• Goto NETFUTURE main page
  •                                 NETFUTURE
                       Technology and Human Responsibility
    Issue #66       Copyright 1998 Bridge Communications     February 24, 1998
                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
          Machines Are Extensions of Us -- So Stand Clear!
          Breaking-in Is Not Hard to Do
          Trust Me
    *** Letter from Des Moines (Lowell Monke)
          The Computers That Run Our Schools
    *** Correspondence
          Problems with Drill-and-test Educational Software (Ed Miller)
          How Gender-neutral Language Changed My Life (Joan Van Tassel)
          A Room of Our Own? (Margit Watts)
    *** Announcements and Resources
          The Legacy of McLuhan: A Symposium at Fordham University
          An Organization Seeking to Humanize the Technology Revolution
    *** Who Said That?
    *** About this newsletter

    What Readers Are Saying about NETFUTURE

    "I should let you know how impressed, informed, enlightened, and provoked I am by your newsletter."

    (For the identity of the speaker, who is one of the world's leading
    authorities on telecom policy, see "Who Said That?" below.)

    *** Editor's Note

    Readers periodically suggest the creation of a discussion forum related to NETFUTURE -- whether a newsgroup, interactive web site, chat line, or whatever. My usual response has been, "I'm open to the possibilities, but someone else will have to take the initiative to manage it." Now Margit Watts has offered the services of Walden3, a MOO she runs for her students' activities, corporate training, and various other purposes. Please check her letter in this issue, and respond if you have any interest in the possibilities she outlines.


    Goto table of contents

    *** Quotes and Provocations

    Machines Are Extensions of Us -- So Stand Clear!

    Television may be the more widely acknowledged wasteland, but "at moments it does seem as if we are inventing a vaster wasteland" on the Net, according to Paul Saffo, a director at the Institute for the Future. But Saffo, who was speaking at the recent Networked Entertainment World conference in Beverly Hills, remains hopeful that "we can reinvent ourselves out of this mess".

    Yes, that is the hope. We will be in a far healthier position, however, when we routinely realize at the beginning of every technological deployment that our very first task is to "reinvent ourselves out of the mess". Digital technology in particular always arrives on the scene with a chip on its shoulder. Its aggressive challenge to us may be a noble challenge, but part of what makes a challenge noble is the real danger of being overcome by it.

    We have often heard, following Marshall McLuhan, that machines are extensions of ourselves. But we do not so often note that the machine can be a seamless extension only of what is machine-like in us. So if we would make a fully human use of our machines, we must transcend the side of ourselves that harmonizes most readily with them. We must, in other words, rescue and assert whatever in our natures is unmachine-like, whatever does not mesh naturally with the mechanisms and frozen logic around us. Otherwise, all talk of "mastering the machine" is mere exhaust fumes.

    Even when technology extends our thinking, we need to recognize that the extension is first of all a contraction. The computer program embodies only the part of the programmer's thinking that can run on auto-pilot. So when we synchronize ourselves with the program, we repeatedly traverse the fixed ruts of someone else's old, cramped syntax. Escaping the tyranny of such ruts is always hard work; it is much easier to "get with the program", yield to the system, and forgo the distinctively human work of transforming the system in the present moment.

    The true and ennobling song of technology is always sung to a frictional accompaniment. Without creative friction between the machine and the user, there is only a spreading wasteland.

    Breaking-in Is Not Hard to Do

    More free-associating on my part, this time regarding security in a society founded increasingly on remote and anonymous connections:

    On this last point, it is not terribly hard to see that you have to be part of a community before you can experience damage to the community as your own loss. For this reason, as I have repeatedly pointed out and will continue to point out (see "Trust Me" below), all the current attempts to extend faceless, globally accessible communications by making them more workable (through cryptography and other technologies of privacy and security) threaten to prove self-defeating. Unless, that is, they are counterbalanced by intense, gut-wrenching, still-to-be-discovered energies for strengthening embodied communities.

    I am not suggesting, however, that all the items listed above tell an evident or coherent story. They just raise some useful questions. For example, consider all that electronic sabotage within companies. (The actual levels of damage are impossible to ascertain, since the saboteurs are often dealt with in-house rather than through the external legal system.) Does this problem result from the ever more distributed, unrooted, impersonal, and anti-communal quality of the workplace?

    Well, in at least some respects I think the answer is there just waiting to be read off by those with experience of the American corporation. But that's another group of essays -- one of which, actually, is already written. If you're interested, check out "Things That Run by Themselves".

