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  •                                 NETFUTURE
                       Technology and Human Responsibility
    Issue #49       Copyright 1997 Bridge Communications          May 22, 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
          The Net As a Failed Shakespearean Enterprise
          What Are Classroom Computers For?
          Speeding up the Classroom
          The Hollowing Out of Children
          Where Are the Investigative Journalists?
    *** Letter from Des Moines (Lowell Monke)
          The Net's Deceit in Teaching Multiculturalism
    *** Announcements and Resources
          Classroom Support for `Computer and Society' Teachers
          Papers: on Seymour Papert, Children As Global Citizens
    *** About this newsletter

    *** Editor's Note

    This issue focuses strongly on education. Don't miss Lowell Monke's firsthand description of how using the Net as a tool for multicultural exposure proves self-defeating. And if you'll be teaching a class next semester about the human and social implications of computing, we've got an offer for you at the end of the newsletter.


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    *** Quotes and Provocations

    The Net As a Failed Shakespearean Enterprise

    The following was gleaned from a medical mailing list. (Thanks to Ed Arnold.)
    We've heard that a million monkeys at a million keyboards could produce the Complete Works of Shakespeare; now, thanks to the Internet, we know this is not true.

    --Robert Wilensky, University of California

    What Are Classroom Computers For?

    Should we be wiring every classroom? Neil Postman, who has a knack for capturing large issues with a few commonsensical words, suggests that every teacher should first ask, "Does this solve some problem for me that I am plagued with or annoyed about?"

    Postman, interviewed for the Christian Science Monitor (April 21), then puts a second question beside the first:

    Suppose computers weren't there. Would [teachers] know how to teach students how to think, or have they been waiting all these years until the computer came along to do so?
    And if they could already teach kids to think, why do they need computers?

    There were, Postman reminds us, 91,000 New York students who showed up last fall for whom there were no seats. What is the response of the educational establishment? "They say, `Let's get each classroom wired to the Internet' .... I think that's crazy."

    Postman does believe there's a place for computer technology in the classroom -- "as a serious subject in the humanities." This would entail "studying the history of our relationship with technology and its effects on our psychic habits and social relations."

    A revolutionary idea: students should understand this technology rather than relate to it as a "black box" capable of entertaining them. Is the 21st century ready for such a radical notion?

    Speeding up the Classroom

    That same issue of the Christian Science Monitor carried an interview with Seymour Papert, developer of the Logo computer language for children. Kids, according to Papert, demand "a more interesting way of doing things; there's a certain pressure from kids to speed things up." He goes on:
    In the past, the only way we could give knowledge was to put kids in a classroom and give them the knowledge bit by bit. Today, with the technology, we have choice.
    That remark is powerfully revealing of Papert's mindset. When he pictures children and teacher in a classroom together, left to their own devices as a human community, he draws a blank; he simply cannot imagine the range of creative potentials in such a constrained situation. Inject a little liberating technology, however, and suddenly "we have choice."

    Papert, who has elsewhere cited the video game-engaged child as a model for the educator, laments that schools lag behind the rest of society in technological sophistication. "Things go fast; kids can see that the outside world doesn't look like school."

    One might have thought that a good part of the teacher's job was to slow the frenetic pace of modern life in the hope of deepening the student's experience. In any case, no child in a healthy classroom will ever complain that school is unlike the rest of society, unless an adult has put him up to it. Papert is such an adult, for he makes it a large part of his business to cultivate in children the most "grown up" and most highly abstract thought patterns he possibly can. Computers, of course, are ideal tools for this premature destruction of childhood.

    (For a critique of Papert's work, see the paper listed in "Announcements and Resources" below.)

    The Hollowing Out of Children

    Regarding children raised on video images, John Alexandra has this to say in Mephistopheles' Anvil (Spring Valley, NY: Rose Harmony, 1996):
    If [children] have been brought up expecting to be provided with stimulating sensations, they tend to find books boring. Their classroom experience is then similar: having been taught to be inwardly passive, and expecting the stimulus to come from the outside, they get bored when the teacher does not fulfill their unconscious expectation and make everything as stimulating as television. In reality, the teacher's job is not to provide a lot of exciting outer stimuli, but to stimulate the children's inner activity, their well of inner resources, so they can bring interest and enthusiasm to meet even the "simplest" outer phenomena.

    Where Are the Investigative Journalists?

