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  •                                  NETFUTURE
                        Technology and Human Responsibility
    Issue #87      A Publication of The Nature Institute        March 30, 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
    Quotes and Provocations
       I Think I'll Take Just One More Computer
       Virtuality and the Atomization of Experience
       Will Media Lab Chefs Some Day Become Intelligent?
       When Faith in Computers is Boundless
       Open Net, Padlocked Libraries
    The High Stakes of Standardized Testing (Edward Miller)
       Even sound test results can be mis-used
       Shovel This, Microsoft (Michael Gorman)
    About this newsletter
                                  EDITOR'S NOTE
    The piece I wrote in NF #78, "Who's Killing Higher Education?" has been
    reprinted (with a new concluding section) in the March/April issue of
    Educom Review.  You might be interested to know that the material you read
    here is increasingly finding its way into the "mainstream press".  For
    example, Educom Review is also preparing to reprint Lowell Monke's essay
    on the Net and multiculturalism (NF #49); my piece, "Why is the Moon
    Getting Farther Away?" (NF #70) appeared in The Internet and Higher
    Education, as well as Orion; and Wired has asked permission to
    reprint the Marcelo Rinesi - Muktha Jost exchange (NF #85).
    Of course, NETFUTURE also gets widely circulated to various online forums,
    email lists, and private distributions.  This, in fact, is a practical
    (non-monetary!) way you can help.  To what degree NETFUTURE will fulfill
    its potential depends a great deal on the initiative readers take in
    bringing it to the attention of those who should know about it.  I could
    attempt this myself only through the kind of general advertisement I find
    repugnant.  (See "Cluttering Our Lives for Profit" in NF #86.)  The key is
    word of mouth, via a far-ranging network of people who care, penetrating
    into many corners of society.
    Speaking of circulation, Ed Miller's article on standardized testing in
    this issue deserves the widest possible distribution.  The National
    Research Council study he describes has been under-reported, perhaps
    because of its revolutionary, common-sense conclusions.  (Yes, common
    sense tends to be revolutionary whenever you're talking about education
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                             QUOTES AND PROVOCATIONS
    I Think I'll Take Just One More Computer
    When Bill Gates was interviewed on the NPR Marketplace program a few days
    ago, the interviewer asked whether the computer had really proved useful
    in business.  Gates volunteered that you could find the answer by asking
    computer users, "How would you feel if we took your computer away from
    Of course, that's the kind of question one rightly puts to those who won't
    acknowledge an addiction.  But somehow I don't think Gates was proposing
    to establish a twelve-step recovery program for the computationally
    afflicted.  It's true that he has been upping his charitable giving
    lately.  But, then, some people's view of charity is to distribute free
    wine samples at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.
    Virtuality and the Atomization of Experience
    The technologist's dream of virtual reality is straightforward in the way
    that only technological dreams can be:  reproduce all the "sensory inputs"
    properly associated with the desired virtual experience, and you will have
    created a virtual reality wholly indistinguishable from the corresponding
    "real reality".
    This vision is startlingly naive in its artificial reduction of the human
    being to a set of isolated sensory mechanisms.  University of Montana
    philosopher Albert Borgmann makes this point beautifully in his book,
    Crossing the Postmodern Divide (University of Chicago, 1992).  He
    asks us to imagine a professional woman who,
       after a most stressful morning, is running in her favorite winter
       landscape.  New snow is sparkling in the sun, yet the footing is
       perfect.  Snow geese are vigorously rising from the river.  Then it is
       quiet but for the scolding of the Steller's jays.  A snowshoe hare up
       ahead is hopping along the trail.  There, suddenly, is a crashing in
       the brush, a gigantic leaping and pouncing; a mountain lion has taken
       the hare and is loping back up the slope.  Quiet once more settles on
       the valley.  A herd of elk is browsing in the distance.  The trail is
       rising.  The runner is extending herself; she reaches the crest of the
       incline; another quarter mile and the trailhead comes into view. (p.
    Borgmann then asks:  Does it matter whether this activity was real or
    hyperreal (as he calls the fully realized ideal of virtuality)?  He
    answers by the simple device of carrying the scenario one step further.
    The woman comes to the end of her run, walks to her car parked near the
    trailhead, and drives back through the snowy valley to her office:
       She is elated.  People spend years in the mountains without ever seeing
       a lion.  To see one at the height of a hunt is a rare blessing.  And
       she feels blessed also to live in a region wide and wild enough to
       support mountain lions, and on a continent hospitable enough for geese
       to nest in the North and winter in the South.  She revels in the
       severity of the early winter that has driven the snow geese south from
       Canada and the elk down from the high country.  The snow must already
       be ten feet deep on the peaks and ridges.  There will likely be a heavy
       runoff in the spring and strong river flows throughout the summer.
