Computer Literacy and the Press
by Joseph A. Menosky - 1984
Recent polls indicate that some 90 percent of Americans believe that computer literacy (generally defined by proponents as a familiarity with the parts of a microcomputer and some measure of programming skill, usually in the language BASIC) is important enough to warrant its inclusion in the national educational curriculum. This article is concerned with how and why the belief itself has been propagated by the American news media.
Recent polls indicate that some 90 percent of Americans believe that computer literacy (generally defined by proponents as a familiarity with the parts of a microcomputer and some measure of programming skill, usually in the language BASIC) is important enough to warrant its inclusion in the national educational curriculum. Other articles in this issue examine the validity of this belief, and suggest that the promises of the computer literatifor more and better jobs, for a profoundly deeper educational experience, and for citizen empowermenthave no basis in reality. This article is concerned with how and why the belief itself has been propagated by the American news media.
Certainly those who have a great deal to gain from a universal acceptance of computer literacymicrocomputer firms selling hardware, textbook companies selling educational software, organizations selling worker and teacher retraining courses, and writers and publishers selling books and instructional guideshave done a brilliant, if morally indefensible, job of commercial promotion. But their unsupported claims have been buttressed at all times by an almost completely uncritical press coverage that provided, in essence, free advertising in the guise of objective reporting. The press therefore must bear a substantial measure of the blame for the recent hysteria.
This is not surprising given the traditionally poor response of the popular science media to complex technological issues, but rarely has the press offered its unqualified blessing to a dubious project that has such vast implications for public policy. This analysis of press support for the computer-literacy movement will focus on how information about science and technology in general flows through the popular media, and how certain aspects of reporting color that information. Coverage of computer literacy will be discussed in that light, and reference will be made to specific examples.
Over the past two decades, popular interest in science and technology has grown, as has a subset of the general news media known as science journalism. Though coverage appears widespread-science and technology features can be found in countless newspapers and magazines and on television and radioin fact, the overwhelming majority of stories are derived from the same few sources. Primary sources of informationacademic journals, scientific meetings, and the likeare covered by such large newspapers as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, and by wire services such as United Press International and Associated Press. This coverage usually becomes source material for monthly magazines and radio and television networks, which in turn are themselves sources for local papers, television, and radio.
At every level of this chain, reporters, if not copying each other directly, are following the same leads, calling the same experts, and asking the same questions. Not long ago a science story well over a year out of date spread like wildfire across the country due to a mistakenly issued press release from the National Science Foundation that nobody bothered to confirm. If it is in the Times, it is news. And it is news everywhere. Of the relatively small number of science reporters who do originate most of the stories, few see themselves as critics of the uses and abuses of science and technology. Rather, they see themselves in the role of educator, explaining and describing an aspect of modern life to an interested audience. (One large-circulation popular science magazine actually has an editorial injunction against saying anything bad about technology.)
This structural tendency toward a boosterism that echoes throughout the popular media is pushed even further by computer technology. The primary sources that many reporters draw on for information about this fieldByte magazine, Popular Computing, Personal Computing, and so forthare themselves secondary sources that exist expressly to promote the use of computers. A popular treatment of some aspect of computer technology that relies on such publications will almost inevitably be skewed in the same direction. Given the incestuous way in which information moves through the system, this promotional bias will be propagated nationwide.
The extent to which this institutional phemomenon was responsible for fueling the computer-literacy mania should not be underestimated, but it still does not explain how, at the individual level, reporters are able to consistently get away with bad journalism. This can be answered by examining the media response to an single event: Harvard Universitys conference Video Games and Human Development, held at that institution in the spring of 1983. The conference and the way it was reported constitute an almost perfect miniature of the medias general obsession with computer literacy. After three days of speakers, the message was clear for all the nations to hear: Computer games represent the single most profound educational breakthrough in the history of the species.
This bold claim was almost universally and unreservedly reiterated by the major magazines, newspapers, and television and radio stations that sent representatives to the conference (possibly the only two exceptions were a highly critical report in Newsweek and a satirical attack by the author in Science 83).1
The extensive positive coverage serves to illustrate one of the prevailing principles of the popular media: A new angle sells. The video-game phenomenon had been all over the newsstands and the airwaves a year before the conference, but there are only so many ways to write about Pat-Man, and an audience will only sit still for a relatively limited number of excursions by Action News camera teams into the local arcade. Once the novelty angle was I exhausted, the video game was no longer news.