    I keep wondering when journalists are going to begin pressing in any serious way the obvious questions they should be asking about wired schools. If the recent article I read in the Boston Globe (May 11) is any sign, we've got a while longer to wait. Originating with the Baltimore Sun, the article was entitled, "High-tech Home-school Link Proves a Boon." Looking through the piece for what counted as plusses and minuses, this is what I found:

    The first plus, presented with the greatest emphasis, had to do with the students' ability to contact the teacher after hours.

    Julianna Cornelius, 9, was in the middle of homework one afternoon, assigned to measure shapes, when she encountered a problem that in most schools would take another day to resolve.

    "Beep" went the computer on her teacher's desk:

    Dear Miss Boyer. I do not have a centimeter ruler. Can I do something else, like look up rain forest on the computer?"

    (Why was this nine-year-old being asked to measure shapes? It would have been far better if she had been asked to dance them, or otherwise experience their qualities.) I guess "look it up in the computer" has a bit more of an advanced ring than the old "look it up in the encyclopedia." The many abuses of the encyclopedia model of education can now pass unnoticed in the new, 21st-century curriculum.

    The author of the article goes on to observe that this "new dimension for third graders" was kicked off when the [perfectly disinterested?] Bell Atlantic Corporation put 180 computers and free high-speed Internet connections in the homes of all third-grade students, teachers, and administrators. Xerox gave printers. As a result,

    children, who some had worried were too young for the project, took off on the Internet, learning so much on their own that they've pushed the technology curriculum a year or two ahead of schedule. And they have taught their teachers a few things. They find facts and photographs for research reports, publish brochures, and make databases and spread sheets on favorite ice cream flavors and pizza toppings. They send each other music and Web sites to check out.
    I swear, the Globe article was not written as a parody. This is presented as serious stuff. Presumably, this all counts as the second plus. Then there's a third:
    When a child misbehaves, parents get wind of it by email before he gets home -- no more notes disappearing on the bus, no more phone tag with teachers, or communication blackouts with families with disconnected phones.
    Thank goodness for Bell Atlantic and Xerox! Nothing like email for those more sensitive communications.

    Another advantage: there are no snow days:

    With the rest of the district closed Jan. 9, Logan students got an assignment: Write about whether you think the superintendent should have closed schools, measure [!] the snowfall, check the Internet for other states that had a blizzard -- and send it in by 4 p.m.
    Come to think of it, this reporter shouldn't merely ask some serious questions about the role of computers in the elementary classroom. He should be asking whether many teachers have any clue at all about education. What has happened to the educational system as a whole? It's not as if this teacher required more than a smidgeon of imagination to come up with an assignment that had some value for nine-year-olds. The kids could simply have been asked to take a brief walk in the snow and then write a few words about their different impressions when walking on snow and walking on bare ground. This would have helped to develop a habit of broader, more imaginative observation in them, while encouraging them to discover a connection between themselves and the world around them. Telling the kids to measure the snow is to reduce their experience of it to the thinnest, most abstract terms possible; the snow itself virtually disappears from sight, in favor of numbers.

    Or they could have been asked to look for any bird activity during the snowfall. How did they think the winter birds survived nature's performance? Then there's this plus: "Many parents say they are more involved with the school than ever." If you're wondering what that means, never fear. The article spells it out in full: one parent tapped out a message to the teacher saying his daughter had forgotten her assignment. Could the teacher please re-send it? (Nothing in the article, incidentally, about how teachers like this new arrangement.)

    If you're waiting for the minuses, don't bother. None are cited. Unless this qualifies:

    No one is claiming that the costly project -- $1.6 million from Bell Atlantic and an estimated $300,000-plus from other donors -- can be replicated on a wide scale.

    Then why bother? Bell Atlantic hopes that lessons learned from Logan Online -- how to integrate technology into a curriculum -- can be used in other schools with less expensive equipment and on a wider scale as home computers become more commonplace.

    As Lowell Monke has explained to us in previous issues: get the schools hooked first, at any cost. Let them figure out how to pay for it later, when the curricular materials and teacher training leave little choice but to maintain the habit.

    Well, by this point in the campaign for wired, 21st-century schools, you might expect more than this disgusting pabulum from newspapers like the Globe and Sun. And, for that matter, from Secretary of Education Richard Riley. Commenting on the billion-dollar arrangements to get schools wired, Riley pointed out that the biggest task is yet to come:

    We have a great responsibility. Most of all, we must show that it really makes a difference in the classroom. (Education Week on the Web, May 14, via Edupage)
    Nice formula: spend the money for every school in the nation, then figure out whether it actually works.


