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Brookline TAB
Brookline, Massachusetts

Technoheaven or Technodazzle?

Dennis Fox

February 14, 2002


Brookline's new School Superintendent explained his priorities last month to the Parent-Teacher Organization at my daughter's school. The first goal on Richard Silverman's wish list elicited nods: teaching foreign languages in the lowest grades, when kids more easily soak up linguistic variation than they do a few years later. For a moment, it seemed that Brookline would finally teach language at the educationally appropriate age.

As it turned out, though, extra money for foreign languages, or for other resource-hungry priorities like music and special education, doesn't rank highest on the superintendent's list. It was his emphasis on new technology -- wiring every classroom for cable TV, telephones, and Internet access, with enough computers to guarantee every child an electronic future - that transformed the PTO meeting into a lengthy debate.

Happily, I wasn't even the most technology-wary person in the room.

Brookline's rush toward technological heaven is not unusual. Schools around the country are experimenting with electronic portfolios, electronic report cards, electronic everything. Proposals abound not only to give every American an Internet connection but to replace today's pokey broadband with the even faster Internet II.

All we need is a few hundred billion dollars that then won't be available for frills like smaller classes, better housing, and decent health care.

Spending money to prepare kids for a computerized world might be justified in districts where home computers are scarcer than here in wired Brookline. The loom-smashing Luddites were right to greet the Industrial Revolution with an insistence that new technologies not enrich some at the expense of others. We should continue to demand equal resources for all.

But lacking funds to pay for everything, parents and teachers are the ones who should set priorities. Should we buy more computers for every classroom, or earlier foreign language instruction, or more reading and math specialists? The list of unmet needs is long.

Technology doesn't belong at the top of that list.

For one thing, it's probably never too late to teach kids to use computers. Most want to learn anyway. But there does come a time when it's too late to teach language.

For another thing, the amiable superintendent's assurance that Brookline will use technology appropriately is overoptimistic. I'm sure our experts will say they know what they're doing. Yet similar experts in the Midwest university where I worked for a decade let Internet courses drain funds from less sexy campus necessities. That's hard to prevent.

There's another problem, at least for those of us whose computer qualms go deeper than merely preferring language to electronics: for all their gee-whiz potential, technology isn't as neutral in practice as it is in theory. Silverman says computers are just tools that can be used for good or bad. Yet complex technologies, unlike simple tools, often invite so much economic and political concentration that they inevitably cause more harm than benefit.

The automobile is a good example, transforming the physical and social environment just to get us places faster, for good reason or not. Television's a better one, not only washing our willing brains but fattening our bodies and weakening family and community ties.

Computers escalate the danger, giving more power to those who already have too much and making it easier to generate more junk. Yes, they're convenient, and often fun. So are cars and even television. Indeed, I'm writing this on my iMac, emailing it to my editor over my DSL connection, and I'll eventually upload a copy to my website.

But the ecological truism remains: just because we as individuals find something useful doesn't mean it's beneficial for society as a whole.

Just as schools should teach kids to critique television commercials, political speeches, and the rantings of newspaper columnists, they should expose technology's underside. We warn our children about strangers, peer pressure, risky behavior. Let's add technological overload to the list.

In the meantime, a proposal to spend $16 million to upgrade Brookline school technology, under a new town Information Technology officer, is wending its way through the Board of Selectmen and School Committee. Town Meeting Members will have a chance this spring to determine if there's any substance behind the technodazzle.

A longer anti-technology rant

Note: this version may differ from the published version.

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