    Trust Me

    For $150 or so you can now buy your own PC-based lie detector -- a voice analyzer more accurate, according to its inventors, than the traditional polygraph. The product, we're told, will help credit card companies deal with one of their biggest headaches -- the person who runs up a big bill and then claims the card was stolen. A Tel Aviv employer is planning to screen five hundred job applicants with the device. Then there are travelers' checkpoints and airports:
    A microphone worn on the officer's shirt would pick up the traveler's voice for analysis on a tiny computer attached to the officer's belt, with results being relayed to the officer by a discreet earphone.
    Incredibly, the product is called "Truster -- A Personal Truth Verifier". Made by an Israeli firm, Makh-Shevet, and based on work by the Israeli military, it adapts to your phone, allowing you to monitor all your callers (doubtless helping you build more trusting relationships). Since the voice is analyzed without being recorded, existing laws against recording probably don't apply.

    Of course, the device is stirring up a lot of controversy, legal and otherwise. As with the taping of White House interns, however, it's not at all clear how much the legality will matter so far as private use is concerned. In any case, Makh-Shevet's CEO, Tamir Segal, has the usual, bullet-proof justification for subjecting society to whatever his engineers manage to devise:

    This is the computer. This is the society that we've decided to live with. The technology is here. It's up to everyone to decide how to use it. I use it as a decision-support tool, not as a decision tool.
    Segal is, I'm sure, intelligent and upstanding, but the cliched words he has let slip here are those of a blind fool. One wonders why, in this age of supposed informational efficiency, his filters and bots haven't supplied him with the facts most directly relevant to his responsibilities -- simple truths available to any first-year student of the history of technology. In particular: the minute you and I pick up his invention with the intent to use it -- and before we make any decision at all about how to use it -- crucial decisions have already been made. "Default" decisions, you might say, which, if they are not absolutely binding on us (and they are not), nevertheless become social forces at large, with a highly predictable character.

    As I'm sure many others have been pointing out, merely to decide to monitor your conversational partners in this way is already to enter into an altogether different relationship with them. And that underlying difference in quality is likely to transform society far more than any particular decisions you make about "good" and "bad" uses.

    The notion that you can gain a basis for trust by using this instrument comes as close to comic farce as anything I've seen in the world of high-tech gadgets. It also provides another instance of the "Fundamental Deceit of Technology" (see NF #38, 40, and 48). That's because the more we improve our analyses of such externalities of speech as "microtremors", and the more we therefore rely on them, the less practiced we will become at hearing and understanding the speaking self behind the sound waves. And the only enduring basis for trust lies in this inner, intimate, delicate wedding of hearing and response -- the meeting of persons. Truster is not exactly the most natural broker of such meetings.

    By the way, none of the reports I've seen so far has mentioned the obvious: Truster can be used not only as a putative lie detector, but also as a reliable biofeedback device. Employing it, we can learn to project the physical sound features that Truster presumptuously correlates with such things as "confusion", "excitement", "exaggeration", "sarcasm", and "falsehood". Before now, of course, the general public had no convenient access to such training tools. (Will governments insist on keeping the more sophisticated algorithms out of circulation, and will some new outfit called Pretty Good Trust release the algorithms to the world?)

    In any case, now we can look forward to yet another escalating technological arms race, just like the ones between privacy seekers and snoopers, between free speechers and filter-wielding censors, and between security providers and security breachers. And as the unresolvable escalation proceeds through ever new generations of software (keeping the high-tech companies well fed), we will in all likelihood fail to notice the crucial fact: by having shifted the search for trust onto technical ground, we will have subverted still further the deeply social and humane consciousness upon which all trust finally depends.

    How should we respond to devices like Truster? I don't have any good answer. Given the current social realities, the arms race is not about to disappear, regardless of anything you and I do. But there is this: nothing ever prevents us from remaining outside the arena of combat and cultivating that saner, communal ground upon which victory in the battle for trust can ultimately be won.

    (Thanks to Michael Corriveau.)


    Goto table of contents

    *** The Computers That Run Our Schools
    From Lowell Monke (lm7846s@acad.drake.edu)
                                                        Letter from Des Moines
                                                             February 20, 1997
    (I have managed to prod Lowell Monke, who is finishing work on his doctorate in educational technology at Iowa State University, to resume his reporting from the trenches. Lowell teaches computer technology to high schoolers in Des Moines, Iowa. In this report Lowell shifts attention from curricular uses of the computer to administrative uses. SLT)
    Two years ago my district budgeted $4 million to replace its business
    management computer system.  In making that commitment, the district found
    itself in a predicament I'm sure is familiar to many businesses.  The old
    mainframe was archaic; customized programs had been built piecemeal, with
    no way to share information.  As more functions were added, it became
    cumbersome to operate and almost impossible to coordinate.

