Distant Learning

Do computers belong in the schools? Should public libraries be cutting back on books in favour of PCs and Internet connections? Can you make an aquarium out of a used Mac?

The answer to one of these questions is yes, and Clifford Stoll has the goldfish to prove it. An Internet legend and well-known dissenter from the utopian hype that has sprung up around personal computers, Stoll assaults in his latest book the idea that computers and the Internet offer any special learning opportunities, attacking school administrators, librarians and gullible parents for thinking these machines, in the brief period between purchase and obsolescence, could possibly substitute for reading books and thinking critically with the help of a dedicated teacher.

These criticisms come from a man who knows a little something about computers. An avowed ex-hippie, Stoll was an astronomer and systems administrator at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in the 1980s when he noticed that he couldn’t account for 75 cents worth of computer time. He investigated and discovered a hacker breaking into the system — a spy, in fact, who wandered all over the network of U.S. military computers in search of sensitive data. Stoll’s inspired sleuthing led to the intruder’s capture in Europe, and Stoll’s account of this drama was the basis for his best-selling first book, The Cuckoo’s Egg, as well as an episode of the PBS program Nova. His next book was the provocative Silicon Snake Oil.

His latest, High-Tech Heretic, is a further critique of the idea that computers, networked or otherwise, represent a panacea in the complex business of living human lives. Stoll’s book is written in what I call ‘net prose, a chipper, informal style that (perhaps unwittingly) owes much to modern advertising copy. It’s inoffensive, somewhat flavourless and poses no problems to the vocabulary-challenged.

Fortunately, Stoll is a very smart guy who brings his sceptical intelligence to bear on some critical questions. This is a man who cares passionately about learning and its transmission, and he can’t figure out how diverting students with computer exercises fosters understanding. He cites horrifying instances of schools shortchanging true pedagogy for machinery they’re not properly equipped to use, and demolishes the arguments one by one for computers in schools.

To the idea that students will graduate into a world of ubiquitous computing, he says, “Automobiles are everywhere, too. They play a damned important part in our society and it’s hard to get a job if you can’t drive…But we don’t teach automobile literacy.”

To the notion that networked computers can keep curricula current, he scoffs, “The past two decades of research haven’t greatly changed basic high-school math, physics and chemistry.”

To the suggestion that computers make learning fun, he answers that real learning is unavoidably hard, and that computers merely substitute games. His arguments, like those of Yale computer scientist David Gelernter before him, are convincing. “Computer literacy” is an empty cliche that, for most people, means knowing how to type, backspace and click a mouse. In fact, Stoll doesn’t think schools need much in the way of technology, aside from indoor plumbing and good light. He sees “distance learning” as a joke, and loathes the tendency of today’s students to rely on calculators. He heaps scorn, too, on the idea that computers can somehow replace books in libraries.

In the vein of Silicon Snake Oil, Stoll is convinced the Internet isolates us (in part by enfolding us in useless data while real life is going on outside), rather than bringing us together. He says the Internet is filled with junk, which of course it is, but doesn’t credit its extraordinary usefulness as an everyday source of information, goods and services.

High-Tech Heretic is one of those books that makes me wonder anew why the Internet hasn’t revived the monograph. Old-fashioned, single-subject tracts of this kind are impossible to sell as books, because they aren’t long enough to justify a book’s price, but they’re too long for magazines.

On the Internet, however, people could buy them electronically, print them out and read them on paper. That way an author like Stoll wouldn’t be tempted to pad a perfectly reasonable work on a worthwhile topic with lesser pieces that really aren’t apropos.

At least he really made an aquarium from an old Mac. And showing his true colours (not Big Blue), he turns an old PC into a kitty litterbox.