As in every Christmas season, people in the technology industry are wishing that Christmas shoppers will buy a lot of their products before the year ends.
Here's my Christmas wish list for high-tech--things that I think the industry can and should do for consumers.
Get Serious About Technology Access: As a modest quid pro quo for several important gifts from this year's Congress, such as an Internet tax moratorium and the digital copyright bill, industry leaders should pull together a coalition that lobbies for public programs extending technology to low-income communities, schools, libraries, rural areas and inner cities.
They could start, for example, by persuading Congress to boost funding for the Department of Commerce's Telecommunications Information and Infrastructure Assistance Program, or TIIAP, which supports community networks, innovative public sector uses of the Internet, and access for severely disadvantaged communities, like Indian reservations.
TIIAP has an outstanding record, a robust constituency, and its programs are admired and emulated around the world. But its budget has sagged and is now only a shadow of what it was meant to be. This year, the House of Representatives approved only $16 million for the program, and the Senate approved $20 million. Doubling the TIIAP budget would be no big deal and a great service to the nation.
Likewise, the computer and software industries should defend the E-rate, the multibillion-dollar fund that provides discounts for connecting schools and libraries to the Internet, a provision of the 1996 federal Telecommunications Act.
Telephone companies and Republican ideologues are attacking the E-rate, labeling it the "Gore tax," because its chief champion has been the vice president. Teachers and librarians don't have much clout on Capitol Hill, so the high-tech industry should help them out.
Get Serious About Technology and Education: At the same time that we need schools and libraries to get connected to the Internet, we also need to be honest with Americans about the proper role of computers in K-12 education. Too many industry leaders and spokespersons are parroting an uncritical and uninformed line about how computers will transform K-12 education. (IBM CEO Lou Gerstner and Apple's Steve Jobs are notable exceptions--they're secure enough to say that computers are useful but not a panacea.)
The current bandwagon to put a computer in every classroom in the U.S., or even to get every child in school a laptop, is absurd and wasteful. When the industry bangs this drum, it looks self-serving and greedy. Most Americans know instinctively that the problems of public education won't be solved by more technology or access to the Internet. We need deep education reform, well-rounded curricula and better paid teachers, all supplemented by universal access to computers and the Internet.
Get Serious About Internet Education: Right now, even when kids have access to the Internet and to digital information, they learn almost nothing about how the Internet works, what role it plays in society, and how they should use it responsibly. The nearly exclusive focus of both the industry and educators has been on technical skills such as how to use an operating system or a Web browser. But those skills are ephemeral--they'll be obsolete in a year or two.
What kids should be learning instead is what the Internet means for them and for their future, how to behave in this new electronic medium, and what it's good for and not so good for. In other words, they need to put this technology into a context that makes sense and gives them guidance and norms. We need a kind of "driver's ed" course for cyberspace. But I have yet to hear of a single school implementing such a program, or of any teachers who have been prepared to teach such a course. The likely result is that we'll train a generation of young people how to point and click but not how these skills will build a better world. Again, technology leaders should help turn this around.
Get Serious About the Year 2000 Problem: The coming year will undoubtedly be dominated by growing and legitimate concerns about what will happen Jan. 1, 2000. The technology industry needs to turn its attention to public education, public service and a massive mobilization of experts who can help people understand what's at stake. Too many technology executives are fretting about whether they'll be liable for Y2K-inspired lawsuits, and they're spending time and energy pushing for legislation to protect them from liability. That's not a worthy or public-spirited strategy, given the enormity of the problem.