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History Table of Contents
1996 Summer Conference
 
Summer Conference 1996
Citizens of the Electronic Village: smartening up or dumbing down?

Brave New World

Questions

Will, I'd appreciate it you'd give an example of this concept-drive search engine. Secondly, supposing we see the emergence of a dangerous Canadian Mafia. How could the individual do something in the context of the Internet to do something positive about it?

Tacy: There is one concept-based search engine available. It's called Excite. It's a first generation concept- based search engine. The way that most people are going at it is that a concept-based search engine, reverse engine, mirrors the thought that produces the concept.

Therefore, if we're saying that we want to know about hyena extinction, it doesn't just look for hyenas and extinction. It recognizes that hyena extinction represents a larger concept. It works backward linguistically and says that hyenas relates to xy, xy, xy extinction and, thereby, creates a sense of a larger concept. It's very difficult because we have some trouble understanding linguistic structure, period.

If you see an emergence of a dangerous Mafia in Canada it depends how you see it. If you see it in terms of criminal activity on the Net, then I would say your action is fairly clear. You contact your service provider and you ask them if they're aware that this is there. If they say, "yes," you may ask them why they haven't done something to act against it.

But also you contact the authorities. This is sort of the one area where government can actually do something about activity on the Net. If there's criminal activities they can prosecute people. That's already happening. And it's our responsibility to make sure that does happen.

If you're talking merely about objectionable action, you can take some action to stop it from reaching you in terms of cutting off that data at your end. If you feel its objectionable socially, but not criminal, I think you can try to pressure — and encourage other people — to pressure the service provide to cut that off. There are issues related to this that I am hopeful in the near future will make it easier to do that. You can do it now. It's up to you take the initiative.

Let's say I look something up [on the Net] [and] the information is patently wrong. I can move away from it and decide that's fine, but there is a certain sense of, I want to tell somebody it's wrong. And once I tell them I want to know that they've done something about it. What you're implying is we need to take responsibility for this. I'm still not quite clear, with the exception of a criminal activity or changing servers, just exactly how does one know what to do?

Tacy: If there's one thing you're not on the Net, it's powerless.

If you see a scholarly paper on the Net that has patently wrong information, which happens, you can write to the author of that paper and explain to them that they were wrong; write to the institution or society to which that person belongs and say that they're wrong; tell people in news groups that are interested in that particular topic that this paper is wrong. I think there are a number of ways as long as we educate ourselves about what they are and take the initiative to actually follow up on it.

That certainly is very clear a highly-technical area or a specific area. But [what can you do] for example a news report is wrong [or] if you find something that is factually wrong or something that is incredibly objectionable the popular area of the Internet. I know it gives you a space as to where to reach the Webmaster, but is that an effective way to go?

Tacy: We the new electronic media are responsible for providing people with forums to discuss the issues that we're reporting on. I don't think we do it well enough. I think it's important to let people critique what we do and share information. And it's important for us to hear that. So, no there's not enough of that available to people, especially on news outlets.

Perhaps the only down side I've experienced at the three Couchiching conferences I've been to is every once in a while we lap into an incredible amount of condescension and patronizing thoughts towards people who are not necessarily here, whether it would be a serious question last night about whether MPs had the IQ to understand the Internet, or whether it's that the opening proposition that people don't think and don't seem to be interested thinking.

It seems to me we laugh at all the buttons that are pushed on those particular topics and, having trashed the public and having trashed the people that the public have elected, we're not left with very much except looking in the mirror and marvelling at how wonderful and intelligent we are.

Having said that, I'm treating David's proposition seriously for a moment. I'd like to hear more from him about the population, which I think is struggling to do the best it can and to be as responsible its citizenship as it can. What do you suggest that the general population could do to get up to the standard that we've heard you set for it, by implication, this morning?

Bond: There are two different things. One is, as I look at the long-term decline in the participation rate of voting across the country and I say, what causes this? Why is it down to the invisible level that it is in the United States and why is it declining with some precipity here Canada?

And I think in large measure it's the fact that people are either saying, there's nothing I can do — that sense of helplessness that was witnessed with the question on the Internet, and partly because the debates are becoming more and more vacuous about public policy.

But the second thing is I think there has to be a fundamental reform the educational system, which I think is going to be a very difficult process.

I don't want to sound like I want to go back to the three Rs. But I really do find, for example, the kids that come into UBC in second year commerce [where] I teach an evening course [complain that] I give them essay questions for exams [and] they have to write sentences and they have to put them into paragraphs and that isn't the way they work with multiple choice, or as I call it multiple guess.

I guess it's a long-term process that there's got to be rewards for thinking and I really am serious.

When I was running the census and the long form, which has been denounced by people, was regarded as more reading than 82 per cent of the population reads a day. This was 32 questions. I got concerned.