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    *** The Net's Deceit in Teaching Multiculturalism
    From Lowell Monke (lm7846s@acad.drake.edu)
                                                        Letter from Des Moines
                                                                  May 20, 1997
    The financial issues swirling around technology have settled down somewhat as Des Moines schools get ready for the summer hiatus. In the meantime, I thought I would discuss another educational issue I've come to have serious doubts about: the use of the Internet as an agent to further multiculturalism. I've been working with R. W. Burniske designing global telecommunications projects for the last five years, so I admit to being a party to the multicultural effort -- but I'm trying to reform.

    (I do think that Utopian Visions, the umbrella name of our work, is a gallant effort to do telecommunications in the classroom properly. So here is a shameless plug for its web site: http://ital- 1.lib.utexas.edu/uv/; I would appreciate feedback from any readers of NETFUTURE on its educational merit.)

    The Internet seems a perfect medium for furthering multicultural awareness, given its global reach. Yet, as always with technology, there are some not-so-obvious issues that should make us look at this growing activity with a more critical eye. Among those issues are a couple I'd like to share with you based on my own teaching experiences, both here in the states and abroad.

    About four years ago I attended a workshop in which a national 'Net figure extolled the virtues of multicultural exchanges. What stuck in my mind from the workshop was an example she gave of a group of fourth graders she worked with in North Carolina who shared information about their lives with students in Alaska. "What struck these students most," the woman said, "was that students in Alaska eat at Pizza Hut just like them." The point she was making, which met with general audience approval, was that such exchanges are often valuable not so much for discovering the differences in people from different parts of the world but in helping students see the similarities.

    Eating at Pizza Hut is a pretty superficial similarity, but in a more troubling way I think she is right. The cultures of students who have access to the 'Net most certainly are much more similar than they are dissimilar, regardless of where they are in the world, for they share a common techno-culture that subsumes whatever local culture may exist.

    I taught for several years at Academia Cotopaxi, a private international school in Quito, Ecuador (one of the few K-12 schools in the country that now has Internet access). The difference between the Ecuadorian students attending Cotopaxi and students in Des Moines or at the International School of Munich where I also taught, was far less than the differences between those same Cotopaxi students and Ecuadorian children living just twenty miles outside the city, who attended schools without indoor plumbing, much less a telephone.

    The school environment of these less privileged children is typical of both the high Andean and Amazon basin indigenous groups (which still represent a good share of the population). These cultures exhibit not just different life-styles, but entirely different ways of thought and living from those of the students who attend the exclusive private schools in Quito. Yet it is this small group of affluent youth, raised in a society influenced more by cable TV and vacations in Miami than thatched roofs and traditions that predate the Incas, who convey their impressions of life in Ecuador to other, similarly influenced techno-elite children around the world.

    The global network of techno-haves reinforces the participants' impression that they live in a homogeneous thought-world, leading 'Net gurus to extol the virtue of the 'Net as a means for discovering commonalities among "all" people of the world. The irony is, of course, that the similarities being discovered are those that high technology itself has spread.

    This illusion of the world as a place united in common values was driven home to me during one of the Utopian Visions projects I coordinated. One of my computer students, who wasn't participating in the project, nevertheless decided to help out by developing a web site that would archive all the messages that flowed between participants. (This was the precursor to the current web site.)

    We had started the project by asking all students involved to submit a personal vision of what their utopian society would be like. By the time my computer student had his web site ready there were already over a hundred personal visions that had come through. Separating, sorting and posting each of those messages to the appropriate web page was a monumental task, so he enlisted two other students to help him. I reminded all of them to make sure they deleted the long headers from each message before posting it, which they did. Unfortunately, along with the email headers they erased the identification of the schools included at the beginning of each message. I didn't notice until they were done that we no longer had any idea where the messages had come from.

    After some headscratching (and much silent cursing of their teacher I'm sure) the students decided they would have to go back through the listserve messages and match them up with the ones on the web pages. Again I gave them what I thought was sage advice: take a quick look at each message from the web page you are trying to match. Since these are visions of a perfect society you should at least be able to tell which continent the student came from, which will cut your search considerably.

