A Geek Bill Of Rights

Only a few decades ago, exposing kids to computers was considered a radical idea, as well as a waste of precious mainframe time. Now the computer-children tandem is as natural as the combo of kids and dogs. But computer technology is far from an unadulterated benefit for youngsters. A digital divide assures that the rich get geekier. The Internet suffers from the same kind of perils--crime, porn and unchecked facts about Ben Affleck--found in the physical world. Some educators want computers to replace some of the still-essential basics of learning: linguistic expression, and above all, the irreplaceable experience of a good teacher doing good teaching. What's needed is something like a Kid's Computer Bill of Rights to make sure the next generation gets the benefit of the last century's most important invention while avoiding the digital downside.

Here's my personal list of particulars:

Universal Internet access. Every kid should have access to a computer and the Internet. It's a no-brainer: anyone without computer skills in this century is at a lights-out disadvantage. Anyone who can't get on the Net is left out of the critical global conversation of our time. And how can you research anything without Google? While nothing can replace a flesh-and-blood teacher, computers are essential tools for learning, and every kid should be able to use one in his or her quest for knowledge.

Dare I go farther and insist that every kid should have a computer? Some years ago, the then Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich got flack for suggesting this as a federal mandate. People noted that such a multibillion-dollar initiative was unrealistic, and the financial status of schools now is much, much worse. Nonetheless, experimental programs have proved that students benefit tremendously from having a laptop they can take back and forth between school and home. Just as we can't imagine a business without computers these days, it's absurd to think that students--the ultimate knowledge workers-- shouldn't have their own machines.

If we mustered the will to try to get every kid wired, we might find that it's more feasible than we thought. Once experts agreed on a reference standard--a minimum set of requirements tailored to basic reading, math, and connectivity--manufacturers would move mountains to meet a low target price. (This effort would generate breakthroughs in computer design and probably re-energize the industry, but that'd be just a bonus.) Amortize it over five years and we're talking maybe a hundred bucks per annum per student. It might be the best investment we ever make.

Teachers on e-mail. Once kids get computers, the education process itself should be streamlined. In many schools, teachers are available electronically to answer quick questions from students and to keep in touch with parents. Such behavior should be the norm. And as a parent, I would really appreciate being able to check out the homework online, to see if Problems 4 through 10 really were optional.

Freedom from multimedia. The important things in school happen inside a student's head. They involve words and numbers and ideas, and are transmitted by reading and by the teacher's voice. But the computer industry, which makes its money by enticing people to upgrade machines and software to run sophisticated music, audio and animation programs, is pushing the idea that kids should spend less time thinking, writing and calculating, and more time acting like music-video directors. Some dazzled educators succumb to the temptation, in effect adding "rendering" as a fourth R. Exile the flashy software to the school's media lab, and ban PowerPoint from the classroom.

Freedom from predators. No one can physically snatch a kid online, but it's all too common for very nasty adult strangers to make contact with kids, often winning trust with deception. Every child should be free to engage in e-mail and instant messaging without having to fend off these creeps. Then there are the less dangerous but much more prevalent forms of digital child-predation, including relentless marketing. We have some good laws on both these problems but need stronger enforcement and more effective programs to make kids aware of the dangers.

Filter the filters. Yes, online porn is shockingly available to young surfers. But thousands of schools and libraries are already dealing with it, without resorting to Internet filters that block out vital information as well as sites that focus on vital body parts. It would be tragic if, in an attempt to find a panacea for porn, we prevented kids from getting the data they need for their school reports or to satisfy their curiosity.

To me these rules are, well, self-evident. But you probably have opinions of your own. Let's begin a discussion about what technology kids absolutely need, and then figure out how to deliver it.