    The new system, administrators decided, would be fully integrated. But this meant buying a software package; a custom-built system would be far too expensive. Actually, the off-the-shelf program proved extremely expensive as well, but at least we'd be free from further code-writing.

    Because the district's business department operates on standard accounting principles (most of the time), getting that part of the program up and running was relatively painless. But in June the district began moving student management onto the system, training the counselors, attendance clerks, and school secretaries to use it. This is when trouble began; there are no standard accounting procedures for handling students.

    In order to preserve some flexibility in the integrated, one-size-fits-all program, the user entering data now had to negotiate seven screens instead of the single screen previously required. Even then, a number of functions reflecting policies specially coded into the previous system over the past two decades just couldn't be made to work. These weren't small problems. For example, Central Campus, which isn't a school in itself but rather serves the five district high schools with special programs, couldn't find a place to exist within this new database. (There were also some interesting gender biases programmed into the package, which assigned "head of household" status to the "Father's name" category.)

    By the time school started at the end of August, a counselor and a secretary had resigned, unwilling to continue what they predicted would be a constant battle with the computer. About mid-semester a counselor and an attendance clerk at one high school complained publicly in the local newspaper about the inability of the new system to "serve the students". So administrators had to go before the school board to assure them that everything was going to be alright -- we just had to work out a few more bugs.

    What I find most interesting about all this is the divergent reactions of staff. One pole is exemplified by an administrator in the business department, who told me that the employees of the district have to learn to adapt to new technology. "The culture in the school has to change", she said. We're too used to having everything individualized. "In business, people have to adapt to whatever they are given to work with. That's what's going to have to happen here."

    At the other pole, certified instructional staff (teachers and counselors) tend to agree with a counselor who decided to retire at the end of this year rather than continue to alter the focus of her work. "I became a counselor to work with students, not computers", she told me. In the newspaper, Bette Reaves, another counselor at one of the high schools, cited a specific example of the computer tail potentially wagging the educational dog:

    We can't put retake grades into the system. Now we're thinking about changing the policy that allows students to retake classes.
    My own sympathies lie with the retiring counselor, whose work with young people I know to be outstanding. But I'm afraid the vision of the administrator will prove more acute. Before too long the counselor will be gone, and the increased proportion of time spent processing student data will be established as the new baseline for her job.

    The administrators I talked with saw this accumulation of information as a good thing. Counselors will be able to access a student's financial, academic, disciplinary, and attendance profiles -- everything that has ever been filed on the student from grade 1-12 -- all at the push of a button, or several. But what the retiring counselor and I wonder is whether it will soon be the disembodied information that dictates how counselors treat the children coming to them for help, rather than the trusting relationship she used to devote so much time to cultivating.

    The more time counselors spend entering, retrieving, managing and analyzing all of this student information, the less time they will have for listening intently and learning directly from students. Will counselors finally have to abandon their own relationship-building skills and personal insights, depending wholly on the computer profile? If so, they will become little more than psychological and vocational clerks.

    We have already traveled a long way down this technology-dictated road. In my computer class I often have students who undertake lengthy projects which, due to illness or other cause, they can't complete by the end of the semester. The first time this happened seven years ago I marked an `I' for Incomplete on their report cards. A counselor called me the next day, asking me to take a best guess at the students' grades. I asked why he preferred a guess to an Incomplete, and he told me how expensive it was to have the mainframe recalculate GPAs and class rank for all 10,000 high school students after the Incompletes were changed.

    Of course, when I heard this I refused to change the grade, and from then until he retired the counselor and I went through this ask-and-refuse ritual. There must have been many teachers like me, because eventually the district ruled that any Incomplete not cleared up within two weeks would automatically be changed to a failing grade. Grade point averages and class ranks were then figured after the two weeks.

    GPAs and class rank are just two of numerous mismeasures of student ability, and they've been around far longer than the computer. What is disheartening, though, is that the complaints focus only on the fact that the new computer system makes it harder to use this kind of information. Almost no one is discussing the potential damaging effects of being forced to rely more heavily on this degraded information to make decisions about students' lives.