       This is where she wants to be.
    This contrasts with an entirely different conclusion:
       The vista is dimming, the running surface is slowing down, the ceiling
       lights are coming on.  She goes to the locker room, showers, changes,
       and steps into a muggy, hazy afternoon in the high-rise canyon of a big
       city.  All that was true of the real sun would now be false.  The
       hyperreal run would have revealed nothing about her surroundings, would
       have bestowed no blessings on her, and would not have been an occasion
       for her to affirm her world.
    What the naive notion of virtual reality leaves out is context.  That is,
    what it leaves out is just about everything -- certainly just about
    everything that gives an experience its enduring meaning, everything that
    makes it possible for us to weave a connected whole out of our lives.  As
    Borgmann notes, it is the desire to create a readily transferable,
    disposable experience that requires the experience to be extracted from
    its context.  Reality has the unfortunate tendency to keep relating one
    thing to another, and those relations must be broken if you want a nice,
    reliable, commoditized experience.
    This helps us to see that virtual reality is in one sense just the
    perfected extreme of a tendency toward decontextualization evident
    throughout modern life.  As an item in INNOVATION (June 29, 1998) put it:
       In the late agrarian economy, mothers mixed birthday cakes from basic
       ingredients; in the good-based industrial economy, they made them from
       Betty Crocker pre-mixed ingredients; and when the service economy took
       hold, parents ordered cakes from the bakery store.  Now, busy parents
       buy neither the ingredients nor the cake:  they buy the experience
       itself, at places like Chuck E. Cheese, the Discovery Zone, or the
       Mining Company, which throw the whole party as a memorable event for
    That's all correct except for the "memorable" part.  Something memorable
    may certainly happen at the party -- the birthday girl may, for example,
    break her arm.  But the party itself as an integrated part of her life
    will not likely be memorable -- not, say, in the way that a carefully
    prepared, home-brewed event might have been.  Most of the connections
    between the party and the rest of her life have been severed.  She will
    walk away from the recreation center in much the same way as the young
    woman walked away from the virtual spa.  While her interactions with her
    playmates had more elements of reality than the simulated hiking
    experiences, the entire affair took place as if on an island in the middle
    of nowhere (and getting to it, of course, involved little more than a
    quick, hermetically sealed passage within that pre-eminent vehicle of
    decontextualization, the automobile).
    As is true of so many aspects of the computer, its virtuality and powers
    of decontextualization are merely the perfection of tendencies we were
    already assiduously cultivating.  That's one reason why sound critical
    assessment of digital technologies is so difficult:  in many respects we
    are the computer, and it is therefore difficult to gain the
    distance required for valid assessment of the role of computing in our
    (For notes on Borgmann's important work, Technology and the Character
    of Contemporary Life, see NF #64.)
    Will Media Lab Chefs Some Day Become Intelligent?
    I sometimes wonder whether the folks at the M.I.T. Media Lab are pulling
    our legs.  Are they stand-up comedians in disguise?
    It seems that a lot of energy at the prestigious lab (which claims to be
    "inventing the future") is going into the redesign of the American
    kitchen.  For example, one project involves training a glass counter top
       to assemble the ingredients for making fudge by reading electronic tags
       on jars of mini-marshmallows and chocolate chips, then coordinating
       their quantities with a recipe on a computer and directing a microwave
       oven to cook it.
    Dr. Andrew Lippman, associate director of the Media Lab, says that "my
    dream tablecloth would actually move the things on the table.  You throw
    the silver down on it, and it sets the table."
    One waits in vain for the punch line.  These people actually seem to be
    serious.  And the millions of dollars they consume look all too much like
    serious money.  Then there are the corporate sponsors, falling all over
    themselves to throw yet more money at these projects.
    Nowadays this kind of adolescent silliness is commonly given the halo of a
    rationale that has become respected dogma.  After all, don't many
    inventions find unexpected uses in fields far removed from their first
    application, and doesn't a spirit of play often give rise to productive
    Certainly.  But somehow it doesn't all add up.
    ** In the first place, the possible occurrence of serendipitous benefits
    is not a convincing justification for trivializing the immediate
    application of millions of research dollars.
