• Goto NetFuture main page
  •                                  NETFUTURE
                        Technology and Human Responsibility
    Issue #113     A Publication of The Nature Institute      October 31, 2000
              Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)
                      On the Web: http://www.netfuture.org/
         You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes.
    NetFuture is a reader-supported publication.
    Quotes and Provocations
       Do We Really Want Higher Test Scores?
       Over-justified Toys
       Asian Rice: A "Stunning" Result
       Is Growing Pessimism about the Internet a Cause for Optimism?
    About this newsletter
                             QUOTES AND PROVOCATIONS
    Do We Really Want Higher Test Scores?
    In NF #107 I mentioned a home-schooled boy who resisted all pressures to
    read until he was ten years old, and then began to read voraciously on his
    own (a common story except where early attempts to force reading set up a
    resistance that the child never overcomes).  I commented:
       The idea that earlier is better is one of the strangest notions ever to
       seize hold of parents.  Why not assume that later is better?  Certainly
       it can be easier, with much less stress and alienation on the child's
       part.  Children all have their own rates of development, and it is
       impossible to comprehend all the suffering that results from forcibly
       subjecting them to the standardized schemas of school and labeling them
    This continues to eat away at me.  The whole idea that an accelerated
    education is a better education seems little more than a disgusting
    reflection of parents' competitiveness.  (This competitiveness, of course,
    is encouraged by schools.)
    Impatient parents should stop and think a minute about one of the things
    distinguishing the human being from animals:  remarkably delayed maturity.
    Our highest capabilities evidently have a lot to do with the fact that we
    are held back in our development.  Even as adults we can experience
    that the inspiration too quickly seized upon, too quickly straitjacketed
    within definite form, loses its inner life prematurely.  Its potentials
    grow best when it is nurtured for a time in a protected place, slept on,
    shaped by all the diverse powers of our organism, given an imaginative
    space for transformation.  In our life as a whole, this imaginative space
    is called childhood.
    The computer is a superb tool for forcing certain kinds of development.
    It is wonderfully effective at coercing the fluid imagination into
    arbitrary, crystallized forms.  It easily replaces inner activity with
    impressively articulated skeletons of algorithmic logic.  It can elicit
    from children feats of abstraction worthy of a rocket scientist,
    delighting parents who remain unaware that they are witnessing a damping
    of creative powers.  Creativity, after all, is the life that overcomes
    abstraction; it gives us new images of wholeness worth abstracting from.
    Our death-like, context-destroying powers of abstraction are among our
    highest, and therefore most dangerous, powers, which is reason enough for
    them to come late.  When our more vital, organic, imaginative, and child-
    like capacities are not first cultivated to the fullest, then we lose the
    means to revivify our abstractions.  Working with these abstractions
    becomes like eating sawdust -- a pretty good description for much of the
    scientific curriculum today.
    Evidence that computer-based learning improves test scores has been hard
    to come by.  Even harder for many people, I'm afraid, will be the
    realization that higher test scores may just as well signal an educational
    failure as a success.  We do not, after all, hope for the birth of a
    75-pound baby.  It is equally perverse to push for an adult-like intellect
    in a child.
    Over-justified Toys
    You're doubtless aware of the technologization of children's toys.  In
    three years the use of electronics in toys has increased from less than
    ten percent to more than sixty percent, according to the president of
    Mattel's Fisher-Price unit.  Technology, he says, can deliver "all the
    things we want for the child and what the child wants for fun and
    In a story last February 17 entitled "The Road to Toyland Is Paved with
    Chips: Technology Takes Over the Nursery", the New York Times cited
    some of the reasons why high-tech infant and pre-school toys are proving
    such a commercial success.  Unsurprisingly, much of it has to do with
    parents' desire to help their children "get ahead" and become little
    adults.  (See previous article.)
    A spokeswoman for the Toy Manufacturers of America, Terri Bartlett,
    summarizes the matter with wonderful unconcern:
       "[Children] respond faster, and their senses are heightened, because in
       society everything is coming at them faster."  She added:  "We're all
       into doing more things.  The times they are spending on various types
       of toys is being shortened.  It's like they are multitasking with their
    It doesn't seem to have occurred to Bartlett that just possibly we ought
    to protect the child from some of society's more extreme trends, rather
    than view those trends as nothing more than a commercial opportunity.
    The Times article mentions a toy called the Babbler whose parts a
    baby can strike, making things happen -- the parts light up and babble in
    Japanese, French, English and Spanish.  In case you've missed the adult
    point, a toy store owner clarifies:  "It's a wonderful cause-and-effect
    toy".  Get it? -- strike X and something happens.  That's cause and
    effect, which sounds marvelously scientific.
    Then there's the Intelli-Table developed by Microsoft and Fisher-Price.
