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  •                                  NETFUTURE
                        Technology and Human Responsibility
    Issue #99      A Publication of The Nature Institute      December 9, 1999
                Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)
                         On the Web: http://netfuture.org
         You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes.
    NetFuture is a reader-supported publication.
    Editor's Note
       The Alliance for Childhood
    Quotes and Provocations
       Can We Let Children Be Children?
    Technology Literacy
       Draft of guiding principles, and request for comments
    About this newsletter
                                  EDITOR'S NOTE
    It's amazing how much email you receive, and from what unexpected places,
    when your picture and story appear in the New York Times -- and are then
    picked up by the San Jose Mercury News, the Cincinnati Inquirer, and
    other papers around the country.  The story, written by NetFuture reader
    Lisa Guernsey, was entitled "Editor Explores Unintended, and Negative,
    Side of Technology", and ever since it appeared in the "Circuits" section
    of the November 25 Times, I've been unable to keep up with my
    correspondence.  Please be understanding if I haven't responded personally
    to your mail.
    By the way, despite an incorrect url for NetFuture in both the online
    version of the Times article and in the Mercury News, the page views
    taken on the NetFuture web site jumped from 20,000 in October to 62,000
    in November.
    One reader of the Times article -- someone I never knew -- kindly wrote to
    pass along a touching story about a high school teacher who deeply
    influenced both of us and subsequently died on a mountain cliff.  It got
    me to thinking about the qualities of this teacher's classroom presence
    and engagement with students that made him such a factor in my life, and
    also about the powerful forces pushing us toward distance education
    today.  It's a troubling juxtaposition of thoughts, and reminds one of the
    many elements in a technological society that make it easy for us to
    sacrifice the most meaningful human connections in favor of the most
    efficiently executed "transactions".  But the efficiency, of course, is an
    illusion if the things we really want are only to be gotten through the
    depth of our encounter with others.
    The Alliance for Childhood
    This issue of NetFuture is devoted to an important new development:  the
    founding of an international Alliance for Childhood.  We present here a
    draft statement on technology literacy, prepared by the Alliance's Task
    Force on Computers in Childhood.  My hope is that NetFuture readers will
    play a leading role in responding to the Alliance's request for comments.
    One of the things that most appealed to me at the founding meeting of the
    Alliance was the guiding metaphor offered by organizer Joan Almon:  We are
    not attempting to build a supertanker, but rather to launch a thousand
    small boats.  At that meeting there were representatives of organizations
    such as TV-Free America and the International Council of Steiner/Waldorf
    Schools; leaders and policymakers from the medical establishment;
    officials of professional associations; technology specialists; and
    scholars from the humanities -- already enough crew for a lot of small
    boats!  But what each individual or organization does will depend upon its
    own initiative and its sphere of knowledge and activity.  After all, any
    undertaking suitable for our day must found itself centrally upon the
    principle of freedom and individual responsibility.
    With this issue of NetFuture I take my own first step as a member of the
    Alliance.  It is what I am best positioned to do -- help to get the
    message out.  What your response will turn out to be -- well, given what I
    know about NetFuture's readership, I expect to hear some surprising and
    exciting things.
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                             QUOTES AND PROVOCATIONS
    Can We Let Children Be Children?
    The Alliance for Childhood's draft statement on technology literacy (see
    below) concludes with these words:
       Ultimately, that is the goal of technology literacy:  To enable young
       people to develop their own creative and critical capacities in
       relating to technology, not to train them to be machine operators.
       Then they will clearly see that their own choices are not limited to
       adjusting themselves to a 21st century determined by technology.
       Instead, this new generation will have the awareness, the moral and
       ethical sensibilities, and the will to adjust technology to fit into
       their 21st century.
