A vast community with no 'there' there

March 14, 1996|By Ellen Goodman

PALO ALTO, Calif. -- Bill Clinton is not what you would call a ''techie.'' In the college vernacular that divides everything into ''techies'' and ''fuzzies,'' he falls on the softer side of the ledger.

The man belongs to the last generation of CEOs without a computer on his desktop. He doesn't know his e-mail address without asking Al Gore. He probably thinks a hard-drive is giving Chelsea a lesson in parallel parking.

But last weekend, he was out this way, doing some volunteer work. He and the vice president were running wire through a Bay Area school as part of Netday96. This was the hugely ambitious effort that engaged over 17,000 volunteers, 1,100 corporate sponsors and 1,900 organizers in getting some 2,600 California schools wired and ready for the Internet on the same day.

In what was described repeatedly as a high-tech ''barn-raising,'' the president was certified as ''a Category 5 Installer.'' And in what was a political consciousness-raising, he powered up his next ''Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow'' campaign with a computer theme.

''What you are doing today,'' he told the Netdayers, ''is America at its best and it is guaranteeing America's future.'' Indeed, in his January State of the Union address the president set the goal of having every school on-line by the year 2000. It's become his own high-tech version of JFK's promise to get a man on the moon.

Coffee and cyber

Well, I am not computer-hostile. I have spent the winter nestled here in Silicon Valley where the fastest-growing real estate is the homepage. In netcafes from San Francisco to San Jose it is possible to get a cafe latte and a web server at the same time. The most intense conversations between eligible young people turn out to be about software. One quick look at the employment sections and I understand the passion for computers.

But I have a strong suspicion that the most important after- effect of Netday isn't the hard-wiring, but the human connection between those volunteers and the schools. The most important part of the national goal may not be linking to the Internet, but refocusing some national attention on public education.

Consider what's going on in California under the roof of the barn-raising. Some 5.3 million children are enrolled in public schools. In one study, half the state's teachers said they have trouble assigning homework because they don't have enough textbooks. In another, the majority of teachers in the large school districts were making less money than in 1987.

Half the schools are over 30 years old. Even the benefits of Netday were unevenly distributed, because many poorer and older schools haven't the wiring to get ''wired up.'' How do you HTC hold a barn-raising when the roof leaks?

Not-so-benign neglect

Schools are suffering from a not-so-benign neglect that won't be cured by electronics. They get the most public notice when they are giving out condoms or taking away guns. There are more politicians worried about prayer in the classroom than about education. While Washington is talking about computers in the classroom, the Tennessee legislature is talking about letting school boards dismiss teachers who dare to present evolution as a scientific fact.

These are the contradictions of living in the era of the World Wide Web. We are easily, instantaneously connected across time zones and cultures to a vast community of user groups and colleagues. But we are easily and gradually disconnected from our neighborhoods and the schoolchildren on the next block.

The companies that work in cyberspace, hiring electronic workers from anywhere, can forget where they are, what ground they share. Citizens who can go anywhere sitting in front of a screen are also less likely these days to get up and go to a town or PTA meeting. Virtual reality replaces what the ''techies'' now call ''r.l.,'' real life. But technology can't surf by the problems of real-life schools. Or, in Clinton's words, guarantee America's future.

From all reports, the Netday companies and volunteers got more out of their day than learning how to run red, white and blue cable through ceilings and walls. They got the pleasure of hands-on helping. With luck, some of those ''Category 5 Installers'' will look around and see a wall that needs painting, a student that needs mentoring, a school that needs supporting.

In the end, when every school is wired in and powered up, education is still a ''fuzzie.'' That's http: //www.fuzzie.com.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 3/14/96

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