    It "promises to teach children who press its buttons about colors,
    letters, numbers and musical concepts -- the last with animal sounds, like
    the baaing of sheep, set to snippets of a Mozart sonata".
    It's hard to comment on patent nonsense; where do you find a toe-hold for
    rational response?  People who are obviously failing to see the child are
    not likely to see the point of any defense of the child.
    Nevertheless, I will venture to note that there's not much a child can do
    -- whether it is stubbing a toe or lifting an arm -- that does not teach
    whatever needs teaching about cause and effect.  After all, there's no
    shortage of things that "happen", even in the most toy-deprived child's
    life.  Recognition of cause and effect is ultimately grounded in the
    experience of mastery over our own bodies and limbs; simple toys for which
    the child must create the uses -- blocks, sticks, leaves, stones --
    are as useful for this purpose as anything else.  And they are much
    healthier for the child.
    The real fact of the matter is as obvious as can be:  the Babbler serves
    primarily to conceal cause and effect, substituting something
    altogether arbitrary and rather more like magic.  Why in the world should
    touching one particular part of this device result in a sudden outburst of
    babbled Japanese?  The "causal mechanism", not to mention the sense of it
    all, is completely hidden from the child.
    Much the same goes for those Microsoft-inspired buttons that teach
    children about "colors, letters, numbers and musical concepts".  The
    toddler does not need musical concepts; he needs musicality in his
    life -- and not arbitrary snippets of sheepish and Mozartean sounds, but
    music that arises coherently out of the encircling human context.  And if
    you still want cause and effect, let the music express the current mood
    and goings-on between child and parent, not the inane selections of an
    engineer in a remote cubicle.
    In general, we should see a red flag whenever adults set out to "teach"
    infants and very young children.  About all we can realistically hope for
    is to learn from all the amazing things children accomplish during these
    years, most of which have eluded our most sophisticated efforts at
    understanding.  The child learns to speak, not because we "teach" him, but
    because we enter into and share his world in the most intimate way.  Our
    lives together become a speaking, and this alone is what enables the child
    to speak.  We could usefully take this as the model for all learning.
    Related articles:
    ** "When Childhood Should Rule" in NF #80.
    ** "Dangerous Baby Walkers, Dangerous Software" in NF #96.
    ** "Toddlers as Geometricians" in NF #80.
    ** "The Most Powerful Tools Are Unbearably Simple" in NF #80.
    Asian Rice: A "Stunning" Result
    In a massive Chinese experiment, a major rice disease was reduced by
    ninety-four percent.  How? -- by using the latest pesticides and
    genetically modified crops?  No, but by rejecting the principle of
    monoculture and returning to more natural contexts.  As the New York
    Times reported:
       In a stunning new result from what has become one of the largest
       agricultural experiments ever, thousands of rice farmers in China have
       doubled the yields of their most valuable crop and nearly eliminated
       its most devastating disease -- without using chemical treatments or
       spending a single extra penny.
       Under the direction of an international team of scientists, farmers in
       China's Yunnan Province adopted a simple change in their rice paddies.
       Instead of planting the large stands of a single type of rice, as they
       typically have done, the farmers planted a mixture of two different
       rices.  With this one change, growers were able to radically restrict
       the incidence of rice blast -- the most important disease of this most
       important staple in the world.  Within just two years, farmers were
       able to abandon the chemical fungicides previously widely used to fight
       the disease.  (August 22, 2000)
    The experiment, covering 100,000 acres and involving tens of thousands of
    farmers, was reported in the August 17 issue of Nature.  A commentator
    in that journal, Martin S. Wolfe, notes that "monoculture is convenient;
    it is easier to plant, harvest, market and identify one variety of crop
    than several".  This, of course, is the fragmented, blindered sort of
    agricultural efficiency that technology so readily propels us toward -- an
    efficiency that has forgotten its own larger purpose, which is to promote
    healthy contexts for living.
    Wolfe points out some of biodiversity's benefits, as highlighted by the
    work in China:
    ** A more disease-resistant crop, interplanted with a less resistant crop,
    can act as a physical barrier to the spread of disease spores.
    ** "An increase in the complexity of the pathogen population may also slow
    the adaptation of the pathogen" to the crop mixture due to competition
    among the pathogens.
    ** Of the two varieties of rice used in the Chinese experiment, the taller
    variety was the one more susceptible to blast.  But, when planted in
    alternating rows with the shorter variety, the taller rice enjoyed
    sunnier, warmer, and drier conditions, which appeared to inhibit the
    ** The rice experiment yielded a clear "yes" to the question whether
    expanding the area of mixed plantings multiplies the benefits.  (This, by
    the way, emphasizes how remarkable it is that organic farming has
    performed so well in the few studies of its economic viability relative to
    conventional farming.  A one-hundred-acre organic farm surrounded by
    thousands of acres of monoculture must cope with the resulting imbalances
    in the larger landscape -- imbalances likely to inundate the organic crops
    with single disease agents or insect pests.  That is, the organic farmer
    not only has to pay his own way, but also has to pay for his neighbor's
    sins.  As more farms are converted to organic methods, the performance
    should get even better.)