    We do not empower children by giving them ever more powerful tools to work
    with, but rather by helping them develop their own inner powers of insight
    and judgment.  Certainly, there is nothing more disempowering to others
    than a powerful tool in the hands of a weak individual.  The question
    today is whether we are weakening an entire generation of young people by
    prematurely distracting -- almost hypnotizing -- them with the clever
    capabilities of digital technology.
    This is one of several concerns motivating those who recently formed the
    Alliance for Childhood.  In a letter sent to every member of Congress in
    September, the Alliance noted that
       There is accumulating evidence of a disturbing decline in children's
       health and well-being.  An epidemic of stress is striking children,
       from the most affluent families to the poorest.  Researchers note
       significant increases in the diagnosis of a wide range of health
       problems -- including hyperactive disorders, childhood depression,
       autism, allergies, asthma, obesity, and sleep disorders.  Our schools
       are struggling with dramatic incidents of violence.  And millions of
       children are being placed on questionable regimens of powerful
       psychoactive medications.  Yet we do little to reduce the unhealthy
       stresses that contribute to the need for such an unprecedented
       medicating of our young.
       Many children, for example, receive far too little consistent, personal
       attention from responsive adults.  On the other hand, they are exposed
       to too much television, video games, computers, and other electronic
       media.  These tend to overwhelm their developing senses and force them
       to deal with adult themes of violence, sex, and commercial consumption.
       Young children are also being pushed into intense academics and
       abstract thinking too early.  Meanwhile, their needs for creative,
       physical play and for a direct personal connection to the world of
       nature have been seriously neglected.  In short, our culture seems
       increasingly reluctant to let children be children.
    As an international partnership of child advocates, researchers, teachers,
    parents, doctors, and others, the Alliance for Childhood seeks to
    "counteract the toxic environment for children in our society and to
    preserve the very notion of childhood as a time of special vulnerability,
    deserving of special protection by caring, responsible adults".
    I was privileged to participate in the founding meeting of the Alliance
    last February.  Conceived and organized by Joan Almon, Co-Chair of the
    Waldorf Early Childhood Association of North America, the event was, for
    me, deeply encouraging.  Certainly it initiated one of the first widely
    concerted efforts -- perhaps the first such effort -- to think through how
    we can educate children who will grow up to be masters of themselves, and
    therefore also masters of the technologies they choose to employ.
    The Alliance does not yet have the organizational resources or financial
    backing for a full-scale public thrust.  It doesn't have a significant web
    presence.  It doesn't even have a paid, full-time staff person.  But it
    surely does have the good will and initiative of all those who share its
    aims.  I expect that future issues of NetFuture will both track the
    ongoing developments and offer options for channeling your own energies.
    But, meanwhile, there are at least three things you can consider:
    ** If you believe the statement on technology literacy given below is
    lacking in any important way and would like to suggest changes, or if you
    agree with it or just want to register your own thoughts on the subject,
    please do so according to the instructions prefacing the statement.
    ** If you would like to stay in close touch with the Alliance for
    Childhood or even enroll as a member, send email stating as much to
    Colleen Cordes (ccordes@erols.com).
    ** Pass the draft statement on technology literacy (and preferably this
    entire issue of NetFuture, with its supporting material) along to
    appropriate forums you participate in, and to interested individuals.
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                               TECHNOLOGY LITERACY
                Four Guiding Principles for Educators and Parents
                 (Draft statement of the Alliance for Childhood)
    The following statement was drafted by Colleen Cordes, Lowell Monke, and
    Stephen L. Talbott.  Cordes is a journalist who writes about policy issues in
    education, science, and technology.  Monke is an occasional NetFuture
    columnist who has taught advanced computer technology in the Des Moines
    Public Schools for many years and is now on the faculty of the Education
    Department at Grinnell College.  Talbott is editor of the online NetFuture
    newsletter, as well as author of The Future Does Not Compute:
    Transcending the Machines in Our Midst.