    ** In the second place, the Media Lab researchers voice their comic lines
    with a strange seriousness and fervor, devoid of the detachment underlying
    a true spirit of play.  Michael Hawley, an associate professor of media
    technology at M.I.T., laments that the kitchen is
       where you have the most complex human interactions and the most
       convoluted schedule management and probably the least use of new
       technologies to help you manage it all.
    And of this degrading backwardness Lippman adds:
       Right now, your toaster doesn't talk to your television set, and your
       refrigerator doesn't talk to your stove, and none of them talk to the
       store and tell you to get milk on your way home.  It's an obvious place
       screaming out for connectivity.
    Those sponsors must love it.  Where else but in an academic computing
    laboratory could they possibly find adult human beings seriously willing
    to propose such laughable things in order to start creating an artificial
    need where none was recognized before?  By slow degrees the laughable
    becomes conventional.
    Which explains why those corporate sponsors don't appear to be just
    waiting around for the occasional, serendipitous "hit".  Clearly, they see
    the entire trivial exercise as itself somehow integral to their own
    success.  I don't doubt their judgment in this at all.
    ** Thirdly, there are signs of a pathological flight from reality in all
    this.  Hawley tells us that
       in time, kitchens and bathrooms will monitor the food we eat so closely
       that health care will disappear.  We will move from a world in which
       the doctor gets a pinprick of data every blue moon to the world in
       which the body is online.
    "Health care will disappear."  If his words are meant to be taken even
    half seriously, this is a man with severely impaired judgment and with the
    most tenuous connection to reality.  One wonders how many of these kitchen
    technicians have ever done some serious gardening, and how many of them
    can even grasp the possibility that preparing food might be an important
    and satisfying form of work -- at least as satisfying as interacting with
    the digital equipment they would inflict on the rest of us (and, for that
    matter, a lot more healthy).
    No, the kind of fluff the Media Lab all too often advertises is not really
    comic.  Looked at in its social context, it is sick and obscene.  It is
    sick because of the amount of money spent on superficialities; it is sick
    because of the way corporate sponsors have been able to buy themselves an
    "academic" facility at a major educational institution to act as their
    "Consumer Preparation Department"; and it is sick because a straight-faced
    press corps slavishly reports this "invention of the future" without ever
    administering the derisive smile so much of this stuff begs for.
    The above quotes, by the way, come from the New York Times (Feb.
    18, 1999).  William L. Hamilton, the author of the article, does at least
    quietly give notice that Hawley is "a bachelor who rarely uses his
    kitchen".  Hardly surprising.  The man's passion has a lot more to do with
    computing for its own sake than with entering into the meaning and
    significance of the food preparer's task.
    When Faith in Computers is Boundless
    "From an article here and a TV program there", writes Paul De Palma in the
    Winter, 1999 American Scholar, "from a thousand conversations on
    commuter trains and over lunch and dinner, from the desperate scrambling
    of local politicians after software companies, the notion that prosperity
    follows computing, like the rain that was once thought to follow the
    settler's plow, has become a fully formed mythology."
    An associate professor of mathematics and computer science at Gonzaga
    University, De Palma takes a few not-very-gentle pokes at the mythology.
    Among his conclusions:
       [The computer skill taught in schools and universities] is at best
       trivial and does not require faculty with advanced degrees in computer
       As the number of microcomputers in our schools has grown, the chance
       that something interesting might be done with them has decreased.
       The stunning complexity of microcomputer hardware and software has had
       the disastrous effect of transforming every English professor, every
       secretary, every engineer, every manager into a computer systems
       For all the public subsidies involved in the computer literacy
       movement, the evidence that microcomputers have made good on their
       central promise -- increased productivity -- is, at the very least,
       open to question.
    De Palma is willing to say the obvious.  For example:  "To write a report
    on a machine with a Pentium II processor, sixty-four megabytes of memory,
    and an eight-gigabyte hard disk is like leasing the space shuttle to fly
    from New York to Boston to catch a Celtics game."  And again:
       The situation is really quite extraordinary.  Schools and colleges
       across the country are offering academic credit to students who master
       the basics of sophisticated consumer products.  Granted that it is more
       difficult to master Microsoft Office than it is to learn to use a VCR
       or a toaster oven, the difference is one of degree, not of kind.
       The obvious question is why the computer industry itself does not train
       its customers.  The answer is that it doesn't have to.  Schools, at
       great public expense, provide this service to the computer industry
       free of charge.  Not only do the educational institutions provide the
       trainers and the setting for the training, they actually purchase the
       products on which the students are to be trained from the corporations
       that are the primary beneficiaries of the training.