    ** A kind of immunization occurs when crops are exposed to a diversity of
    pathogens (disease organisms).  Upon being attacked by a less virulent
    pathogen, a plant's immune system is stimulated, so that it can then
    resist even a pathogen that it would "normally" (that is, in a
    monoculture) succumb to.
    This last point reminds us that our notions of disease susceptibility
    ought to be kept flexible.  Susceptibility is not a fixed trait of a crop
    variety, but rather is relative to the conditions of cropping.  Many
    existing susceptibilities are, to one degree or another, artifacts of the
    crop's extreme isolation from anything like a natural or supportive
    context.  This context includes not only other plants, but also the
    complex, teeming life of the soil -- life that is badly compromised by
    "efficient" applications of fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides.
    (Our society ought to declare war on the term "efficiency", which
    almost without exception signals a blindness to larger, contextual
    concerns.  In fact, when you look closely, you see that this blindness is
    just about the whole point of the term.)
    If mixing varieties of a single crop proves beneficial, so also, Wolfe
    notes, does mixing different crops.  This kind of diversity encourages a
    matching diversity of diet, and it militates against the dominant trend
    toward increasingly "pure" monocultures -- first single crops, then single
    varieties, and now single, genetically engineered traits.  Wolfe suggests
    that "even organic farmers underuse diversity, as they also have been
    indoctrinated in the simplicity of and seduced by the universality of
    You know that the backlash against the arrogance of the genetic engineers
    of food has reached serious proportions when Nature -- probably the
    world's most prestigious scientific journal -- gives play to these words:
       Mixtures of species [such as corn and beans, or grains and legumes]
       .... can provide near-complete nutrition for animals and humans alike,
       without recourse to expensive and uncertain forays into genetic
       engineering.  (Wolfe)
    This, you will remember, was exactly the point of "Golden Genes and World
    Hunger" in NetFuture #108.
    Related articles:
    ** "Golden Genes and World Hunger" in NF #108.
    ** "When Technology Is Smoke and Confusion" in NF #83.
    ** "Finding Wholeness in a Pile of Manure" in NF #79.
    Is Growing Pessimism about the Internet a Cause for Optimism?
    Have you noticed the minor epidemic of disillusion that has been on public
    display lately?  I mean, in particular, disillusion about the Internet and
    the promise of digital technologies.  At the very least you could say that
    it has become much more respectable to question technological "solutions"
    in popular media.
    For example, the Alliance for Childhood's September release of its report,
    Fool's Gold: A Critical Look at Computers in Childhood (see NF #111)
    provoked a massive response far beyond the Alliance's most ambitious
    hopes.  From the New York Times to the San Francisco Examiner, from
    U.S. News & World Report to Newsweek, from MSNBC to CNN, from Education
    Week to eSchool News -- and in extensive international coverage as
    well -- the reportage was largely respectful of the Alliance's concerns.
    As an Op-ed piece by Joanne Jacobs in the Montreal Gazette put it:
       Perhaps the techno-pushers can argue persuasively that putting more
       computers in classrooms is the most cost-effective use of school funds.
       OK.  But they should have to make their case.
    The recognition that a case needs to be made is a great advance over the
    previous state of affairs!
    On a different front, Bill Joy's article in Wired earlier this year
    also helped to legitimize technology criticism, while igniting a firestorm
    of debate about the dangers of biotechnology, artificial intelligence, and
    nanotechnology.  A few other developments:
    ** The third Internet and Society Conference at Harvard University
    produced a lot of news coverage like this:
       "There's almost a backlash right now, sort of an enormous hangover and
       a retreat from the kind of giddy euphoria" that dominated the early and
       mid-1990s view of the Net's possibilities, Lotus Development Corp.
       founder Mitch Kapor said in a speech he dubbed "the confessions of a
       recovering technological utopian."
       A decade ago, in the years after he discovered an early e-mail
       community in the San Francisco Bay area, "I made a number of speeches
       in which I said the Internet was going to make everything better.  As
       we know, that didn't exactly happen."  (Boston Globe Online,
       June 1, 2000)
    ** The same news story contained this:
       Pattie Maes, an associate professor in the Media Lab at the
       Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said she once believed the Net
       would usher in four world-changing trends:  leveling the playing field
       for small businesses to compete against the large, bringing "power to
       the people," offering highly personalized information, and serving as
       the "collective mind" of curious humans everywhere.