    The district's long-term goal is to make most of this student information available to teachers as well. This is one of the reasons why the bulk of the new computers being bought with special state funds are being put on teachers' desks. They were originally dubbed "teacher work stations", but I am more and more hearing the term "administrative stations". Everything the teacher needs to know about a student will be on file, along with all the student's course work and attendance, which will be calculated and entered into an electronic grade book. The student's GPA and class rank will be automatically updated at the end of the semester.

    This marvelously integrated system will relieve the teacher of the always troublesome process of quantifying those ambiguous, subjective aspects of the students' learning such as their interaction with each other -- interaction which, in any event, the teacher, with eyes glued to the screen, may no longer notice.

    Footnote: Yesterday I attended a meeting of the Technology Steering Committee. Four school board members also attended. Everyone at the meeting was asked what they would like to be able to say we accomplished with technology in the year 2001. One board member stated that the most important thing was to have in operation "a complete student profile database" which would contain everything that happened to the child during his/her school career -- school work, discipline, attendance, counseling records, home contacts, etc. -- so that we would better know how to "help" each student. I couldn't help thinking how glad I am they didn't have such a system in place when I went through school. I don't think I would have cared much for the help they would have given me.

    Goto table of contents

    *** Correspondence

    Problems with Drill-and-test Educational Software

    Response to: "Disfigured Hope" (NF-62)
    From: Ed Miller (millered@hugse1.harvard.edu)

    In your summary of Arthur Zajonc's recent talk on technology and education at Columbia University in NF #62, you noted that "drill-and-test with a computer proves somewhat more effective than drill-and-test without the computer," pointing out that this was not exactly the kind of revolutionary learning activity envisioned by technology advocates.

    There is a further irony here worth noting. These "drill-and-test" programs, also known as "integrated learning systems," are in fact among the most common uses of technology in schools today, where they are thought to be particularly appropriate for disadvantaged and low-achieving students because they are "self-paced" and therefore well suited to individual students' needs. It is widely believed that the use of computers in this way is effective in boosting these students' standardized test scores and improving their basic skills in reading, writing, and math.

    Some recent research suggests, however, that the opposite may be true: that the use of integrated learning systems actually increases the gap between low- and high-achieving students. Nira Hativa of Tel Aviv University studied schools using these programs in the U.S. and in Israel and found that the lowest-achieving students were "less adaptable to the individual pace of the work" than their higher-achieving peers. The programs often undervalued the performance of the slower students -- because they made more typing errors and took a longer time before responding to questions. (The lack of response within a set amount of time was counted as an error.) The machine, programmed to "tailor" subsequent lessons to the student's ability level, thus ended up actually holding the child back unnecessarily, with presumably demoralizing effects.

    The quick students, on the other hand, soon figured out how to play the computer's game and moved on rapidly to more advanced material.

    Henry Jay Becker of the University of California at Irvine also studied the uses of integrated learning systems in elementary school classrooms and concluded that they had no impact on students' performance. Although this technology is often sold to schools as being "teacher-proof," Becker found that the system worked well in only one of the classrooms he studied -- where there was a teacher who was particularly adept at diagnosing learning difficulties and integrating what she observed in the computer lab with her regular classroom lessons.

    Hativa's and Becker's findings were published in the International Journal of Educational Research, vol. 21, no. 1 (1994).

    --Ed Miller (millered@hugse1.harvard.edu)

    How Gender-neutral Language Changed My Life

    Response to: "Why I Do Not Use `Gender-neutral' Language" (NF-61)
    From: Joan Van Tassel (joanvt@earthlink.net)

    Well, gosh, I don't mean to be the gender police because when other women burned their bras, I burned my purse ... envious of men's freedom of action. (They didn't have to fish around for some inevitable encumbrance, they could just stand and go! Wow!) I never regretted it, although (sadly) it was eventually replaced by a briefcase and laptop on the other shoulder.

    I first saw the general use of a generic "she" when I was in grad school in the early 80s. In Karl Weick's book on organizational communication (Social Psychology of Organizing???), he replaced all the "he's" with "she's" and I was struck by the magnitude of my own response to it.

    I had always been a voracious reader and had taken "he" for granted. Weick opened up the world to me, a world where women were managers, VPs, members of a sales force ... that formerly closed world where the women (including me) were secretaries and clerks.

    I suddenly felt part of that larger world. By the time I was in grad school, I had left the secretarial ranks to work among men as a writer, documentary producer, and creative director. I was in a cohort where I was the "first" woman everything: First writer, first producer, first creative director, later, first woman on tenure track in a comm department at a particular university, etc. Weick's book was the first time I didn't feel alone, like a Negro in a 1948 country club.