    They tried, but had no success. So I tried. Having lived on three continents, I figured it would be fairly easy to spot different cultural orientations. But I couldn't do it either. In the vast majority of more than a hundred visions of utopia, coming from students raised in Australia, Asia, Eastern and Western Europe and North America, we could detect no cultural fingerprints.

    Perhaps the world really is beginning to sing in perfect harmony. But I don't think so. To me this youthful global village is more reminiscent of the self-justifying clubbiness of the farflung colonials of the British Empire that was still flourishing just a century ago. Milling about in their exclusive communities, their transplanted British culture was so self-contained and insulated that, for most, the indigenous cultures they ruled over were rendered invisible.

    That indigenous cultures are invisible on the 'Net seems beyond dispute (though good intentioned techno-elites occasionally try to represent them). And providing "equitable" access is not the answer. As Jerry Mander's In the Absence of the Sacred (1991) and Stephan Hill's The Tragedy of Technology (1988) make depressingly clear, non- technological societies cannot use electronic communication technology without changing the way they think, the way they act, the way they live -- in other words, without abandoning their traditional cultures. So experiencing their way of thinking through 'Net communications is impossible. Yet children all over America are now looking at exotic pictures from National Geographic and Encarta and thinking that they are getting a taste of the lives of the people portrayed there by corresponding with fellow techno-haves who happen to live in the same country. It is an illusion I have found few American teachers prepared to unveil.

    Not only are we deceiving our children about these non-technological cultures, the spread of the global communications grid seems to be playing a big role in exterminating the cultures. We know that culture is tied closely to language. The University of Bristol Center for Theories of Language and Learning has reported (1995) that "according to reliable estimates, half of the world's six thousand languages will become extinct in the next century. Furthermore, two thousand of the remaining three thousand languages will be threatened during the century after next." Certainly the spread of the 'Net, which has increased the demand for the use of regional, national and global languages like English, Spanish and Japanese to conduct its business, will contribute mightily to the extinction of these local languages.

    So we in education face a paradox too few recognize: our students, in seeking out multicultural experiences through the Internet, contribute to the demise of those very societies that provide the only really fundamental cultural diversity left on the planet.


    Hill, Stephan. "The Tragedy of Technology". Pluto Press, London 1988.

    Mander, Jerry. "In the Absence of the of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology & the Survival of the Indian Nations". Sierra Club Books, San Francisco 1991.

    University of Bristol Department of Philosophy. Message to Ethic-l listserve, 1995.

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    *** Announcements and Resources

    Classroom Support for `Computer and Society' Teachers

    As part of an expanding role for NETFUTURE, Lowell Monke and I invite all of you who teach classes about computers and society (particularly at the university level) to link your classroom efforts to the resources of NETFUTURE. This might take various forms, but the paradigmatic case could look something like this:

    Access to the web sites is, of course, free. The rest involves charges (negotiable), as well as some initiative on your part. If you are interested, please contact stevet@netfuture.org.

    Papers: on Seymour Papert, Children As Global Citizens

    As part of the process of making more of my book, The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst, available online, I have posted two more chapters to the book's web site. Both deal with education:

    The first, briefer chapter, "Net-based Learning Communities," talks about the role of the Net in making children better citizens. You'll find it at http://netfuture.org/fdnc/ch12.html. One snippet from the chapter:

    If I need to find out whether a child will become a good world citizen, don't show me a file of her email correspondence. Just let me observe her behavior on the playground for a few minutes -- assuming she spends her class breaks on the playground, and not at her terminal playing video games.
    The second is a fairly lengthy critique of Seymour Papert's book, The Children's Machine. The chapter is called, "Children of the Machine," and ranges rather widely. One excerpt:
    The heart of the matter, then, is nearly opposite to what Papert makes it. The information the child can receive from a Knowledge Machine -- or any other source, including the encyclopedia -- is hardly what matters. What counts is from whom she receives it.

    The respect and reverence with which a subject is treated, the human gestures with which it is conveyed, the inner significance the material carries for the teacher -- these are infinitely more important to the child than any bare, informational content. Her need is not to gather facts, but to connect imaginatively with the world of the adult -- which is necessarily to say: with the person of the adult -- and to find that her own lofty fantasy (which makes an animate toy of every stick or scrap of cloth) can progressively be instructed and elevated so as to harmonize with the adult's wisdom even while remaining true to itself.


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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 #49 :: May 22, 1997

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