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Top Leaders Confront the Big Questions About Technology

A national ad campaign to coax families onto the Internet, a corps of high-tech executives volunteering in government, and an increase in publicly funded research on the use of technology were among the proposals floated by an elite group of corporate and political leaders that met here in Silicon Valley this month.

The Aspen Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, brought the leaders together to discuss how technology is changing society. Many of their conversations, held March 2-3, focused on ways to help more school children use the Internet.

Whether their ideas are ever carried out remains to be seen. But the members of the institute's Forum on Communications and Society, or FOCAS, are not just thinkers and talkers. They wield real power in both the public and private sectors.

Among those present at the event were Eric Schmidt, the chairman and chief executive officer of the network-software giant Novell Inc.; James Barr III, the president and CEO of the telephone conglomerate TDS Telecom; and Candice Carpenter, the CEO of iVillage Inc., the online women's network. Participants from the world of government and politics included William Kennard, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission; Gov. Michael O. Leavitt of Utah; former Gov. Gaston Caperton of West Virginia, now the president of the College Board; and Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston.

Also on the panel were Patty Stonesifer, the co-chairwoman and president of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Zoë Baird, the president of the Markle Foundation. Education leaders included Virginia Markell, the president of the National PTA; Gordon M. Ambach, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers; and Lord Asa Briggs, a historian and the former chancellor of Britain's television-based Open University.

That wonky star power and the topics being discussed were enough to attract President Clinton, who spoke on online-privacy issues at a hastily scheduled session March 3, while on a California trip supporting Vice President Al Gore's presidential campaign.

The members' own deliberations, though shortened by the president's visit, were opened to a few journalists with the proviso that participants not be quoted except during the final session. Additional, and more open, meetings are planned for the group during this year, the 50th anniversary of the Aspen Institute's founding.

The 17 panelists used their meetings to describe their own projects and perspectives on the "digital divide" and a fast-approaching era in which high-bandwidth telecommunications is pervasive and Internet-connected computers are always on.

The so-called digital divide—the popular term for the separation between those with ready access to technology and those without it—is really many divides, variegated according to community, ethnic, economic, and age groups, panelists agreed. But they said a strong research agenda was needed to clarify that picture, so that effective policies can be adopted to address the gaps.

Government would have to do the heavy lifting of paying for such research, said one participant from a foundation. "It's not in people's business model to do this kind of research," she said.

Members of the group also agreed that issues of learning and technology now reach far beyond school and must include learning at home and across people's entire lifetimes.

"Children can expect long lives and multiple chapters—they'll have to reinvent themselves," Lord Briggs said at the final session. "We'll have to train people, while human knowledge will be doubling every two months by 2015."

Some participants said the culture of schools prevents them taking advantage of technology as much as they could. For example, they said, schools are reluctant to put children in charge of their own learning. Schools also balk at some uses of technology because they don't fit neatly in a rigid set of educational outcomes, said one panelist.

After some discussion, the group failed to identify incentives for teachers to become skilled in the use of technology that schools would be sure to support. They seemed unsure about where resources could be found to provide the extra training and preparation time that teachers need.

To convince families of the need to use the World Wide Web, the panelists mulled over a national advertising campaign aimed at children—an approach that worked with the recycling movement. In another approach, simple brochures about how to use the Web could be distributed at laundromats, movie theaters, and grocery stores.

Panelists also discussed the idea of starting an organization—akin to a high-level, domestic Peace Corps—to place executives with information-technology skills as unpaid volunteers in key places in government.

Near the end of the final day, Elizabeth Daley, the executive director of the Annenberg Center for Communications, cautioned the group that "arrogance of privilege penetrates our thinking." She argued, for example, that older technologies might sometimes serve community needs better than the Internet.

In one project, Ms. Daley said, she asked residents of a poor community what technology services they wanted, expecting them to ask for computers or e-mail. To her surprise, they asked for telephones for some senior residents, who could then "stand on their front porches to watch kids coming home from school" and be able to call for help if they saw trouble.

—Andrew Trotter

Vol. 19, Issue 27, Page 12

Published in Print: March 15, 2000, as Reporter's Notebook
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