High Tech Heretic

It is becoming increasingly important to consciously debate and consciously control the effect of computing on culture.
In the Beginning Was the Command Line

  • Author: Neal Stephenson

  • Publisher: Avon Books

  • ISBN: 0380815931

  • URL: http://avonbooks.com/

  • Price: $10.00

  • Reviewer: James Paul Holloway

Those with high-tech products to sell, no matter if their vision is cynical or genuine, are able to exercise a tremendous influence over our society. They have convinced us that broken software is to be expected, and a fix will be out soon; that a new computer every few years is necessary; and that children need to use computers practically from infancy. And their influence is not limited to consumer-users. Because of the conventional wisdom that “high-tech” is responsible for the current economic boom, they also have a strong influence on political, educational and legal figures, for example, selling the notion that copyright of software is a special legal form requiring special criminal provisions not previously needed, or pushing for the adoption of multimedia-based educational tools of uncertain educational value.

It is therefore becoming increasingly important to consciously debate and consciously control the effect of computing on culture. Fortunately, there is a growing literature of computer contrarian books that argue against the conventional wisdom of computer software design and deployment. The literature I am writing of is not about software engineering, but rather the purposes to which software is put and the way it is developed for human use. Still, it is amazing that none of these books are written by the key open-source players. Perhaps the open-source activists are too busy building the tools of the revolution to worry about how those tools are being used.

Two recent examples of computer contrarian books are High Tech Heretic by Clifford Stoll and In the Beginning Was the Command Line by Neal Stephenson. These are notable because they were both written by experienced authors who love and are experienced in computing, and whose previous successes in techno-book writing has made them somewhat famous among members of the hacker community. Both authors set out to challenge dominant ideas in our current culture of computing, using dramatic images and emotional rhetoric rather than through a data-driven discussion.

In High Tech Heretic, Stoll argues against the whole notion of ubiquitous computing, against the idea that computers not only can but should cause fundamental changes in the way we do everything. The misguided deployment of computers and Internet connections in schools earn his special ire, as these technologies may displace other important and effective educational practices, and they certainly displace a significant budget that might be better spent on teachers. Stoll writes by telling stories, creating visions of creative, messy, hands-on education being displaced by sterile virtual busywork. Each of his stories is designed to invoke a headshake of empathy—the tale of the small boy whose imperfect, but unique and original paper model is ignored by adults who are agog over a child-created display of clipart. The overall result is compelling.

The reader is left seriously wondering whether all these invasions of computing make sense. Is computing, especially the simple use of computer software, really more important than art in developing a growing intellect? Is word processing honestly an academic subject worth serious school time? Does Powerpoint really make a boring talk less dull? Does it even make an interesting talk better? Stoll strives for an apparently simple, common-sense view, so that his readers will consider the broad issue, even if they disagree with his particulars.



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Computers- Are they necessary in education?

bdp's picture

It's interesting. I began my teaching career in 1983. I was a Music Educator. At the time (and unfortunately, still today), the hey-day of proposition 2 1/2, I was constantly bombarded by the question, Why is "Music" education necessary? Well, after a couple of years writing papers on this point, and another year and a half defending my profession, I changed careers and focused on the exciting, new world of computer technology. No more would I have to justify my existence. (an aside: By the way, have you noticed over the past 20 years that popular music generally has no more solo work, celebrated vocals that are usually off key, and little melody... I sometimes wonder if the cutting of many music educators has led to this effect.)

After 20 years in the professional world of I.T., I was trapped by a yearning to give back. To share my knowledge and build young minds. I returned to the 7-12 classroom as a Computer Technology instructor. Humorously, I am again confronted with the question, "Why is what you teach necessary?"

The bottom line is that computer technology is not going away. In fact, if it did, society and all of its institutions would crumble. There are events, activities, transactions that are taking place today that could not be performed solely by human hands.

In essence, as a responsible society, we must train our young to use the computer responsibly and effectively. It is easy to point out that some classrooms across the country are sitting in front of a computer mindlessly surfing the web with no educational direction. Of course this is true. But it does not flow logically that we should shut down the computer education programs because of it. That would be like shutting down the kitchen stove permanently because Mom (or Dad, of course) overcooked the meatloaf on Wednesday night! We still have to eat and the stove is a great tool, when used properly, to assist us in accomplishing that.
So, let's not be foolish. The fact is that we must learn how to educate with computers as a tool. Computers are one essential tool in the tool set. Don't just tell the kids to sit in front of a computer and make a pretty powerpoint show. Teach them how to use powerpoint effectively, then give them the task of developing, marketing a new product and presenting it to the class in a mock sales meeting. That kind of education is priceless, incorporating just about every kind of learning and learning experience that a student needs to find professional success. Just as computers have speeded our business processes they can and will speed our educational processes unless we, as educators, use them as a "filler" for an extra coffee break or yap session.
High School Technology Instructor/ Coordinator
Worcester, MA.