    I realized that I had been marginalized in print, written out of existence and it was actually quite thrilling to find myself in the pages of a serious book about organizational life. In my reader's imagination, I had always been one of the guys and this mental picture left me singularly unprepared for expressing myself in the real-life workplace.

    So that's me and my experience. Kinda funny, because I never cared all that much about gender, never joined NOW, read Ms., or attended those ghastly retreats where women whine about how awful men are. I've always favored the equality of cynicism, suspicion, and hope when it comes to people, men and women alike.

    I must also say that I rather deplore the use of waitpersons and all these other uncomfortable and unpleasant linguistic kludges we've gone through to repair the inherent gender bias locked into the language. Before my own experience, I would have been the first to howl with satiric contempt. But what happened to me made me realize how I myself had been conditioned and that there had been effects of that subtle conditioning of which I was unaware.

    So I applaud your attempts at inclusivity, I appreciate the spirit that generated them, I'm sorry they now make you uncomfortable, I recognize your right to write any way you damn well please, but I hope you will reconsider your decision because your writing has effects that you cannot predict or know.

    Thanks for reading,

    Joan Van Tassel

    A Room of Our Own?

    From: Margit Watts (watts@hawaii.edu)

    I'd like to offer a forum where NETFUTURE readers can begin to participate in extended discussions about issues raised and those not raised. More importantly, I propose that these discussions be synchronous and timely.

    Walden3 MOO is an online virtual community that I have been running for over four years. Its use ranges from educational projects, philosophical conferences, corporate training, collegial sharing and much more. I find it would be an excellent venue for a monthly forum. Use of the MOO is simple, and readers could connect directly from our web site. A MOO is simply a place for interactive conversation among groups of people.

    The format for these forums is open and can be designed by the participants. However, I do see variety in the format, ranging from topical meetings to free-for-alls, as well as invited guests giving short talks followed by discussion. The beauty of this kind of virtual environment is the ability of everyone to have a hand in its design.

    If interested in participating please email me at watts@hawaii.edu and we can then set up a time for the first NETFUTURE online forum.

    Goto table of contents

    *** Announcements and Resources

    The Legacy of McLuhan: A Symposium at Fordham University

    In celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University (the Bronx, New York City), the university is sponsoring an impressive conference, with scholars converging from all directions to hash out Marshall McLuhan's legacy. The conference will be held Friday and Saturday, March 27 - 28, and there is no registration fee.

    Just a few of the many participants include Eric McLuhan, Donald Theall, Liss Jeffrey, Neil Postman, Jay David Bolter, Bernard Hibbitts, and Douglas Rushkoff. For further information, contact Lance Strate (Strate@murray.fordham.edu), or call 718-817-4864.

    A New Organization Seeking to Humanize the Technology Revolution

    NETFUTURE reader Tom Mahon writes to tell of an initiative growing out of the high-tech community in Silicon Valley, called "Reconnecting". Its aim is to
    establish and link a global network of individuals and communities seeking to humanize the technology revolution: to explore ways to relieve the stress in the technology workplace; seek moral guidelines for technical capability; and develop a sense of human balance appropriate to an increasingly technical world.
    One of the proposed initial projects is to compose a Hippocratic Oath for engineers. An "Engineers without Frontiers" undertaking is also envisioned, bringing engineering talent to needy communities anywhere in the world, via the Internet.

    For further information, contact Tom Mahon (tmahon@ccnet.com). You can also check these web sites: http://www.ewof.org/ (Engineers without Frontiers) and http://www.reconnecting.com/.

    Goto table of contents

    *** Who Said That?

    The author of this week's quotation is Professor Eli Noam, director of the Columbia Institute for Tele-Information, Columbia Business School, "the first research center for communications economics established at a US management school" (http://www.citi.columbia.edu).

    Professor Noam has also established the "Virtual Institute of Information" (http://www.vii.org/), which is a depot for papers, event announcements, news reports, and anything else related to "the economic, business, policy, and social aspects of telecommunications". If you take a peek at the site right now, you'll find, among many other events, an announcement of a conference on "The Future of Public Television", featuring a group of speakers ranging from Reed Hundt to Neil Postman. The conference is March 6 in New York City.


    Goto table of contents

    *** About this newsletter

    Copyright 1998 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 #66 :: February 24, 1998

    Goto table of contents

  • Goto NETFUTURE main page