    The statement was subsequently edited by Edward Miller, a researcher and
    writer on education and public policy.  Miller was a contributing writer
    and editor of the National Research Council's recently published study,
    "High Stakes: Testing for Tracking, Promotion, and Graduation."  (See
    Miller's report in NF #87.)  He was formerly editor of the Harvard
    Education Letter.
    The statement was reviewed by Richard Sclove and Langdon Winner, both of
    whom made valuable suggestions for its improvement.  Sclove is the founder
    and research director of the Loka Institute (http://www.loka.org/), a non-
    profit organization dedicated to making research, science, and technology
    responsive to democratically decided social and environmental concerns.
    He is author of the award-winning book, Democracy and Technology.
    Winner is a NetFuture columnist and professor of political science at
    Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute.  He has authored two of the classics of
    technology criticism:  Autonomous Technology and The Whale and the Reactor,
    the former of which he is currently preparing for a new edition.
    This is a draft statement, and we are requesting public comments.  Send
    all comments to Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org).  We will reckon
    with all comments in fashioning the final statement on technology literacy.
    "Technology literacy" is increasingly becoming an explicit goal of schools
    throughout the country.  But few educators, parents, or policymakers have
    a clear idea of what that phrase means.
    Real technology literacy begins at an early age, in an informal way, long
    before students begin to use computers.  Whether they are banging on pots
    and pans to make music or inventing new games with sticks and string,
    young children spend much of their time developing their tool- using
    capacities.  Consequently, the first challenge in addressing this issue is
    to expand our own conception of technology literacy far beyond the current
    narrow focus on computer skills.  Our children's lives are full of
    technologies of every kind, and they will gradually develop a variety of
    relationships with a whole range of tools.
    Older students must eventually come to grips quite consciously with the
    profound and pervasive impacts that technologies of all kinds -- from the
    simplest to the most complex -- have had, and will have, in their own
    lives and on entire societies.  As parents and teachers, we can help them
    achieve this kind of sophisticated technology literacy.  We must start by
    recognizing that there are at least three main aspects to the task:
    (1) Knowing how to use or operate particular tools.
    (2) Understanding, at least in a rudimentary way, how they work.
    (3) Developing the capacity to think critically, for one's self, about the
    entire realm of designing, using, and adapting technologies to serve
    personal, social, and ecological goals in ways that will sustain life on
    As children turn simple objects into tools for their own use, they nearly
    always learn at all three levels.  They intuitively explore not only how
    the objects work but also how they fit into the world they make for
    Unfortunately, when it comes to high technology, schools generally focus
    only on the first aspect.  It is the simplest to learn, but also the least
    important for students, given how rapidly any particular high-tech tool is
    likely to become outdated.  Schools frequently neglect the second, leaving
    even older students mystified and overawed by the inner workings of
    sophisticated hardware and software.  And they almost uniformly ignore the
    third, which is the most critical and the most appropriate task of the
    three for publicly-funded education.
    In a democracy, the point of technology literacy should be to prepare
    students to be morally responsible citizens, actively participating in
    creating the nation's technological future, rather than merely reacting to
    it as passive consumers.  All technologies, after all, have social impacts
    and many have had profound moral and political repercussions as well.  No
    technology is the result of inevitable forces.  Its design and its pattern
    of use reflect a series of human choices -- some explicit and some tacit.
    For that reason, it is possible to imagine alternative designs and
    alternative patterns of use that might have resulted -- and might yet
    result -- from different choices.
    Helping all students prepare to take part in this kind of democratic
    decision-making is a major new challenge for educators precisely because
    advanced technologies have become so dominant in our culture.  Ultimately,
    how well our schools and colleges educate students for this kind of
    thoughtful technological citizenship is far more critical to the future of
    democracy than how well they train students to operate the latest
    generation of computers.
    Considering the importance of this task, it seems scandalous how little
    space it gets in public discussions of education.  In the interest,
    therefore, of provoking the discourse, we offer here four suggestions for
    educators and parents who are interested in developing more thoughtful
    approaches to technology literacy.