As the site of the first academic conference on the subject, Harvard provided a new anglethe educational potential of video games. Since a report saying that video games have little or no educational merit would have been something of a nonstory at that time (a bit like saying the White House was not painted blue today), the easiest way to make news was to say that they do. (The other alternative was to cover the conference as a newsworthy event in itselfthe approach taken by the critical pieces in Newsweek and Science 83.)
This is very much the pattern taken in the coverage of computer literacy. By the close of 1982, personal computers had been all the rage in the media (Time magazines Machine of the Year, etc.), but the subject was getting stale. The educational uses of computers and the need for computer literacy quickly became the angle that generated at least another years worth of additional news features about microcomputer technology.
All of this blatant boosterism might appear at odds with the myth of the objective reporter who painstakingly tries to uncover all sides of a story, and it is. But science reporters in particular have a mechanism for dealing with that contradiction. Rae Goodell, who teaches science writing at M.I.T., has termed this the artificial dichotomy.2 A bold claim for the benefits of a given technology is held up against an extreme cautionary statement about its potential risks. Since the latter is almost always chosen and phrased by the reporter to look ridiculous, it is easily discarded. Any murky or disturbing details are conveniently ignored, and the discussion proper swings over to extolling the alleged benefits. The artificial dichotomy serves the ideal of balanced reporting because it seemingly presents both sides, but it still allows for the unbridled trumpeting of unsupportedeven insupportableclaimsof benefits.
In the Washington Post and the Boston Globe, and in a Time magazine article from the Harvard conference that epitomizes almost everything bad about popular science reporting, the artificial dichotomy is established in the very first paragraph.
Video games, reviled as a scourge of American youth, may be taking a bad rap.3
Video games are not ruining American families. Coast-to-coast arcades are neither a menace to the kids who cram them nor to society at large.4
Ever since the first pong was pinged, video games have been accused of increasing crime and school absenteeism, decreasing learning and concentration, and causing a mysterious ailment called video wrist. But according to a conference sponsored last week by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the mothers and fathers of River City may breathe easier. Researchers and scientists suggested that video games may turn out to be one of the most powerful teaching tools ever devised.5
All three of these examples set up false oppositions. Video wrist and the ruination of the American family are in no way related to the potential of the video game as a teaching instrument. Disproving or making sport of the former claim does nothing to increase the legitimacy of the latter. The artificial dichotomy creates the illusion that it does. It also successfully defuses all possible critics by pigeonholing them, in this case, as the mothers and fathers of River City an irrational and silly bunch of reactionaries. The choice of emotionally loaded words: menace . . . to society, reviled as a scourge of American youth, reinforces this image. The reader is asked, in essence, to identify with the small-minded rubes or with the proponents of progress. Given that formulation, it is not difficult to predict how the majority will choose.
Coverage of the computer-literacy movement in general has been characterized by a less blatant but more insidious variety of this approach that allows for a debate, but effectively keeps it within narrowly established limits. The lead to another Washington Post article from the Harvard conference well illustrates this particular sleight of hand: Computerizing the nations classroomsfar from being all fun and gamesposes difficult questions of social equity and massive teacher training, educators were warned today.6
The truly difficult questions about whether or not the nations classrooms should be computerized are neatly finessed. Instead, discussion is limited to how this process should take place. The very existence of critics who dispute the value of computer education is denied.
Again, the choice of words prompts the reader to identify with the writers own biases. Social equity is a good liberal term that nevertheless posits a narrow range of public policy choices: Either we allow computer literacy to flourish only in the wealthier, white schools, thus putting poorer, minority groups at a further disadvantage, or we support computer-literacy programs for everybody. Who but a bigot would choose the former over the latter?
Avoided, of course, is even a cursory examination of whether computer literacy represents a basic skill so profoundly important as to justify the multibillion dollar public programs required to promote it. The real social equity tragedy is that one more racial and class barrier is being erected without any justification and in the complete absence of public debate. The child from a high school that could not afford to offer six months of programming in BASIC may be barred from college or from a job, even if programming in BASIC is irrelevant to future performance. By limiting the range of discussion, the media have excluded this fundamentally important issue, and set an agenda for all future debate.