    (Thanks to Michael Corriveau for passing De Palma's article along.)
    Open Net, Padlocked Libraries
    NETFUTURE reader and educator, Jamie McKenzie, not known as a technology
    refuser, has sounded an alarm about our "ill-considered affair with
    networked information".  In his online article, "A Brave New World of
    Padlocked Libraries and Unstaffed Schools", he worries that
       the story of declining funding and the padlocking of libraries goes
       unmentioned by most of the "legitimate press" as stories of Internet
       stocks and futures dominate their pages and screens.
    The article is mostly a collection of reports McKenzie has gathered from
    educators in the trenches.  These reports support the notion -- certainly
    familiar to NETFUTURE readers -- that
       in some places, the pressures to network schools are so intense that
       priorities are severely skewed in order to find the funding for the
       equipment.  The hardware effort drains resources away from essential
       school programs and often leaves the school or district without the
       funding to provide a robust professional development program or
       sufficient technical support.  Networks arrive with enormous appetites
       for dollars and staff time.  Feeding the "network beast" becomes a
       preoccupation.  (http://www.fromnowon.org/feb99/padlocked.html)
    I have the vague impression that the occasional skeptical voice such as
    McKenzie's is more discernible within the general technological fervor of
    the mainstream press than was the case a couple of years ago.  Just
    recently the New York Times ran an article in its education section
    under the title, "Amid Clamor for Computer in Every Classroom, Some
    Dissenting Voices" (Mar. 17), and Pamela Mendels regularly gives play to
    such voices in the online version of the Times.
    I wonder, though, whether, as a society, we will ever wake up from the
    strange collective trance whereby we sleepwalked our way into a hugely
    expensive computerization of education without ever having thought to ask
    what educational goal we were aiming for -- let alone whether
    computerization would serve that goal.
    An article here and there notwithstanding, I don't see many signs of the
    waking up.  The scary thing is that the computers we have so automatically
    yielded to are the perfect instruments for training us toward the kind of
    sleepwalking state that makes further yielding more likely -- so much so
    that few people today even recognize any longer how unhumanlike is the
    one-sidedly algorithmic nature of the computer's re-shaping of our
    activities.  The logic of algorithms can indeed flow automatically, and we
    all too easily move with that logic, for it is usually the path of least
    resistance.  Might we be locking ourselves into a downward spiral from
    which escape will be ever more difficult?
    (Thanks to Nelson Logan for bringing McKenzie's article to my attention.)
    Goto table of contents
                                  Edward Miller
    Editor's note:  A culture that reveres information conceived as a
    collection of shovelable, database-file-able, atomic facts is bound to
    construe a student's test score as corresponding to some fixed, well-
    defined content in the student, which in turn is supposed to reflect the
    student's capacities.  But if you look at test scores in context -- and
    the recovery of context in the face of technology's radical tendency
    toward decontextualization is one of NETFUTURE's enduring themes -- the
    picture changes drastically.  Even if you assume that a test score
    measures a particular content reliably (usually a doubtful assumption),
    huge questions remain.  For example,
    ** Looking backward:  does the score represent the capacities of the
    student or the incapacities of his teachers?
    ** Looking forward:  if you make decisions about the student's future
    based on the test score, will these decisions help or harm the student?
    (And, after all, why do we administer tests if not to aid in making wiser
    This is the kind of context in which the National Research Council tried
    to assess high-stakes testing.  NETFUTURE reader Ed Miller, formerly
    editor of the Harvard Education Letter, was a consultant to the study
    panel.  Here he summarizes some of the panel's findings.
    I recently participated in a study, conducted by the National Research
    Council, of the appropriate uses of standardized tests for making
    decisions about individual students.  Its findings may be of interest to
    NETFUTURE readers who are concerned about the ways in which the technology
    of testing has become one of the most powerful influences in our education
    The study committee was charged by Congress with examining the use of test
    scores for so-called high-stakes purposes, defined as making decisions
    about tracking, promotion, and graduation.  Such uses are proliferating
    all over the country, and are widely considered an effective tool for
    whipping the public schools into shape.  For example, students in Chicago
    must now get at least a certain score on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills to
    be promoted to the next grade.  Starting next year, high school students
    in New York will have to pass the state Regents exam (formerly optional)
    to get a diploma.  The committee found that, while testing can and often
    does yield valuable information about students' achievement, the nature
    and limitations of that information are widely misunderstood.  Test
    results, the study concluded, are often used improperly.  In the case of
    high-stakes tests, the effects on individual students' lives may be
    The committee adopted three basic criteria for determining whether a
    particular test use is appropriate:
       ** Measurement validity -- whether a test is valid for a particular
       purpose, and whether it accurately measures the test taker's knowledge.