              (1) In early childhood and elementary school, at least
                  through the sixth grade, focus on developing the
                  child's own inner powers, not exploiting external
                  machine power.
    Structure learning so that knowledgeable, caring teachers -- not machines
    -- mediate between the child and the world.  Low-tech tools like crayons,
    watercolors, and paper nourish the child's own inner capacities and
    encourage the child to freely move in, directly relate to, and understand
    the real world.  Simple objects like blocks, balls, and ribbons stimulate
    connections between the rich world of the child's imagination and the
    equally rich physical world in ways no complex symbolic machine can.  In
    the same way, a well-loved teacher who helps draw the child's inner life
    and the world's outer reality together is a much more inspiring and
    appropriate model for the child to imitate than a programmed machine.
    Recent brain research confirms the academic importance of such strong
    emotional bonds between children and live, caring adults.
    Such an emphasis in the early grades will also boost children's confidence
    in their own abilities and their own identity as active, competent
    learners.  It will prepare them to relate later to more advanced
    technologies as tools that they can learn to operate with the same self-
    confidence and sense of personal competence that they developed using
    simpler technologies.  Speaking of his own education in a non-technology-
    centered environment, Peter Nitze said,
       If you've had the experience of binding a book, knitting a sock,
       playing a recorder, then you feel that you can build a rocket ship --
       or learn a software program you've never touched.  It's not a bravado,
       just a quiet confidence.  There is nothing you can't do.  Why couldn't
       you?  Why couldn't anybody?  (Atlantic Monthly, September, 1999)
    Nitze went on to graduate from Harvard and Stanford, and is now a global-
    operations director at AlliedSignal, an aerospace and automotive-products
    As the students grow in skill and understanding of the world, they will
    experience learning as a living transformation that occurs within
    themselves, not as the manipulation of random facts stored in an
    electronic box outside themselves, behind an all-knowing screen.  And, as
    adults, they are more likely to freely and thoughtfully choose among a
    range of technologies -- from the simplest to the most complex -- based on
    which provides the best means for the task at hand.
    In contrast, emphasizing the intensive use of computers in kindergarten
    and grade school sends children a debilitating message:  that they --
    unlike generations of children before them -- are incapable of learning
    such basic skills as arithmetic, reading, and writing without expensive
    and sophisticated machines.
    The above approach is as practical as it is pedagogically sound.  Those
    parents who worry about their child's typing, word-processing,
    spreadsheet, and Web search skills (the underlying fear, of course, is
    about earning a decent living), should consider what every experienced
    technology instructor knows:  all of these skills can be taught in a one-
    semester course for older students.  Must kindergarten students really be
    tethered to high-tech machinery to get a jumpstart on job skills?  Is our
    economic outlook really so desperate and the development of our children's
    autonomy so inconsequential as that?
    In fact, students who use computers intensively from early childhood are
    far more likely to be at a later disadvantage in the job market.  They
    will have more obsolete "computer skills" to unlearn.  And they will bring
    fewer of the fresh perspectives and bold innovations that companies
    traditionally look for from young workers.  Current high-tech tools will
    be updated several times and probably replaced long before today's first-
    graders graduate from high school.  (The World Wide Web didn't even exist
    twelve years ago.)  It makes little sense to waste precious time wiring
    the developing brains of young children to what will soon be yesterday's
    hardware and software.
    The high-school graduates of such a system may be well indoctrinated into
    the need for constant technical retraining (out of fear of being discarded
    themselves).  But they are not likely to have learned how to stand apart
    from the integrated technology and decide whether this is the work that
    ought to be done, or the kind of life they really want to live.  They may
    indeed achieve mental flexibility within the limits of the computer
    environment.  But the cost may well be mental rigidity in shaping that
    environment, or venturing beyond it.  Those trained from preschool to
    think primarily "within the electronic box" will be the least capable of
    imagining creative alternatives apart from those suggested by the
    technical system itself.