The almost pathological inability of the popular science media to take a historical perspective-even in the most limited sensemakes a full airing of the issues even less likely. Certain crucial aspects of a technological issue simply cannot be appreciated by a reporter on deadline who is concerned solely with what happens in the ever-present now. Coverage of the Harvard video-game conference is a case in point. According to Time:
Underwritten in part with a $40,000 grant from Atari, Video games and Human Development: A Research Agenda for the 80s represented one of the first attempts to organize the nascent and often flimsy research done on the subject so far.7
Though at the time it was not yet common knowledge, anyone even remotely familiar with the video-game industry realized that the craze had hit its peak over half a year before the conference. Arcades were closing, and both coin-operated and home-game manufacturers were taking a severe beating in the marketplace. For all its academic trappings, the Harvard conference represented an attempt by the beleaguered Atari to open up new markets for its products. By emphasizing the educational and even psychological and social-curative powers of computer games, the company hoped to create a need for them in the schools, mental hospitals, and neighborhood halfway houses. The firm actually supplied Harvard with the names of potential speakers, some of whom had conducted studies supported by Atari funds. Harvard, in turn, was desperately trying to get its own computers and education program off the ground, and saw the conference as a way to generate interest. This hidden research agenda, again, was painfully obvious IO anyone slightly knowledgeable about video games, or at all aware of the recent tendency toward increasingly closer partnerships between industry and academe.
Almost every news feature concerned with the educational aspects of computers has suffered from this a historical bias toward the new. The use of computers in education has a long and checkered past that is rarely if ever acknowledged. Despite the flashy visuals and sounds that accompany the latest generation of educational software, almost all computer-aided instruction is based on a programmed-instruction workbook method that predates Sputnik. For over two decades computer variations on this basic theme have been hailed time and again as the greatest breakthrough in educational technology, and the culture has yet to see any evidence for that claim. In the absence of a historical perspective, the media will be content to repeat that hyperbole indefinitely.
Many of the established science writers at least have some command of a technical field, even if they are unabashedly given to its promotion. The same cannot be said for most of those who write about computer technology. Because the computer has such a wide variety of applications, it is covered by everyone from business reporters to entertainment critics to human-interest columnists. In principle there is nothing wrong with this, but in fact, what often happens is that a reporter with depth in a nontechnological area ends up perpetuating misconceptions or unsupported claims because he or she either does not know any better or is not accustomed to asking certain questions.
At the Harvard conference reporters actually managed to fabricate entirely new misconceptions. Sylvia Weir, a presenter from M.I.T., described her work with severely disabled individuals and the computer language LOGO. Weir, who privately expressed puzzlement at her invitation to the conference, publicly emphasized that LOGO should not be confused with video games.
Time magazine promptly wrote: Sylvia Weir, a research associate at M.I.T., showed a film of an educational video game in which the user experiences the principles of Newtonian physics.8
According to the Washington Post:
Sylvia Weir, a pediatrician who runs a computer project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, reported on advances made with cerebral palsy victims, who have used computer games to overcome communications obstacles. One T-year-old boy who was incapable of speaking used a keyboard to tell us what he was doing in terms of what the [game] was doing. Weir has also used games to help dyslexic children overcome their reading disorders.9
Given this sort of performance by the Fourth Estate, the general publics confusion vis-à-vis the claims made for computer technology is not at all surprising.
Some of this nonsense, which wastes vast public resources and obscures the real causes of poor education and unemployment, could be avoided if the press took a more rigorous attitude toward science and technology. Political issues are heatedly debated daily in the popular news media: the deeply political and social aspects of science and technology should be approached in the same way. There is nothing wrong with telling people how things work, but this should not be the extent of science journalism, A more critical perspective is also appropriate.
It is not even necessary to have a deep expertise in a field so long as both reporters and audience realize that there are some basic questions that can be asked about any technology and its social impact. The implementation of a technology, for instance, has certain costs and benefits. What are they and, more importantly, how are they distributed? Rarely if ever do those who have the most to gain also have the most to lose. Those who do have the most to gain may well be the loudest proponents of a technology. If so, they should be identified as such. Is there any evidence to back up the claims of benefits? Proponents should bear the burden of proof, especially if substantial public sums are involved. An estimation of costs should include, in addition to any immediate financial outlay, maintenance and other support, and a discussion of potential social costs. Are there other, possibly more effective ways of dealing with the problem (including other technologies) that will be ignored if the proposed technology is implemented?
Unfortunately, it is a little too late to apply these principles to the computer-literacy movement. Its gospel has become a powerful social force that probably could not be dispelled at this time even with an all-out attack by the news mediaas unlikely as that would be. Advertisers have done their job too well, and the press has too freely given its blessing. All that is left is for the craze to be played out, and in a year or two when it becomes clear that an Apple in every classroom represents something a good deal less than an educational or economic revolution, interest will wane. In the absence of a critical approach, some other new miracle machine will be enshrined. At this time, interactive videodisc technology appears to be the strongest contender, but look for a surprise entry from the Japanese.