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Stanford Report, October 14, 1998

SAA technology conference: 10/14/98

New technology: A road to ruin or a bridge to the future?


Is e-mail "the most pernicious invention of the human mind," or is it simply a tool that allows us to communicate in ways we otherwise could not? Are computers in the classroom a danger to schoolchildren or a vital learning tool?

At the panel discussion "Technology and You: Building Bridges or Building Walls?" held Oct. 9 as part of Reunion Homecoming Weekend, the alumni who packed Memorial Auditorium were treated to an animated debate about the ills and benefits of our technological society.

The panelists included:

* Moderator Guy Kawasaki, CEO of, a Silicon Valley startup that assists high-tech startups, a former Apple Fellow at Apple Computer Inc. and a well-known columnist and speaker.

* Clifford Stoll, an astronomer who wrote of his experiences in tracking down a computer hacker in the book The Cuckoo's Egg and more recently has expressed his growing skepticism of high-tech culture in Silicon Snake Oil.

* Philip Zimbardo, professor of psychology, who is concerned that the increased amount of time that people, particularly children, are spending on computers is decreasing their ability to interact with other people, making them more shy, more lonely and more prone to depression.

* Mary Baker, an assistant professor of computer science, whose research interests include operating systems, crash recovery and mobile and wireless computing. She currently is teaching a freshman seminar called "The Downside of Computing Systems."

* Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple Computer, who has devoted considerable time and resources to provide computers and training to teachers and children in public schools in the United States and abroad.

* Mark Van Haren, one of six Stanford students who created Excite!, a popular web search engine and Internet portal.

Much of the panel discussion was devoted to the amount of time individuals spend using computers and the wisdom of wiring America's classrooms. While the techno-skeptics on the panel forecast doomsday scenarios, others took a more measured approach.

Zimbardo, who described himself as a low-tech professor at a high-tech university, raised concerns about the technology-mediated trend toward increased intrusion of work into people's private lives. "Technology is blurring the lines between work and play," he said, noting that he receives 20 to 100 e-mail messages per day ­ "most from high school students doing term papers who think you have nothing better to do than sit in front of your computer and answer e-mail!" Every hour sitting answering e-mail is an hour a person doesn't spend doing something else, he pointed out.

Stoll's approach to the onslaught of e-mail is an automatic answerback that tells his correspondents that, if they want a reply, they should send him a postcard. "I get a couple of postcards a day, and I answer every one," he said.

Baker argued, however, that developments such as e-mail have served more as an enhancement than a tether. "I don't feel at all enslaved. It allows me to do things that I couldn't do otherwise, like keep up with a pen pal in New Jersey. Of course, technology can be dangerous, and you have to use it with caution," she allowed.

Perhaps the difference between those who feel enslaved by e-mail and those who do not is the willingness to leave messages unanswered when they have better things to do, Baker added. "If it comes down to spending time answering e-mail or spending time with my daughter, there is no question which I will choose," she said.

"But what happens when your daughter gets a little older and wants to be on e-mail rather than talking with you," Zimbardo quipped, denouncing e-mail as "the most pernicious invention of the human mind." He quoted a Cornell study that found people who spend more time on e-mail report having more acquaintances, fewer friends and increased feelings of loneliness, depression and social isolation.

Van Haren, however, suggested that television, not new technology, is the real culprit. Citing a book that argues that television is an "inherently evil" technology, he said, "at least the computer is interactive." If we are less socially capable, perhaps it is because we compare ourselves to the charismatic personalities that we watch on TV, Van Haren said.

While some of the panelists expressed skepticism about the use of computers in schools, others defended technology's classroom virtues. Stoll maintained that not only computers but film clips and anything that takes away from direct interaction between student and teacher detracts from the educational experience. He also criticized all the attempts to make learning fun. "Am I the only person in America who thinks learning shouldn't be fun? It should be about work, discipline and responsibility."

Baker and Zimbardo took more nuanced positions on the virtues of computers as educational tools. Quoting a study that found educational advantages to computer use only if the machines are used in very specific ways, Baker wondered, "If we spent as much time and money in other ways, would we achieve comparable or perhaps even better results?"

Zimbardo pointed out that there are two different aspects to teaching: conveying basic information and motivating students. Computers can do a better job of providing students with low-level detail, but teachers are required to convince students that they should make the effort to learn it. "Computers should replace the worst teachers, but nothing can replace the best teachers," Zimbardo said.

Wozniak, on the other hand, insisted that computers might be the only hope for schools with limited resources. "They'll never have enough money. [In these circumstances] the computer is a tool, an efficient tool," he said, and predicted that educational software would continue to improve. "We're just starting to write software that will be as good as having 30 teachers in a class," he said.

"I've got a weird feeling that B.F. Skinner is coming back," Stoll responded. "All you've got to do to train those pigeons is a little operant conditioning."

In the end, even Wozniak acknowledged that the personal computer revolution had not lived up to the ideal that he and his pioneering counterparts had envisioned. They thought people with a small computer and an easy-to-use programming language would increase their mastery over many subjects. That idea, however, has been lost, he said. "Now we are being given all the answers." SR