              (2) Infuse the study of ethics and responsibility into
              every technology-training program offered in school.
    Given the profound impact of computer technology on contemporary life, we
    have a pressing educational responsibility to direct our students'
    attention to the social issues related to it.  This starts with simple,
    straightforward tasks such as teaching good "Netiquette" -- the
    appropriate manners employed in on-line communication -- before students
    receive e-mail accounts.  It extends to complex issues regarding global
    responsibility and cultural awareness that should be a prerequisite to Web
    Few educators are even aware that such issues exist.  But the issues are
    not new.  Twenty years ago Joseph Weizenbaum, one of the early pioneers of
    computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, reminded
    his teaching colleagues that social obligations with regard to computer
    technology "begin from the principle that the range of one's
    responsibilities must be commensurate with the range of one's actions."
    In the age of global telecomputing the range of each person's actions is
    enormous.  And so, therefore, are each one's responsibilities.
    We are now placing in students' hands machines more powerful and with a
    far greater reach than any tools young people have ever possessed.  The
    demand that students be given the opportunities these machines afford has
    been loud and unrelenting.  Yet the voices grow weak when it comes to the
    profound responsibilities we all have in using these powerful machines for
    the benefit of humanity rather than simply exploiting them for our own
    personal profit or pleasure.  To send young people out into the world with
    great skill in operating these machines but no ethical instruction to
    guide their use is educationally and socially irresponsible.  Real
    technology literacy will be based on an investigation of ethical issues
    revolving around the use of powerful technologies.  The focus on ethical
    questions should continue throughout the time that these powerful
    technologies are made available to students in school.
              (3) For high school students, make the study of how
              computers work part of the core curriculum.
    It's one thing for students simply to learn how to use a computer.  But to
    develop any real control over them, students must gain an understanding of
    how information technologies fit into the history of humanity's
    toolmaking, and how computers do their work.  By formalizing this study,
    schools can help high-school students gradually demystify the black boxes
    that otherwise, when unthinkingly accepted, gain improper authority over
    our lives.
    Helping students gain a deep grasp of the history and technology
    underlying the computer is hard work, however, just as teaching physics or
    American history is hard work.  If there is technophobia in education, it
    is the unwillingness of educators and schools to do this hard work by
    genuinely confronting the computer.  As with television's sad history, the
    easiest course is just to abandon our children to whatever the technology
    delivers.  And, as with television, the easiest course is also the least
    A high-school course that started with the basics of simple electrical
    circuits and advanced to the fundamental design of televisions and
    computers would help correct this omission.  Basic comprehension of these
    technologies would begin to counteract the awe and deference that children
    and adults often lavish on machines today.
    To better understand the basic principles of how computers function,
    students could take apart and reassemble a very simple version of a
    computer.  They could learn what algorithms are, the sort of tasks for
    which the computer's algorithmic processing is proficient, and the ones
    for which it is less useful.  They could learn, for example, why computers
    are perfectly designed to sort and manage massive amounts of information
    that can be easily categorized.  And they could learn that computers
    cannot be trusted to make appropriate decisions based on that information
    alone because they are unable to understand the context of any particular
    situation.  Through such an investigation students would come to a better
    understanding of which aspects of the human mind these manmade logic
    machines reflect, and which aspects of our humanity they do not.
    This would encourage critical thinking about what the technology is good
    for, and what it is not so good for.  Students would then be prepared to
    analyze for themselves the vast gulf between the spectacular gifts of
    mind, body, and heart that being human entails and the infinitely more
    narrow range of operations that defines the most advanced machine.  They
    would come to recognize that the computer, by its very nature as a logic
    machine, is capable of embodying more tendencies, biases, assumptions,
    cultural imperatives, and hidden agendas than any other technology ever
    developed.  And they would be intellectually primed to explore for
    themselves what those biases are.
              (4) Make the history of technology as a social force
              a part of every high school student's schooling.
