QUESTIONING TECHNOLOGY: Techno Skepticism, Anyone?

Clifford Stoll resembles a cross between Pee Wee Herman and Pinky Lee, with the hair of Albert Einstein. He leaps and races throughout a room like a jumping bean, literally wrestling the attention of anyone in ear shot."I love computers! I think computers are neat! The Internet is fun," he shouts. "It's not computers that bother me. It's the culture of computers that gives me the heebie-jeebies. It's this idea going around that if you don't have an e-mail address, if you are not on-line, if you have no World Wide Web page, then you are being left in the past. This really bugs me!"Stoll's in-your-face style is well-suited to his maverick message. It helps him cut through the clutter of hype being generated daily by the vast public relations machine selling the culture of computers."Why is it that we are skeptical about everything in this world but the computer?" he asks. "We are skeptical of nuclear energy. We're positively cynical about religion and politics, but where is the skepticism about the promises of the Internet and computers? Why this blind, maniacal love affair with them?"Adding a degree of potency to his questions is the fact that Stoll, an astronomer at the University of California at Berkeley, is one of the pioneers of the Internet. His book, Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway, (Doubleday, New York) has become a manifesto for those who question the impact information technology is having on society and culture.In a recent lecture at the New York Public Library, Stoll debunked the widely touted notion that those who don't jump on board the fast moving computer train are somehow missing an important part of modern living. Few aspects of daily life, he said, require computers, digital networks or massive connectivity. Computers, said Stoll, are irrelevant to such activities as cooking, driving, visiting, negotiating, eating, hiking, dancing and gossiping. Add to that list baking bread, playing touch football, piecing a quilt, building a stone wall, reciting a poem or saying a prayer.It's also a myth, said Stoll, that jobs in the future will belong to those who know computing. "Come on," he asked, "what's life going to be like 50 years from now? Fifty years from now we will still need dentists, we are still going to need bartenders, taxicab drivers, plumbers, movie actresses, carpenters, school teachers, day care workers, psychologists and people who can move chairs around. None of these people spend their time behind keyboards. Central to each of these jobs is the ability to work with other people."A dentist, Stoll noted, needs two key skills. The technical skills to fix teeth and the social skill of making the patient feel better in the dental chair. "Neither of those skills can be learned on-line," he said. "If you want social skills -- the ability to get along with people -- the way to do it is practice with real people." The subject of computers in the classroom generates particular passion for Stoll, who recounted his childhood days in the 1960s at Public School 61, a "high tech elementary school" in Buffalo. "We were high tech because we had film strips," said Stoll. "All the kids loved them. Every Wednesday for one hour we could grab the shift lever on our brains and go into neutral. For the next hour we didn't have to think."Stoll said the teachers loved film strips, too. "They didn't have to teach. Our principal thought film strips were wonderful because it demonstrated that Public School 61 in Buffalo was a high tech elementary school. The school board thought that film strips were great too because they were cheap. And the parents loved film strips because it proved their kids were getting the latest high tech education direct from authorities who knew what was going on. It was win-win for everybody except that no learning took place."To hammer the point home, Stoll touted his audience: "Each of you have seen as many hundreds of film strips as I have. Name any three. (Big laugh from the audience.) Now, name three teachers who have influenced your life."To Stoll, it's obvious. Anything that comes between the teacher and student is bad for learning. That includes film strips, instructional videos, educational movies, CD-ROMs and multimedia computers. "Kids love them but just because a child likes to do something doesn't mean it engages the child's mind," Stoll said.The magic mantra in today's educational software, said Stoll, is "this program makes learning fun." The problem is that learning isn't fun. "Learning takes work. It takes discipline. It takes commitment, not just of the student but of the student and teacher."Citing the long running public television series "Sesame Street" as a key purveyor of the "learning is fun" myth, Stoll said "imagine what a kid feels like going into the first grade, opening a book and finding that the letter 'x' doesn't talk jive. Then imagine how the kid feels when the teacher first walks in not dressed in yellow feathers!"The culture of computing claims that a computer can do what the brain does, said Stoll. "There's no need for humans to do something when you can get a computer to do it. This whole idea of word processing rather than writing. I don't need to hire a competent accountant, I have a spreadsheet to do it for me. I don't need a bartender, I have a computerized drink machine. Of course it's all a falsehood. But nobody stands up and challenges the hucksters."Stoll suggested that his audience check out some of the pilot programs in their neighborhoods where $10,000 to $50,000 grants are being given to "experts" to study computing in education. "Watch how they 'stupid down' the curriculum until anyone can get an 'A' in the class just as long as they've learned how to double click on an icon," he said. "What I want somebody to do is prove to me that computers actually encourage people to read. I have my doubts. I think computers actually discourage reading. Try reading an entire book on a computer."Computers can also zap creativity and free thinking in any institution, whether it be the classroom or workplace. In Silicon Snake Oil, Stoll noted that the stiff-walled logic of computers rewards those who can rigorously follow strict-thought rules. "These incentives include prestige and employment...our software and networks nourish drones," he said.Finally, Stoll attacked the widely held belief that information is power. "Who has the most information in your neighborhood?" he asked. "Librarians do and they are powerless! Who's got the most power in the neighborhood? Politicians do and they have no information at all!"The concept of an "information superhighway" is misplaced, said Stoll. The Internet, he said, is actually a conduit for data "It's a long, long gulf from data to information," he said. "Data is just bits and bytes. Information answers a question. It has utility and a sense of context. It has pedigree. You know who stands behind it." Beyond that is the transition from information to knowledge. "Information will tell you the answer to a question. What's the capital of New York state? The answer is Albany. Knowledge will answer the question of why is Albany the capital of New York state. What bribes took place? Who was paid off?"These gaps haunt contemporary computing. "The instant gratification of computing, I suspect, comes out of the idea that all you need to do is get the right answer to satisfy people," said Stoll. "Unfortunately that does not satisfy me. We should value creativity in our society and not fast access to information. As long as the big gap between data, information and knowledge exists, we will remain a vast distance from what we really should value in this society: wisdom."


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