Speaker pushes high tech

What does it take to shock a savvy, technologically tuned-in ballroom of 500 of the world’s experts in grid computing? Apparently, no more than an overhead projector, a slide rule and a guest speaker who hops up and down when he talks about magnets, computers in schools and software programs called Jump Start Baby.

The Global Grid Forum 4, held in Toronto in February, welcomed Dr. Clifford Stoll to its dinner hosted by Platform Computing Inc., and attendees were treated to Stoll’s frenetic blend of “shame on you” and “isn’t this cool” in his address.

Stoll, a Berkeley astrophysicist, MSNBC commentator, lecturer, self-proclaimed “spy catcher and human being” had some attendees squirming in their seats, others falling off their chairs with laughter and everyone riveted to his hour-long talk, which was written in ink on his hand.


“When I think about the word technology, I get the heebie-jeebies,” Stoll said. “It makes me think about what’s wrong with the world around it and what’s cool with it. Great technology is invisible, whereas stinko technology puts itself right in your face.”

Referring to this stinko technology as “disruptive technology,” Stoll expounded on his concern over the ever-increasing presence of computers in the classroom.

He shared with the conference attendees a story of visiting a kindergarten classroom in Ohio that boasted three brand new computers for the class’ children to use. Instead of marvelling at the progressiveness of the school for providing educational software to its students, Stoll simply asked the teacher: “What used to reside in the spot that now occupied the computers?” The answer: a sandbox and a block table.

He told a second story about visiting a fourth grade science classroom at an affluent private school. Every student had his or her own computer, but had to learn their lesson about magnets with the aid of a CD-ROM because bringing actual magnets into the classroom could affect the monitors and potentially erase disks.

“If our problem with children is that they are too attentive, they don’t watch enough TV, they are no good at game playing and that they’re afraid of computers, by all means bring computers into the classroom, but if our problem with our kids is that they have attention deficit disorder, can’t sit still and fidget, why give them fidget machines? We’re aiming a solution at the wrong problem altogether,” Stoll said in an interview before his keynote.

“Teachers are always saying that they don’t have enough time with their kids, that their classrooms are too big and they have too much material to cover in too little time, so why are we hauling computers into the classroom? Computers change the ecology of the classroom, because kids use their computers as an escape.”


A father of two young children, Stoll admitted that his worries have become very localized. One of his worries is that we’re exposing our children to technology too early, and cited a software called Jump Start Baby, which is designed for children as young as 10 months.

“I worry about the gizmos that we’ve created and that I’ve helped work on,” he said, composing a laundry list of concerns for children growing up in the age of technology.

“What happens to curiosity when machines answer all of your questions? What happens to our writing skills when we put documents together by copying and pasting? What happens to our mathematical skills when we learn how to manipulate a program rather than an equation?

“What happens to our art skills when our hands are trained to manipulate a mouse and a keyboard rather than a crayon and paintbrush?” he continued. “What happens to our sports skills when a game is played with a joystick and a computer rather than a puck and a stick? What happens to our volunteer groups when our evenings are spent logged in and tuned in rather than at a lodge or a church or a political rally? What happens to meditation, cogitation and strolls in the park when so many things around you bleep at unexpected times?”


Despite these worries, Stoll is hopeful that what he referred to as this technological juggernaut will slow down, although he remains wary of its impact.

“The day will come when a future generation condemns us for all that we have discarded, just as we condemn a previous generation for paving over nature and tearing down old parts of our cities,” he predicted. “The day will come when we are held responsible for the destruction of our libraries, the computerization of education and the dehumanization of office work.”

Decrying the overuse of PowerPoint and similar presentation aids, Stoll used an overhead projector, where he placed a transparent slide rule and pointed out that some of the world’s most magnificent structures, including the Golden Gate Bridge, the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building, were designed with the simple tool. Stoll expressed his dismay over the fact that today’s engineers are no longer educated in the use of these kinds of elegant tools, but rather in programs which do the leg work.

“We’ve been boxed into the closet of ‘get the right answer by any means possible,'” he said. “This is the SAT right-answer approach.”

Stoll furthered this to the usefulness of the Internet, where the catch-phrase has become “information is power.”

“If information is power, the most powerful person in your community would be your librarian. Politicians have the most power in a community, and they’re famous for being badly informed. There’s a wide ocean between information and knowledge or understanding,” he said.

Stoll is the author of The Cuckoo’s Egg, a true account of how he caught a ring of hackers who stole military secrets and sold them to the KGB, Silicon Snake Oil: Thoughts on the Information Highway, and High Tech Heretic: Why Computers Don’t Belong in the Classroom and Other Reflections by a Computer Contrarian.