    This could be done as a separate course on the philosophy or sociology of
    technology, or as an ongoing part of social studies and other courses, as
    is now done with concerns about multiculturalism and gender issues -- or
    both.  The goal of such instruction would be to help students understand
    that technologies, from fire to the most advanced information devices,
    have had profound social, political, and environmental consequences, both
    positive and negative, intended and unintended, throughout human history.
    Such instruction should also clarify, through historical analysis, how the
    use of technology is rooted in social choices and political processes.
    That is, technologies are social products -- not the result of some
    inevitable chain reaction in which a scientific discovery leads inexorably
    to a particular technological innovation.
    In recent years, professional associations of scientists and engineers
    have strongly recommended that schools add the history of science and
    technology to their regular history curricula because of the crucial roles
    they have played in human cultures.  Scholars who study the history of
    technology agree that a complex dynamic exists by which human societies
    both shape technologies and are, in turn, shaped by them.  As the pace of
    technological change quickens, that issue looms ever larger.  A
    substantial literature already exists to support teachers who challenge
    students to critically analyze this pressing question: Are they doing the
    shaping, or are they being shaped?
    If such education is to be more than mere propaganda, however, it must
    help students explore the full range of cultural effects associated with
    science and technology.  Again, educators will find many competing
    scholarly positions to draw from in helping students think about this
    issue for themselves.  For example, students might study the checkered
    history of the automobile as both America's dream machine, in terms of
    speed and freedom, and a leading suspect in the generation of smog, flight
    from urban neighborhoods, and global warming.  They might study the more
    recent advent of genetic engineering, both in animals and crops, and the
    benefits and problems that may be realized by this technological
    innovation.  The issues are not hard to find -- that they are extremely
    difficult to resolve makes it all the more imperative that their study be
    undertaken in our schools.
    Because computers and other new information technologies are wielding an
    ever-expanding influence on all our daily lives, information technologies
    should be a high priority for this kind of critical historical analysis.
    This would include, for example, the U.S.  military's leadership in
    funding and promoting many of the major innovations in computer technology
    over the last 50 years.  This reflects the pivotal role that computers
    played in strategic Cold War planning for using or defending against
    nuclear weapons -- and their expanding role in current military strategies
    for using information to dominate any battlefield.  By studying the
    motivation and purpose behind the development of the computer and related
    technologies, students will better be able to judge the value of the
    inherent qualities built into the technology and what purposes it serves
    best, and least.
    All this should be seen as a fundamental responsibility of education in a
    computerized world.  If we do not help our children gain a sound
    understanding of the computer, they will inevitably defer to it in
    unhealthy ways.  We already see far too many cases of "Look, it's on the
    Internet.  It must be right!"
    The above recommendations depend and build upon a childhood that rejects a
    subservient attitude toward the machine.  Instead, schools can help
    children develop a healthy, autonomous sense of self and a gradually
    expanding, humane relationship to the world.  As young people move toward
    that goal, they will be able to determine for themselves the appropriate
    place for computers and other technologies -- from the most simple to the
    most advanced -- in their deepening relationship with the world, rather
    than have that relationship defined by the technology.
    Ultimately, that is the goal of technology literacy: To enable young
    people to develop their own creative and critical capacities in relating
    to technology, not to train them to be machine operators.  Then they will
    clearly see that their own choices are not limited to adjusting themselves
    to a 21st century determined by technology.  Instead, this new generation
    will have the awareness, the moral and ethical sensibilities, and the will
    to adjust technology to fit into their 21st century.
    Goto table of contents
                              ABOUT THIS NEWSLETTER
    Copyright 1999 by The Nature Institute.  You may redistribute this
    newsletter for noncommercial purposes.  You may also redistribute
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    NetFuture is supported by freely given reader contributions, and could not
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    Current and past issues of NetFuture are available on the Web:
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    Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #99 :: December 9, 1999
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