Now, the one thing I love about the Internet is you can't participate the Internet unless you read. You have to read. And even in the chat groups you've got to read the answers back and forth. So, I think it's a long term process in which we've got to encourage people to think more. I don't think it's an easy process. There's not a magic pill.

Mr. Bond, as an addendum to that last question, you were talking about reforming the educational system. I guess we're doing that in Ontario right now and I don't think that's the model you choose. Perhaps you could give us some specifics as to what you would like to see done in the educational system so that we might all be better citizens?

Bond: Well, I refer to the second last report — or was it the last report? — turned out by the Economic Council before the Ministry of Finance struck it down, in which they talked about preparing citizens for a radically different future.

What they said was that were some basic skills that people needed. They needed the capacity to add, subtract, multiply and divide — just to do some numeric skills. They needed to capacity to be able to communicate orally and in written form. Those are two of the basic skills. They had to be able to comprehend and do cognitive reasoning.

I find, at least in the products that I see coming out the high school system and into the university [and] in the kids that get hired at the entrant stage at the bank that a large number of them are really seriously deficient in those skills. And that concerns me. So I think we've got to emphasize that some more. Obviously, it isn't being emphasized enough. The message hasn't got back.

But when you put in a new paper machine at MacMillan Bloedel in Vancouver and the biggest problem is that the staff that are going to run it can't read the instructions you've got a problem. You've got to first put them through a literacy class so they can understand the stuff so that they won't hurt themselves. Then something's wrong! I want to put more emphasis on those basic fundamental skills.

What is the likelihood that the Internet is going to have a more effective subset than we have in other areas of our political life?

Bond: I think it's remarkably high. There are a couple of things that I find fascinating. One is that kids who are now reaching the age of 18 have a much faster eye-hand co- ordination that any previous generation, simply because of them playing video games.

But the other thing is they get sucked into getting turned on by the Net in a sense. They really develop tremendous inquisitive natures and they become increasingly articulate, certainly in the kind of exchanges they engage in chat groups in whatever topic they're dealing on. I think that subset will grow over time.

What it does is it allows the student to progress at the pace that she or he wants to go at. For example in a group that's run out of a place called Vanderhoof, which is in the north of British Columbia, there's something called the Electronic School Bus. Instead of taking a regular bus to school, you get a computer delivered to your door with a modem connection and there's a teacher you can call up and there's a whole set of stuff that's downloaded to you. If you're having trouble, for example, doing your multiplication tables you can practice it ad infinitum until you finally get them right.

They find that the kids that are on that electronic school bus at the end of a year have usually progressed faster than most children in the same age group in a regular school because they can go at the speed they want to. They have to have a parent there at all times when they're on this thing, but the point is the kids can really start to get excited about something. If the kid really wants to talk about dinosaurs, he calls up the teacher and says, what have you got on dinosaurs and down comes a ton of stuff on dinosaurs.

As I understand from the superintendent of the school system there, those children are going higher on virtually every kind of test they're using, than kids that are going to regular school system, because, in part, they're self-motivating themselves. I'm very optimistic about that.

Tacy: From a somewhat different angle, I think it totally depends. There are times I'm fairly hopeful and there are times I sort of despair of it.

I think that if everyone in this room; people who are clearly concerned about social responsibility goes home — if you don't have a computer — gets a computer; gets a Net connection, and accepts the responsibility to act in the way you are acting in a civic environment, then the odds are pretty good.

If we continue to expect other people or government to do it for us, the odds are pretty bad.

Mr. Bond, I'd just like to make sure I understand your last response. Do you think it's basically a good thing — the influx of communications technology of one kind or another, whether it's Internet and computers or cable in the school system. You're probably aware this is quite controversial, especially when it comes to youth news networks that will include certain periods of time every day when children are going to be expected to watch advertisements. It's my understanding that among the children or students who use this communications technology, while they become very skilled in how to work with it, they are very much programmed to expect to be stimulated in any kind of learning — short answers and questions and really very easily turned off, probably when they get to the college level in your classroom with the idea of an essay that's going to be 500 or 700 words long. Do you have any comment on that?

Bond: Let me go back to that experiment in Vanderhoof One of the things the Vanderhoof school board has is an 800-acre woodlot on the lake just north of Fort St. John.

What the superintendent did was put in a program called forestry management in the high school. He got a special dispensation from the department of education that allowed him to put it in the curriculum.

He took 16 kids who were marginal students that volunteered for it and who were probably going to drop out. They were put in charge of the woodlot. The first thing they had to decide was how much wood they were going to cut and which trees they were going to cut. So, one of the things that you really have to learn to do that is compound interest in the growth rate of trees.

