system, Napier and his invention of logarithms, and Boole and his link between human logic and mathematics. "These three personalities we explore in great detail and we also explore the context for their work -- the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire, the effects of the Thirty Years' War, the struggle of the classes and for intellectual freedom, and the drive to be true to the mission one has undertaken in life."

    Based on this pursuit of ideas, the students draw portraits of the three historical figures, accompanying them with various written impressions. Portrait drawing might raise eyebrows in a conventional educational setting, but Waldorf students are quite accustomed to artistic engagement with their subject matter, and enter into it with positive energy.

    The survey then moves on to cover "Pascal and his calculator, Jacquard and his loom, Babbage and his Analytical Engine, Lovelace and her programming, Hollerith and his counting machines." Both the individual inventors and the driving force behind their inventions are covered in detail. Pascal receives special emphasis because "his life and work serves as a significant milestone in changing ideas and morality."

    The students act out the drama wherever possible.

    For example, to set the stage for Pascal and his invention, one can recreate a small vignette of life in France during the Thirty Years' War. The class can be divided up into royalty and nobles, craftspeople and peasants. The teacher takes on the role of Cardinal Richelieu, who presses the commoners for taxes to fund his conspiracies and wage the war for France. The frustrations of Blaise Pascal's father as a tax judge rapidly become quite real. Taxes are raised ever more frequently, and the motivation of Pascal to invent the calculator is keenly adopted by the students who need to collect the taxes. The rest of the class (excepting the nobles and royalty) are quite ready for revolution by the end of the period!
    During the second week, students resort to the laboratory, where they undertake work giving them a basic understanding of the technologies supporting the modern computer -- magnetics for memory and disk drives, primitive relay-based calculators, and so on. Then they visit Boston's Computer Museum, where they can see some of the machines they've been learning about. They also see how computers assist us in various jobs -- weather prediction, air traffic control, automated directory assistance, reading for the blind.

    Finally, back at school, the students pull apart a personal computer -- also dismantling its disk drive -- to see how the machine is constructed.

    And what is the result of this instructional block? John, who has taught the block for four years, offers this personal assessment:

    From my experience with this curriculum I can say that the students will have a grasp of some basic theories. They understand something essential about computer technology -- that computers merely process data. Computers do not think, they do not feel, they are far from being anything other than a primitive shadow of a human mind.

    While I was teaching this year, the famous chess tournament between Kasparov and Big Blue was held. I brought to the classroom a magazine that offered the banner, "The Brain's Last Stand: Kasparov versus Big Blue." "That's silly," said one student. "It's not a man versus a machine; it's a man versus the people who programmed the machine!"

    One could not ask for a greater insight into this media- and industry-hyped event. The students will understand that the theory behind the machine and its construction, though challenging, is knowable. They will look upon computers differently. Yes, the computer will still be seductive and alluring. Computer games appeal to their innocence and curiosity. But the machines will look a bit more like a tool and an invention, whose sole purpose is controlled by the user, not the other way around.

    John sees his effort as just the first step in a program that would continue throughout the high school years. Students would emerge from the program with typing ability, basic computer skills (word processing and spreadsheet), and -- coming out of the eleventh and twelfth grades -- a knowledge of computer science and a consideration of the ethics and morality of the use of technology. But all this needs to be erected upon that first block, where the basic technology is, as he puts it, "demystified."

    When, on the other hand, children are asked to employ complex technologies that remain as "black boxes," they almost certainly defer to the technology in inappropriate ways, fail to understand the experiences they do have with it, and abdicate their responsibilities with respect to it.

    A conference of Waldorf educators in 1985 suggested that schools should approach the computer "as a tool and as a social construction representing our age":

    Instead of ... a conventional approach, we felt it would be more in keeping with the aims of Waldorf education to integrate the computer into the curriculum throughout the high school years. We could bring about some awareness of the history and development of the computer in a history class, the impact of computer language in an English course, the electronic engineering and circuitry in a physics block, the similarities and differences between man and machine in a physiology class.
    But some Waldorf schools have been slow to carry through on these ideas. What makes this particularly unfortunate is the fact that the Waldorf movement stands as the only visible example of restraint and sanity in the face of society's fierce determination to computerize now and figure out the educational issues later. The Waldorf folks have figured out at least some of the issues, and it is tragic for them to hold back on the implementation at a time when society so desperately needs their example.

    John Morris's work is certainly a step in the right direction, and I hope to be able to report on other steps in forthcoming issues of NETFUTURE.

    (For background on Waldorf education, see under "Announcements and Resources" below.)

    John is available as oth@tiac.net.  With some twenty-four years of
    experience in the computer industry, he has worked both the hardware and
    software sides of the aisle for companies such as Digital Equipment
    Corporation and Masscomp/Concurrent.  At the Open Systems Foundation, he
    managed software engineering groups and established liaisons between OSF
    and companies, consortia, and governments in the U.S., Europe, and the Far
    East.  He spent his last year at OSF assisting the president and board of
    directors manage a merger with a foreign consortium.  Currently he offers
    management and strategic consulting services to start-up and
    well-established companies, consortia, and non-profits.

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    *** Announcements and Resources

    Background on Waldorf Education

    In order to provide some general background on Waldorf education, I have made available the full text of "Education without Computers," which is Appendix C of my book, The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst. You'll find it at http://netfuture.org/fdnc/appc.html.

    If you are not familiar with Waldorf education, I urge you to read this chapter. I am convinced that the Waldorf folks hold key answers to many of the most pressing educational problems of our day.


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    *** About this newsletter

    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:

    Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #54 :: July 30, 1997

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