       "I can't exactly say that all these visions have become reality," Maes
       said.  "Maybe they are becoming delusions."
    ** An Economist editorial (Aug. 19-25, 2000) cited Nicholas
    Negroponte's claim that children of the future "are not going to know what
    nationalism is", and Michael Dertouzos' claim that digital communications
    will bring "computer-aided peace" which "may help stave off future flare-
    ups of ethnic hatred and national break-ups".  After noting similar claims
    about radio, the editorial went on:
       Sadly, Rwanda's Radio Mille Collines disproved the idea that radio was
       an intrinsically pacific force once and for all.  The mistake people
       make is to assume that wars are caused simply by the failure of
       different peoples to understand each other adequately.  Indeed, even if
       that were true, the Internet can also be used to advocate conflict.
       Hate speech and intolerance flourish in its murkier corners, where
       governments (as France is now discovering) find it hard to intervene.
    The editors also dispute the notion that the Internet will reduce energy
    consumption and foster equality.  It concludes:  "Despite the claims of
    the techno-prophets, humanity cannot simply invent away its failings.  The
    Internet is not the first technology to have been hailed as a panacea --
    and it will certainly not be the last".
    ** Bob Davis of the Wall Street Journal wrote a story entitled "The
    Internet in Schools: A Crusade Backed by Scant Data or Results":
       But from the political rhetoric, one might suppose that Internet access
       would be a transforming experience in schools once limited to pen-and-
       pencil-era technology, setting their students up to do much better in
       the work force someday. So far, though, despite the huge national
       commitment to wiring the nation's schools, there isn't much hard
       evidence that either computers or the Internet actually have helped
       close gaps in scholastic achievement.  (June 19, 2000)
    ** Influential commentator, Walter Mossberg, says, "It's hard to think of
    an industry that has a hype machine as phenomenal as the high-tech
    industry. My job is to be the anti-hypester."  In a profile of Mossberg
    for the Washington Post, Howard Kurtz cites Mossberg's credo:
    Computers are crap and the rest of us shouldn't take it any more.
    I'm not sure what comfort to take from all this.  I would be much more
    optimistic if the disillusion led to widespread analysis on a slightly
    deeper level, where people asked:  What is it that made us susceptible to
    such false expectations -- and even now makes us repeat our mistakes with
    regard to the next generation of innovations?  (There are undoubtedly
    various answers to this.  On one level, I think, the proper answer has to
    do with the mechanistic style of thinking that has taken such deep hold of
    us, reinforced by our more or less continuous interaction with machines.)
    I would also be more optimistic if it weren't for the example of
    television.  Finally, after several decades of television, our culture has
    reluctantly arrived at a rough consensus that "the tube" really does
    poison society in various ways.  Yet this conviction seems to have little
    bearing on the poisonous effects.  Politics is not less damagingly
    influenced by television today than in earlier decades, and the same can
    be said for recreation, sports, family interaction, education, and
    children's physical health.
    Cultures of pessimism and even dislike can arise without any serious
    reform of the practices scorned.  Machines seem to have a wonderful
    ability to paralyze our wills, or to make us feel helpless.  This is why
    one other news item may provide slightly more hope:
    ** The Wall Street Journal ran a story entitled, "In Backlash Against the
    Wired World, Silicon Valley Fringe Pulls Plug at Home".  It dealt with
    various high-tech executives and employees who have attempted to simplify
    their personal lives -- all the way down to the electricity-less living of
    the CEO of Respond.com.  According to Carol Holst, program director of
    the nonprofit Seeds of Simplicity, "a large number of high-achievers are
    sick of the rat race".  Half the four hundred attendees at a February
    simplicity conference in Silicon Valley were dot-com executives.  The
    Journal reports that,
       To distance themselves from the tech blitz, these part-time unwired
       ones are devising elaborate escape schemes.  Alay Desai, the 30-year-
       old chief technology officer of a Santa Clara, Calif., start-up called
       Stario.com (www.stario.com), doesn't have a computer or phone in his
       spartan apartment.  The only objects are a small TV set and a sleeping
       bag.  He refuses to buy a Palm organizer or a pager.  Mr. Desai's one
       concession is a cell phone, which he acquired, he says, when "my
       business partners couldn't get hold of me, so one of them went out and
       bought me one."  His colleagues say they still can't reach him because
       he turns the phone off at home or just doesn't answer.
    Now, if all those executives can just bring themselves to carry their new
    ideals into the workplace .... Then the real revolution will begin.
    (Thanks to Michael Corriveau, Aaron Renn, and Fred Tompkins.)
    Goto table of contents
                              ABOUT THIS NEWSLETTER
    Copyright 2000 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 #113 :: October 31, 2000
    Goto table of contents

  • Goto NetFuture main page