He didn't tell them they had to learn compound growth rates and the biologic growth rate of trees. But he said, tell me what you're going to cut and why. So, he didn't set it up the way it's set in a normal curriculum.

They figured out a way what trees they were going to cut and how they were going to cut them and they decided that they'd build at the shore of the lake a lodge they could use for fishing, but there was a slight problem — there were no fish in the lake. So, he said, how come?

That took about two months, but they found an answer. They found out what the problems in the chemical structure of the lake were and what could be done about it. It was a series of problems they had to work with over time.

It wasn't put into the normal kind of K to 12 curriculum, which I think is aimed at putting you into post-secondary education and the idea in post-secondary education is to go to graduate school.

Now, the number of people who go to graduate school is an infinitesimally small number of people. This group would be a disproportionate sample of the population, in that sense.

I think what he was working on was giving them skills that allow them to survive in life and in which they in fact learn the very things that are normally put down in a very closed kind of orderly step. I think his experiment is worth perusing some more. It's that kind of thing which makes kids want to stay in school and not leave that is important.

And I think we have to make it in some sense entertaining, but also I find when kids start to write essays it's difficult at first and they bitch and scream and they moan and they groan, but by the time they're fourth year students they are getting good at it and they find out when they're alumni and they come back and talk to curmudgeons like myself they say you taught me how to communicate. And that's the important thing.

Will, you referred to responsibility in using the Internet to be aware of unsuitable material and to take the initiative to break some of these linkages at various levels, including source. Could you elaborate on what you mean by breaking linkages at source?

Tacy: Basically, if somebody is committing a criminal act, you report those people. They get prosecuted. They go to jail. That effectively breaks that link. This has happened, so we know we can do it. Essentially, breaking stuff at source is really only acceptable if it is a criminal act.

Not indecent material?

Tacy: No, people should have the right to put indecent material on their server. One of things that's being considered is reconsideration of the domain names. The main names are, for instance, NYTimes.com. One of the things being talked about is having a .sex domain name and if there's actually any pornographic material on your server it has to have the .sex domain name. It then becomes pretty easy for individuals and service providers to block access to those domain names.

Bond: There's a program which allows you to monitor what your kids are watching, but it requires to you to participate and do that. People I know that have used it say they're very happy with it.

Tacy: That's blocking the access at our end.

I'm worried when I hear people talking about cuts in education. I think a lot more can be achieved with a lot less. It's just a matter of re-establishing standards and raising the quality of the teaching. If, as things go the way I hope, standards will be set, grammar, spelling, essay construction, analytical thinking, and other more traditional things can be re-introduced at every level of education. How would you gentlemen use technology in the classroom to aid in this process?

Bond: I'll go back to the experiment in Vanderhoof and these kids having to decide what trees they're going to cut and what they're going to do with the lake and how they're going to build a cabin, etc. They had to write this all out and the point was that in writing it out they had to put it in logical sentence form and structure. There's nothing that's going to beat the interaction of two minds. What the Internet connection is for me a source of a different library. You still have to have the interaction of two people. There's no way to get around that.

Tacy: I'm a little wary, because I don't know the educational system in Canada. I don't know the issues surrounding educational reform in Canada.

Very simply, I would say that the new information technology allows us to not only get our hands on a huge amount of information, which we might not otherwise be able to access as immediately, but it also gives us a chance to talk to people.

One of the things that some schools are doing in the United States — ostensibly under the guise of computer classes, but I think really under the guise of communication — is [to] tell the kid your homework is to find out who Sisyphus is.

What that means is that the student has to either go into the alt.anicent.myth news group and ask someone who he was, or use a search engine and find reference to Sisyphus. The one thing that is encouraging about the Net is it requires problem solving.

Will, if you were to create your own school in downtown New York what are the three most important things you would instill at that school?

Tacy: Conflict resolution, problem solving and civility.

Mr. Bond... what I've been seeing — and I don't think is being taken into account — is that the students in elementary school now are learning to express themselves in ways that we have not come to conceive of or to really become comfortable with. One example is kids at River Oaks school in Ontario who created a CD that is a representation of the ideal community that they would like to see. It's a representation in graphical and animated and text and musical format.

It is a considered product that came together after much discussion. But it is not a 10-page or 20-page essay question, which seems to be your standard of excellence. Are these different means of communication and expressing ourselves any less valid than the standards that we have set for ourselves right now?

Bond: When I listened to Will's responses to what he'd teach in that school, I guess the final thing would be that I hope the people could communicate all those things to each other. And that means they have to be able to communicate in an intelligible, understandable fashion. And whether it's in 20 pages or it's in two lines, I really am indifferent — as long as the message goes from me to you and you can comprehend it. That's what my standard of excellence is and I think we don't spend enough time communicating, or they communicate the way I used to when I worked for the federal government — "send."