       ** Attribution of cause -- whether a student's performance on a test
       reflects knowledge and skill based on appropriate instruction or is
       attributable to poor instruction or to such factors as language
       barriers or disabilities unrelated to the skills being tested.
       ** Effectiveness of treatment -- whether test scores lead to placements
       and other consequences that are educationally beneficial.
    These criteria, which were derived from the established standards of the
    testing profession, reflect a fundamental truth about tests that is well
    known by experts but generally obscured in public policy debates and news
    reports:  test scores are subject to all kinds of statistical and human
    error and are therefore very often wrong.  Moreover, there is a remarkable
    lack of agreement in many cases about whether a particular test even
    measures what it is supposed to measure.  But because educational test
    results are given in numerical form they create a powerful impression of
    scientific precision -- that they are like a thermometer or your blood
    pressure reading.  They are not.  They provide only one perspective -- and
    often a very narrow and clouded one -- on a student's actual knowledge.
    This appearance of precision in test scores has been used in many
    instances to rationalize discriminatory and unfair practices.
    The nature of standardized testing, and its history of misuses, leads
    inexorably to certain conclusions.  One is that any use of a test score to
    justify an educational decision that is likely to harm rather than help
    the child is, by definition, insupportable.  With regard to tracking and
    promotion, this logic led the study committee to some surprising findings.
    After thoroughly examining the research literature on tracking, the group
    concluded that "students assigned to low-track classes are worse off than
    they would be in other placements.  This form of tracking should be
    eliminated.  Neither test scores nor other information should be used to
    place students in such classes."
    The committee was similarly troubled by the evidence on "retention" -- the
    practice of making kids repeat a grade.  In spite of the popularity of
    President Clinton's call to "end social promotion," the committee found
    that "grade retention is pervasive in American schools" and that it is
    usually not educationally beneficial, but leads to lower achievement and
    higher risk of dropping out.  It called for early identification of and
    remedial programs for students in difficulty as an alternative to holding
    them back, and it condemned the growing practice of using the results of a
    single test to determine whether a child should go on to the next grade.
    Indeed, the committee concluded that high-stakes decisions of any kind
    "should not automatically be made on the basis of a single test score."
    Other important conclusions were that the use of high-stakes tests to
    "lead" curricular reform -- that is, to get schools to change what and how
    they teach -- tends to corrupt and invalidate the tests, and is
    fundamentally unfair to students; that large-scale standardized tests
    should not be used at all in making high-stakes decisions about students
    below grade three; and that the existing mechanisms for enforcing
    standards of appropriate test use are inadequate.
    The implications of these findings are sobering in light of the growing
    enthusiasm for more testing as the answer to the intractable problems of
    school reform in the U.S.  The parallels to our leaders' faith in computer
    technology as educational panacea are unmistakable.
    The full report of the National Research Council has been published as
    "High Stakes: Testing for Tracking, Promotion, and Graduation" by the
    National Academy Press.  A short version, and information about ordering
    the book, can be found at http://www.nap.edu/readingroom/books/highstakes.
    Goto table of contents
    Shovel This, Microsoft
    From:  Michael Gorman (michaelg@csufresno.edu)
    Dear Mr. Talbott
    I read your article "Who's killing higher education" [from NF #78, as
    reprinted in Educom Review] with interest.  Lewis Perelman's
    "kanbrain" (ugh!) sounds remarkably like a library though, of course,
    without the fixity and authority of print or the organizational
    architecture of a library.  The idea of storing information and recorded
    knowledge until you need it is hardly novel.
    I was also interested in your observation that "information" cannot be
    defined even by those who use the word constantly.  In our book "Future
    libraries"  Walt Crawford and I, using Mortimer Adler's "ladder of
    learning," go to some lengths to distinguish between "information" and
    "knowledge" -- the latter being not only far less amenable to electronic
    dissemination and use but also a much higher "good of the mind" (to use
    Adler's phrase).
    If higher education is to be "shoveling information," MicroSoft, AT&T, and
    Cisco are welcome to it.
    Michael Gorman
    Dean of Library Services
    California State University
    Goto table of contents
                              ABOUT THIS NEWSLETTER
    Copyright 1999 by The Nature Institute.  You may redistribute this
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    Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #87 :: March 30, 1999
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